South Sudan crisis

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World Refugee Day: The People Behind The Statistics

The number of refugees and people displaced by conflict has surpassed that reached during the Second World War. 

Each of the people who comprise the staggering number of 59.5 million has a name but they are often faceless.

Working alongside the European Commission’s Office for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department (ECHO), we want to make them visible.

To mark World Refugee Day (Saturday June 20th), Oxfam Ireland volunteers in Belfast and Dublin have been highlighting the people behind the statistics to #MakeThemVisible.

It’s part of the EUsaveLives campaign to raise awareness of the individual stories of refugees and displaced people from countries like Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.

Tweet your support on World Refugee Day 2015 with #MakeThemVisible.

For more information on the project, click here and visit www.eusavelives.org

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The land of the invisible: 51 million people fleeing conflict

Every 4 seconds a person in the world is forced to flee their home. People like Martha, who crossed the Nile carrying three children on her back with another three floating alongside, dodging bullets, with nothing to eat for more than five days. Conflict in her country of South Sudan has forced her and many others to leave everything they know behind.

There are now more than 51 million refugees and people displaced by conflict and violence across the world. This is a record-breaking figure, which surpasses even that of the Second World War.

Above: Okach Mabil (10) walks through mud carrying a sack of grain in the Malakal camp for displaced people in South Sudan. Fighting has forced over two million people from their homes. Simon Rawles/Oxfam

The main cause is the intensification of conflicts, particularly in Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, which alone have resulted in over 11 million displaced people and refugees in Syria, over 2 million in South Sudan and 860,000 more in the Central African Republic.

But beyond these raw statistics lies an individual human being – like me and you – who has had to flee, leaving behind belongings, a home, friends and often family. It is very difficult to put into words the bleakness and vulnerability they face.

We cannot allow ourselves to get used to these permanent crises which affects a group of people almost more than ten times the population of the island of Ireland.

They are in need of shelter; blankets and clothes; food and water; security and protection; a job and money to survive.

Above: Um Ali (right) and her husband Abu Ali sit on the floor with some of their children in their shelter in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The Jabaa settlement where they live was set up on agricultural land that turns into sludge come the first rain. “In Syria, I had a washing machine. Now it’s all about hand washing, and with this mud, it’s difficult to keep anything clean,” explains Um. Her husband Abu says “In Syria, I had a car and some goats. I sold them all before I left the country and have since spent all the money in Lebanon. Without humanitarian aid, I don’t know how we can survive.” Joelle Bassoul/Oxfam

Through their taxes, European citizens make it possible for humanitarian aid to save lives. We are collaborating with the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO) with the launch of an innovative communications project – EUsavelives, You Save Lives – in which we highlight the experiences of refugees.

The campaign will give a voice to those affected, showing the human side of these crises so that millions of people across Europe are made aware of the reality of everyday life in refugee camps and host communities.

Since 2008 the world has become a less peaceful place. The increase in terrorist activity and conflicts and the endless rise in the number of refugees and displaced people are the facts that demonstrate this. Unfortunately, this increase in violence will have dramatic consequences for millions of people. And it not only affects those people who are already finding it difficult to survive in this situation; many others will be forced to live in violent situations because it is impossible for them to escape from the instability. It is estimated that 500 million people are currently living in countries at risk of conflict.

Above: Yehia* (51) is a farmer from Idlib in Syria. He has been living in this tent in a coastal area of north Lebanon for the past three years. The strong winds blew away the plastic sheets that were the only means of protection against the rain for Yehia and his family. When their ceiling collapsed the family had to cut the tent’s sides with a knife to be able to get out.  Oriol Andrés Gallart/Oxfam

The question is, if you were in their place? A life erased, all to be built again. It is impossible to fully understand what this must be like. It is a duty to try to. So please help us raise awareness and make the invisible refugees visible by sharing, telling a friend or simply clicking here. You save lives. Together we save lives.

You Save Lives

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Above: Irish Examiner journalist Noel Baker on his trip to Lebanon with Oxfam & ECHO. Originally broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1's World Report.

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Hunger and conflict pushing South Sudan to the brink of famine

As humanitarian crises in the Middle East dominate news headlines and the world rallies to tackle the ebola outbreak, hunger and conflict have combined to push South Sudan – the world’s newest country – to the very brink of famine.
 
