Sudanese refugees' fate in hands of the West
Having fled the conflict, more than 100,000 people now face starvation and disease, writes DAVID ADAMSin Maban County, South Sudan
UPON FIRST entering Batil refugee camp, near the town of Bunj in Maban County, South Sudan, one is struck by the seeming normality of the place.
There are no obviously starving people; no crowding around vehicles with hands outstretched; no one lying comatose along the main thoroughfare. Instead, as in any ordinary large village in any other part of Africa, there are bustling crowds and straggles of mostly colourfully dressed people going about their business.
First impressions, however, are deceptive. Batil, home to about 35,000 people, could accurately be described as many things, but “ordinary” would not feature among them.
Fiona Gannon, a nurse, told me she considered the situation there to have the potential to develop into the worst humanitarian crisis she had ever encountered. This is quite a statement from a professional aid worker of more than 23 years’ standing, whose career has taken her to places such as Rwanda, Darfur, Goma and southeast Asia (the last in response to the tsunami of 2004).
Gannon is Goal’s emergency co-ordinator and programme adviser for Batil. She explains the reasoning behind her fears. The camp sits on swampland, and is mosquito-ridden. It often rains at this time of year, whereupon Batil immediately floods and reverts to swamp, a swamp within which 35,000 people are living and moving around.
Except for what the aid organisations can supply, clean water is virtually non-existent and food extremely scarce. The sanitation facilities are dire and, relative to the size of the population, medical provision is all but non-existent.
Malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea, eye and skin infections and intestinal infections are all commonplace. Malaria is a major problem.
As an indicator of the scarcity of food at Batil, the global malnutrition rate among children there is running at 27.5 per cent. Serious malnutrition is at 13 per cent. To put that latter figure into perspective, anything above 2 per cent serious malnutrition usually triggers an emergency – the Batil rate is already almost seven times higher.
The remoteness of the location, poor infrastructure and an inability to source even the most mundane materials locally make the humanitarian response a hugely expensive, time-consuming and difficult operation. Virtually everything has to be airlifted in, or brought by barge to another location and trucked for five hours (at least) to Batil.
Phone coverage is patchy. During the rains, the sand roads become impassable quagmires, and nothing can be moved.
Batil is but one of four refugee camps in Upper Nile State, where Maban County is situated, which together hold an estimated 105,600 people.
The government of South Sudan is trying to help the refugees, but this is a newly independent country, ill-equipped to provide what is necessary for such a large influx of destitute people.
Sudan, of which it was formerly a part, deliberately deprived the southern part of the then united country of resources and investment, which precipitated a decades-long civil war, and eventually led to South Sudan’s independence last year. Despite a peace agreement between the two states, sporadic fighting has continued.