South Sudan: Window of opportunity closing fast to provide assistance to 80,000 Sudanese refugees from Blue Nile state

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© Robin Meldrum/MSF -- Refugees at the MSF water collection point in Jamam refugee camp.

Juba / Brussels 14 March 2012 – Tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees in South Sudan urgently need humanitarian aid to be scaled up in a short window of opportunity that is rapidly closing before the rainy season starts, warns the international medical organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

Since last November, 80,000 refugees from Sudan’s Blue Nile state have sought shelter in two camps located in a remote and barren region of South Sudan where humanitarians confront massive logistic challenges to access and assist refugees.

New arrivals tell of ongoing bombing and fighting in Sudan’s Blue Nile state. In Doro and Jamam refugee camps, they have sought a safer place but they have found a harsh environment where their ability to survive is stretched to breaking point.

“These refugees are left almost completely reliant on humanitarian assistance because this area has scarce water and food,” says Julien Matter, MSF’s emergency coordinator. ”The sheer numbers of refugees fleeing here has grown to far beyond anything anyone anticipated — and in such a remote place, providing the bare survival essentials now, and through the coming rainy season, will be a serious challenge.”

When rains start in late April, the region will become gradually ever more inaccessible, likely becoming a vast swamp with small islands of dry ground. All organisations providing assistance in the camps must focus on an emergency push during the coming weeks to ensure that refugees can survive the coming months.

Even now, serious gaps in assistance mean that these refugees’ most basic needs are not yet adequately covered. Less than 8 litres of clean water per person per day is being provided, far below the recommended minimum standards for refugee camps of 15-20 litres per day. In its clinics MSF witnesses the direct consequences of the lack of water, with cases of diarrhoea rising continuously, now constituting one in four of all consultations. With the refugees’ lives and health at stake, such essentials as water, food, household items and shelter must urgently be assured before the rains start.

While its teams concentrate on medical aid, MSF is also engaged in emergency water provision, pumping, treating and distributing around 130,000 litres of water daily. MSF has started to extend its water supply system to increase coverage, but cannot meet all the current water needs and the coming challenges in these camps. Other organisations working in this field must urgently accelerate their activities before the rains start.

Since November last year, MSF has been running a substantial emergency response, focusing on providing medical care in the camps and in mobile clinics to villages along the border with Sudan where several thousand more refugees are gathered. 50 international staff work on the ground together with 180 locally recruited staff, and can draw on 180 tons of medical, logistical and water-provision kit sent to the camps by air, river and road. In its field hospitals in the camps MSF is providing out-patient consultations, in-patient medical care for more seriously sick patients, therapeutic feeding and maternal health services. More than 2,500 consultations are performed each week, and the team has vaccinated almost 30,000 children against measles.

While donors and aid organisations are prioritising development and longer-term assistance, emergency-response capacity is still extremely important in the newly independent South Sudan. This refugee crisis highlights the continued and urgent need for donors and key aid organisations to maintain an effective emergency-response capacity to respond to the multiple acute crises that could erupt along the Sudan – South Sudan border or elsewhere in the country. In the camps at Doro and Jamam only an emergency approach to provide urgently needed aid during the current window of opportunity can still ensure the health and dignity of these refugees seeking shelter from violence.