The recent Scottish referendum is a stark reminder that even in times of peace and democracy, the path to independence can divide a nation. In Ireland, we know too well the enduring struggles the journey towards independence can bring.
 
South Sudan became the newest country in the world in 2011 following two decades of civil war in what was then part of Sudan. A green country not unlike our own where the River Nile flows, independence brought optimism for a brighter future.
 
 
But the high hopes of just three years ago now lie in tatters. At least 10,000 people have lost their lives and over one million have fled their homes. Around four million people (more than the population of Leinster and Munster combined) are struggling to find enough to eat.
 
In a report titled ‘From Crisis to Catastrophe’, Oxfam Ireland and other aid agencies including Christian Aid, Concern, Goal, Trócaire, Tearfund and World Vision have warned that the number of people facing dangerous levels of hunger is expected to increase by 1 million between January and March next year.
 
They are not the victims of nature, but of a disaster which is the result of a political dispute between two leaders that has escalated into a conflict rooted in the unresolved tensions of the Sudan civil war combined with the proliferation of arms and the lack of development in what is one of the poorest countries in the world.
 
There are fears among those working on the ground that efforts so far this year to prevent the crisis from deteriorating will falter as rival sides are regrouping ready to resume violence once the rainy seasons end this month. The threat of famine is very real.
 
Despite this, the sheer number and scale of crises worldwide – Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Ukraine, the Central African Republic and now the ebola virus among them – means the rapidly deteriorating situation in South Sudan has slipped off the news agenda.
 
The UN has declared South Sudan the world’s worst food crisis. But if we wait for an official declaration of famine to put South Sudan in the global spotlight, it will be too late. By the time famine was declared in Somalia and the Horn of Africa in July 2011, more than 125,000 people, half of the famine’s victims, had already died.
 
Since the violence broke out in December, men, women and children have been targeted because of their ethnicity and many have lost the people they love most in the world. They are scared and hungry.
 
Many have had to leave behind their possessions, crops and livestock or sell their assets to escape and have no means to buy food, water and other essentials. The conflict has meant that people were not able to plant crops. Camps are becoming overcrowded and poor sanitation is increasing the risk of disease.
 
Gwada Joseph (27) walks through open sewers in the Malakal camp for internally displaced people in the Upper Nile province, where heavy rains are making life intolerable for civilians. Gwada fled her home in Malakal town during the second rebel attack on her town in February 2014. Her husband was unable to escape and died in the fighting, while Gwada, her mother and four children made it to the safety of the UN camp.
 
 
Above: Gwada Joseph, 27, with son Mark, 1, in the Malakal IDP camp, South Sudan, where recent rains are making life intolerable for civilians. Photo: Simon Rawles/ Oxfam
 
Her home in the camp routinely floods in the rains, making life unbearable for her and her children. The rains in Malakal mean flooding is a regular occurrence and it is common to see people having to wade through water and mud that’s knee deep with little escape from mosquitoes, sewage and disease.
 
International aid – including Ireland’s contribution – has had a significant and positive impact on Gwada and her people’s lives. Food distributions make the difference in people eating even one meal a day and clean water has prevented more serious outbreaks of disease, while the distribution of solar lamps is helping keep girls and women safe.
 
Yet a massive funding gap remains (the UN World Food Programme estimates that $78 million is needed each month to deliver assistance) and the outlook for 2015 is of great concern, with news that 2.5 million people are projected to be in crisis or emergency from January to March 2015.
 
Sadly, this is not a crisis that will be ended simply with more aid. There needs to be political pressure to end this conflict. If the international community really wants to avert a famine then it must take a stronger stance towards the leaders of South Sudan increasing diplomatic efforts to end the fighting.
 
The UN Security Council must impose an embargo on the arms and ammunition that are sustaining the conflict and ensure that it is rigorously enforced. Every political negotiation should focus on the most important priorities; overcoming the obstacles that South Sudan’s people face in reaching aid; ending the violence immediately; and searching for a sustainable political solution.
 
The world must protect South Sudan’s people from violence; without ending the violence, the threat of famine will never be far away. With more vigorous diplomacy and swift action to convene a political solution inclusive of all people in South Sudan, the world has a chance to prevent that.
 
