South Sudan’s Returnees Stranded and Starving

By Peter Orr
During our recent visit to Juba’s bustling port , returning South Sudanese told us about their trying journey from the north. Infrequent and hugely expensive transport down the Nile was part of the narrative, as was a shortage of supplies. But we wanted to evaluate these problems first-hand, so my colleague Takawira and I packed up and headed to the border town of Renk. What we saw there was deeply troubling.

Transport down the Nile, it turns out, has ceased entirely since August, leaving tens of thousands of returnees stranded far from South Sudan’s main population centers. Of course, any delay is a disappointment for returnees eager to build a new life in their new state. But what started out as a simple waiting game is rapidly becoming a crisis situation.

The few UN agencies and NGOs operating in Renk are in disarray, while those that could be most helpful – namely, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the World Food Programme (WFP) – are entirely absent. As a result, returnees are bedding down wherever they can find shelter and desperate for nourishment. One of the returnees in the camps told us, “Our people are sick, but not from disease – from no food.”

The true number of hungry, anxious returnees near Renk is not known: there are checkpoints on the way to the town, but somehow these are not being used to keep an accurate count of people moving southwards. And aid agencies are reluctant to carry out an official registration process, as that has connotations of promised assistance. Some already have “tokens,” slips of stamped cardboard that show that they have been registered, but they complain that neither food nor other necessities have been distributed.

So what should be done? To start, OCHA must immediately deploy their resources to coordinate the aid effort. South Sudan’s own Relief and Rehabilitation Commission is attempting to manage the crisis there, but it’s clearly overwhelmed and understaffed. Food aid for the returnees should follow soon thereafter, as well as a plan for where they can settle – either in Renk itself, or in settlements to the south.

South Sudanese making their way home have already had to deal with creaky transport infrastructure, and militia attacks. The last thing they should now face, so close to home, is starvation.