New Wave of Refugees Fleeing Violence in South Sudan Arrives in Ethiopia

Aurelie Baumel/MSF

Intense, ongoing fighting between warring parties in South Sudan has forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee from a conflict that has already displaced more than two million people. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and other international aid organizations have been forced to suspend relief operations in some war-affected areas of South Sudan, leaving civilians without lifesaving aid.

More than 6,000 people have arrived in the Gambella region in western Ethiopia seeking refuge and assistance, adding to the number of South Sudanese refugees who have poured into the area since clashes first broke out in South Sudan in late 2013. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there are currently more than 200,000 South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia. More are arriving each day. 

Here, MSF head of mission in Ethiopia Sylvain Perron describes the situation, and the humanitarian needs MSF is seeing in Gambella.

What is the situation at the border between South Sudan and Ethiopia?

It’s been reported that more than 100,000 South Sudanese were recently displaced amid increasing violence over the past few weeks. The number of South Sudanese seeking refuge in Ethiopia is rising as well.

According to UNHCR, more than 3,000 people have crossed into Ethiopia in Pagak, one of the main entry points, since the beginning of the month—far more than had come in previous months. Many are fleeing ongoing violence in South Sudan. This figure also includes unregistered people either living in the camps or people by the border who would like to take the opportunity to go to in the new refugee camp opened by Ethiopian Authorities and UNHCR to have better protection and services.

Our teams on the ground are seeing many new refugees living in precarious situations. Most of them are suffering from malaria, diarrhea, and skin diseases they contracted during their long, difficult journey from South Sudan.  

Is there a cohesive humanitarian strategy to address the needs of South Sudanese refugees?  

In 2014 the repeated influxes of refugees stretched the capacity of all actors present in the Gambella Region. Then the rainy season made it even harder to deliver assistance. The UNHCR conducted a relocation operation in collaboration with the Ethiopian Administration for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA) to ensure better protection and better humanitarian services. Since the beginning of May, more than 40,000 refugees have been relocated from the Leitchuor and Nip-Nip Camps near the border with South Sudan—which are prone to flooding—to a newly established camp, called Jewi, which is only 18 kilometers [about 11 miles] away from Gambella’s regional capital, Gambella town. 

This is a good thing for the refugees and humanitarian actors alike. The new site is far less vulnerable to floods, which will make it easier to cope with the needs. But NGOs and others international partners are struggling with the pace of the relocation. An average of 3,500 individuals have been relocated each day and today there are not enough latrines, for instance, or enough water, and UNHCR cannot set up family tents quickly enough.

What is MSF doing? 

MSF has scaled up its activities and is providing consultations six days a week at Pagak entry point, along with emergency referrals to MSF’s health center in Itang.

The teams have reduced activities in Leitchuor and have incrementally expanded health activities to Jewi in accordance with the ongoing relocation. MSF is running the main health center in Jewi, providing medical consultations, emergency services, and limited inpatient care. The team carried out more than 1,500 consultations since the beginning of the activities in Jewi mid-May. In the coming days, MSF will scale up capacity to 75 beds, including a maternity service and outreach activities.

We are looking closely at the situation and are ready to scale up more if needed.     

MSF provides health care to South Sudanese refugees in the camps of Tierkidi, Kule, and Jewi, and in Itang health center. MSF teams also run regular mobile clinics to entry points and transit camps to provide care to refugees before they are transferred to the camps.

*** Local Caption *** Since the on-start of the conflict in South Sudan, mid-December 2013, according to the UNCHR, more than 1,400,000 persons have been internally displaced and more than 450,000 would have sought refuge in the neighboring countries, amongst which 190,000 in Gambella region, western Ethiopia. The rainy season has temporarily slowed the stream of people arriving into the camps. The rate of new arrivals has slowed down in the last several months, from 1000 new arrivals per day in February to approximately 100 per week today. However UNHCR forecast expected an additional of 110,000 new arrivals in 2015 with restarting of the fighting in South Sudan during the dry season.<br/> The current refugee population in Gambella region remains in a critical situation and additional population influxes could further destabilize an already difficult situation. In order to reduce child mortality, MSF is carrying out vaccination campaign targeting 50,000 children for PCV / vaccine and 26,000 children for DPT- Hib-HepB vaccine.<br/> This vaccination campaign is a challenge due to logistical constraints (cold chain, waste management, transport, access, etc.) and the 2 doses minimum required for effective protection.<br/> Extended preventive package in emergency situations is a major issue. New preventive strategy, including vaccination, could improve more rapidly the mortality and burden of diseases in acute phase of emergencies. This intervention is an example showing that is possible to extend the vaccination package in emergency situation and should be a first step to review current policy.
Aurelie Baumel/MSF