Otherwise 50,000 children will die from malnutrition unless we wake the world up and act now.
 
Because declaring a famine is like declaring a car crash – once it happens, it’s too late.
 
 

South Sudan: From the Other Side of the War

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Humanitarian work is intense and all-consuming, but I believe in what I do

This week we celebrate World Humanitarian Day, honouring aid workers around the world who dedicate themselves to helping people to recover from humanitarian crises every day.  Here we hear first-hand from Ciara O’Malley who leads Oxfam’s humanitarian work in Juba in South Sudan:

It’s funny to think that I grew up not far from the Oxfam shop in Rathfarnham - now I’m working for them thousands of miles away in South Sudan.

I moved here from Pakistan, where I spent nearly three years working with Trócaire in communities affected by natural disasters such as floods. 

You face a number of the same challenges in going to Pakistan or South Sudan as you would going to any other country, be it Australia or Canada, in terms of trying to find your feet. It’s a new job and team you’re working with, you’re also trying to make new friends, and you have to figure it all out, from working out the currency to where to do your food shop.

Above: Oxfam's Ciara O' Malley who is leading our humanitarian work in Juba in South Sudan Photo: Sorcha Nic Mhathúna / Oxfam

Of course, there are certain things you pick up along the way. ‘Load-shedding’ is a key word that comes up frequently in conversation in Pakistan, the term for the rolling power cuts that can last for up to 12 hours a day. That was certainly something to contend with when you’re without air-conditioning in 45 degree heat!

The first month or two I was there I was convinced that I was definitely not going to stay a day longer than the planned year! But I ended up loving it. I also met my boyfriend there. He is a British diplomat based in Pakistan, so that may have been a major contributing factor for why I stayed so long in Pakistan! 

Now that I’m in South Sudan and he’s still in Pakistan, it’s the ultimate long-distance relationship but I find the key is decent internet connection so that you can Skype each other as well as having a defined end point of the long distance.

I was really interested in working in South Sudan for a number of years. Being a new country that is now just three years old, it has great potential but it has been wrecked by decades-long civil war, and now that conflict is being divided along ethnic lines. What’s unfolding here is a complex emergency where there’s ongoing conflict but also a severe food crisis. It’s a very challenging environment to work in.

South Sudan is a dusty place, but when you’re landing, you see that it’s surprisingly green (not unlike Ireland) because of all the sun and rain it gets during the wet season. I live in Juba, which is the capital but it is quite small. South Sudan is one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world. But despite having little or no proper roads, people in Juba are pretty good at following the rules of the road.

The South Sudanese are very friendly people but are initially quite reserved. Once you develop a relationship with them they’re extremely warm and caring people.

Above: Oxfam's Grace Cahill talks with Martha Nyandit (42). Martha and her six children are amongst the thousands of people who have fled several rounds of violent and bloody fighting in and around the town of Bor in Jonglei state. (You can read Martha's incredible story of survival story herePhoto: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam
 

Managing humanitarian programmes is a lot of responsibility. Trying to get your first break is the hardest part; it’s a mixture between luck but also a lot of hard work and you constantly have to be proving yourself. Aid work is a very competitive sector to break into with a lot of extremely well-qualified people looking for jobs.

I think the recession made it more difficult to get those jobs, as quite a few people who were made redundant from other sectors decided they wanted to transfer their skills and work for a non-profit. Moreover due to the cuts in the government overseas aid budget and the fall in public donations, many aid organizations had to reduce the size of their programmes and make a number of staff redundant.

I was one of those unusual people who always had a plan of what I wanted to do! I didn’t always know that it would be specifically humanitarian work but I always knew that it would be something in the international sector. When I was in secondary school at Notre Dame in Churchtown I was very involved with human rights campaigning and that really got me interested in this whole area of international development and humanitarianism. Then I went to study Politics and French in UCD as I thought that having a language would be an asset for this line of work and that politics would also be relevant.

After a volunteer role that turned into a paid position in development education at Suas, I went to University College London to do a master’s degree.  I came back to Ireland to finish my thesis and started working in Trócaire in their humanitarian department as an administrator. Of course my passion was programming so when I got a job on their trainee scheme in Maynooth head office, I jumped at it. After doing that for almost a year, I was itching to spend time working overseas so when a position on their trainee scheme in Islamabad came up, I didn’t hesitate to apply!

In South Sudan, I live with 19 of my colleagues in a shared Oxfam house. I’m the only Irish person. My colleagues come from Portugal, Spain, the UK, the United States- it’s quite a mix. We each have our own bedroom and bathroom but we share a kitchen and living space so it can be quite crazy. Aid work is very full on. You work, live and socialize with your colleagues; it’s a very intensive and definitely not a ‘9 to 5’ job. Thankfully my colleagues are fantastic and we get along really well!

We would all usually work six if not seven days a week. I recently worked for 30 days straight without a break and a number of those were 14-hour days. I was completely exhausted by the end of it. 

Above: Oxfam has been distributing charcoal in the camps in Juba. It is unsafe for the residents of the camp to leave to collect firewood so have been struggling to cook food due to lack of fuel. Photos: Kieran Doherty / Oxfam

During a typical day, I get up around 7ish and I arrive to the office at 8.10am. I spend the first few hours catching up on office work, such as signing off on financial requests and budgets, looking at team plans, recruitment, logistics, funding, and working on our programme strategy etc.

Then I usually head to the camps at around 12.30pm, which are around a 30 minute drive away. I manage Oxfam’s humanitarian response in a place called UN House in Juba, which is a UN base and has three big camps in it with 25,000 people who have fled the conflict. As I am the external representative for Oxfam’s response in UN House, I attend coordination meetings with other aid agencies, the UN police and peace-keepers in order to represent Oxfam’s work. There are several of these per week. 

Then I pop in to the camps, check on the activities the team are doing and troubleshoot issues on the spot. This can be anything from supply issues, to queries from the community leaders about our work and selection of beneficiaries. The other day I was out with some of our new charcoal vendors and we went around the camp to map out the site selection of where they were to build their charcoal shops, marking out the site in the mud and with stones- not a very sophisticated way of site-mapping but it did the job!

Every month food distributions take place in the camps over 10 days. At a food distribution, Oxfam provides people with vouchers for charcoal (used as a fuel to cook food) that they can redeem with various vendors who have set up in the camp. We also give people vouchers to use milling machines, so they can mill the grains given to them by the World Food Programme to make flour, etc. Another reason why access to a milling machine is so important is because grain that is unmilled can make small children very sick. If there is a distribution going on that day, we head in early to get set up- usually we arrive at 9am. I help make sure the distribution goes smoothly, everyone receives assistance and the team are kept safe. When you’re out in the camps under the hot sun it can be exhausting. Distributions are particularly hectic due to the volume of people so lunch is always missed!

At around 5pm it could be back to the office where I would be working with the finance and logistics teams making sure we have our supplies in and everyone is being paid, working with the funding team to make sure we are up to date with our donor reporting, and the policy team on any messages that we need to advocate certain stakeholders on. These days a lot of time is spent on recruitment as we’re scaling up our team because the needs are growing even greater and we are now entering in a new phase of our response where we are doing more activities in the camps.

Clockwise from top: The majority of Oxfam staff are locals: Lam Jacob, Susan Angwech, JAcob Achiek, Mayok Ayuen Garang Photos: Kieran Doherty / Oxfam

Since December, we have reached 261,000 people at several locations across South Sudan with food, clean water, sanitation, hygiene materials and other essentials from fuel to solar lamps.

Around four million people need urgent humanitarian support now – including 200,000 children suffering severe acute malnutrition. The conflict meant that people couldn’t plant crops earlier this summer and the country is on the brink of a massive food crisis, with a total of 7 million people facing hunger in the months ahead. 

I try to finish up in the office at around 7pm. I then grab a bite to eat back at the house and then it’s back onto the laptop for more emails in the evening. One of the main dominating factors for expats here is the 9pm curfew which is pretty standard among the NGOs. If we do get time to go out after work, we usually have to down our drink and get our food to go as we are always rushing to leave to make sure we are home in time for 9pm! 

All of us working here have security training, access to equipment such as satellite phones, and follow a number of security procedures. When we’re working in the camps we have to be clearly identifiable as working for Oxfam and have our car on standby during distributions in case we have to evacuate from the camps if an incident broke out.

The majority of Oxfam staff are locals. We also have one or two staff members who are among those living in the camps, highly educated people who have like over a million others been forced to flee their homes because of the conflict that broke out in December 2013. It’s great to be able to give people who have been through so much the opportunity to be part of the team and the emergency response work.

There are a lot of people who had good lives before the conflict happened. They had a home with their family, they earned a living, some are highly educated and skilled. Life as they knew it was destroyed when this crisis began. When the fighting broke out they either had to just leave everything behind or else their goods and homes got looted or destroyed so they have nothing to return to. 

I imagine my family home in suburban Dublin and then suddenly military start rolling in, bombs start dropping down on you, and your house and everything you had was destroyed, and you find yourself living in a camp overnight sometimes in cramped conditions and perhaps sharing your tent with total strangers, many not knowing where their family members are. It’s a highly distressing situation for these families.

A lot of people in the camps are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I find sometimes that the kids are a lot more reserved and easily frightened than children from outside of the camps, which is definitely a sign of everything they’ve been through. People are frightened and not considering going home yet because they don’t feel it’s safe. There are a number of threats such as violence, unlawful detention, theft that happens for people who even just leave the camp to go the local market in Juba which can be dangerous if you are from a particular tribe. 

Clockwise from top: Elizabeth and baby Swampy. Elizabeth was heavily pregnant when she fled the conflict in South Sudan, forced to hide and then give birth in a swamp. A water tanker filling up an Oxfam bladder tank. This will supply families living in Mingkaman with clean water. Children wash their hands at an Oxfam health training session Photos: Kieran Doherty / Oxfam
 

The work here is very intense and all-consuming, but at the end of the day that’s also why I’m here. As cheesy as it sounds, I do really believe in what we’re doing here and I believe in the team doing it. I work with some amazing people who are also equally passionate about what we do. It can be quite an inspiring environment to work in.

We get one week off for every 10 weeks in country to help compensate for the intense hours. My plan for next R&R (rest and relaxation) later this month is to go to Ireland and England so I’m very excited about that and I’m going to tag on some annual leave days so I have a two week break in total. There are so many things I’m excited about for my holiday home- of course seeing family and friends are at the top of my list, but also home cooking, brown soda bread, cinema, cocktails and definitely hot showers!

I wouldn’t encourage friends or family to come and visit me here in South Sudan. At the end of the day it’s a conflict zone and I wouldn’t want to put them in a situation they’re not prepared to deal with. 

There are a couple of Irish people here in Juba working for other NGOs, there’s one or two I’ve met and then you hear rumors ‘there’s more Irish people around!’, so I need to try and track them down, in a non-stalker way!

It was nice to have colleagues from Dublin over recently – when you meet another Irish person you automatically have a lot of in-jokes which other nationalities don’t necessarily understand, in terms of slang, the banter, and also references to Father Ted jokes that get lost on other people!

So where to next? I will be here in South Sudan for another several months working on the emergency response with Oxfam and after that it all depends on what opportunities comes up and also where my boyfriend gets posted to next. We will look at somewhere overseas where we can both work like a developing country or else we might go back to London for a few years and then go overseas after that for a while.

At the moment if I could pick anywhere, I would love to work in Palestine – a place I’ve always been interested in and I’m watching what’s going on in Gaza there at the moment- it is something we talk about a lot here in the Oxfam house in South Sudan. Otherwise I love East Africa so ideally I’d like to stay working somewhere near here but at the same time if I do end up in London next for the next few years I’d be very happy with that. It would be nice to be back, closer to home, and have a sense of normality for a while, because it is very intense working out in the field, especially when you are doing postings like Pakistan and South Sudan back-to-back. It might be nice to have more of a normal life and working hours before venturing back out overseas again.

If you'd lke to support our work in South Sudan, please donate online to Oxfam Ireland’s emergency response or visit your local Oxfam shop.

South Sudan: From the Other Side of the War

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Keira Knightley shines spotlight as crisis spirals in South Sudan

This week, on the third anniversary of South Sudan’s independence,  actress Keira Knightley has called for support for Oxfam Ireland’s appeal for South Sudan after witnessing first-hand the desperate plight of families struggling to survive.

Here, Colm Byrne, Oxfam Ireland’s Humanitarian Manager, explains how the humanitarian crisis is spiralling out of control as funds dry up.

Year in and year out the subsistence farmers of South Sudan, the world’s newest state, pray for the timely start of the rainy season. Without it, there is no water for them or their animals to drink, the land hardened by the preceding dry season cannot be cultivated, seeds cannot be sown, nor food produced or surplus food sold for a small profit.

Above: Keira Knightley visits Bor Camp in South Sudan. Upper-left: Keira meets Rebecca age 25 in Bor Camp, South Sudan. Rebecca ran from Bor in December when fighting broke out. She was caught in an ambush, questioned about her husband and beaten. She lost her children but was reunited with them in the camp.One of her children had measles and nearly did not survive. She lost her husband in the April ambush. She is alone and scared of how she will bring up her children without her husband. Lower-right: Keira meets with Nyandow Nhial Khor, 18 years old. With her first child, of two months old Buomkuoth Gatkuotch, who she gave birth to in the camp. The baby is being treated for malaria, which they caught from the water in the camp. Photo: Abbie Trayler-Smith
 

For Elizabeth, who has sought refuge from fighting in a camp for people who are displaced in the northern town of Malakal, the onset of the rains have still greater significance following six months of conflict between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and those of his former Vice-President Riek Machar.

Now, many of South Sudan’s well-travelled but unsurfaced roads that form the arteries and veins of the country’s economy are left water logged and largely impassable so stalling, even if peace talks haven’t done so yet, the movement of heavy military equipment and any ambitions either side may have of making new ground.

But while the rains may have quelled the guns somewhat and provided hope of some temporary respite, they have now also served a still further blow to Elizabeth, flooding the meagre shelter she must now call home in the camp. She beckons us over to look more closely…..no easy task as we struggle to travel the short distance through thick sticky mud that threatens to spill over into our boots. Bring wellington boots, they said... fisherman’s waders would have been more appropriate.

Above: Internally displaced people queue inside the camp at UN House in Juba, South Sudan. Oxfam, alongside other agencies, is distributing food and charcoal vouchers for over 13,000 people across a two week period. Photo: Kieran Doherty / Oxfam

We make no graceful entrance as our stumbling efforts are met with a mixture of humour and anger, both welcoming of our enthusiasm but anxious that we too should understand what it is to have challenged that most basic of rights, human dignity.

Atop a single spring bed sit under a sagging tarpaulin sheet her two young children clinging on as though cast adrift at sea. Just inches below, the thick grey stagnant water threatens while all around the family’s simple belongings are stacked on whatever objects can stand alone or be combined to raise them above water. It seems more accurate to say not that the house is flooded but that it in effect stands in water. Life incredibly goes on despite everything, but nobody deserves to live like this.

As we stand aghast, we are joined by Elizabeth’s neighbours, all anxious that we should bare testimony to their plight too. The smell they tell us is intolerable, we can only but agree, and we are invited to visit more shelters at which point we realise our feet are stuck and cling on to anything we can to provide leverage. Our humiliation at least is only temporary…

Above: Colm Byrne, Oxfam Ireland's Humanitarian Manager working in Malakal, South Sudan. Photo: Sorcha Nic Mhathúna / Oxfam

As we leave, adjacent to us, two women and a man hoist their clothing and move thigh deep to higher ground. Ahead of them a small boy has somehow made the same journey carrying his younger sister. Not all are so able bodied or feel sufficiently secure to even consider attempting such a trip especially at night when the risk of attack is great.

This is where thousands just like Elizabeth and her children displaced by the conflict have come for protection by the international community yet to provide more than half of the aid promised to address South Sudan’s humanitarian crisis.

This is where they have come to seek food as a food crisis threatens to turn into a catastrophe affecting some 7 million people.

This is where they have come to wait in safety for news of separated family members.

This is where they have come for hope that soon their political leaders will act in their best interests to provide a swift political solution to end the fighting.

And this is why we at Oxfam are responding to humanitarian needs in South Sudan now and calling for all those with influence to help end this suffering now.

South Sudan: From the Other Side of the War

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