A few weeks ago I visited the Gambella region of Ethiopia which over the last year has seen more than 195,000 refugees from South Sudan flee across the border.
This is one of the many ‘invisible’ emergencies UNHCR is dealing with at any one time. It is surprising that that there is little or no media coverage of what is one of the largest refugee crises in Africa today. In fact, Ethiopia is now hosting the largest refugee population in Africa with 700,000 refugees. And with only 10% of its operations funded, UNHCR needs much more support.
I had heard about the dire situation for refugees in the camps in Gambella when the emergency first began back in 2013. This was compounded by a very harsh environment (the week my visit temperatures were averaging 45 degrees). There is lack of amenities and many of the newly arriving refugees are malnourished and in generally poor condition.
While the situation remains difficult, I was amazed at what my UNHCR colleagues and partners had managed to achieve despite the undeniable challenges.
On the day I flew in from Addis Ababa, there was an unseasonal break in the high temperatures. Rain clouds hovered but a torrential downpour only came on the last night making travel the next day tricky.
When the rain comes, large parts of the Gambella region, which extends across a swampy flood plain, become submerged. Last year two large refugee camps - Leitchuor and Nip Nip - were overwhelmed by flooding. This year, to avoid a repeat of the disaster, UNHCR is embarking on an ambitious plan to transport 50,000 refugees settled in the most vulnerable areas to higher grounds. It’s a race against time and UNHCR with its Ethiopian government partner ARRA are mobilising every conceivable form of transport including boats, helicopters and trucks, to relocate refugees to a new refugee camp JEWI ( pronounced Jowie) which has been carved out of the bush 12 kilometres from Gambella town.
Pagak Border Transit Centre
On arrival I go straight to the South Sudan/Ethiopian border crossing at Pagak. It is here that thousands of refugees crossed over when tensions between the South Sudanese President and his Deputy sent the country into civil war at the end of December 2013.
At the Pagak Border Transit Centre I sit down to talk with new arrivals who are about to be registered by UNHCR. Nyatiang Emok Dey tells me she had walked for seven days from her village in Upper Nile State with her three young children. She describes the trip to me as ‘very terrible’ and you can see the exhaustion in the bodies and faces of the young family. She is one of the thousands of mothers who have fled South Sudan. In fact 90% of the camps I visit over the next few days are made up of women and children.
Sitting quietly beside Nyatiang is an old woman who could be anything from 50 to 80 years old. It is hard to tell but her rheumy eyes have clearly seen years of hardship. Nyayul Chol doesn’t know her age. She tells me she arrived with her grandson after travelling by truck and then walking the rest of the way. She looks so frail I wonder how she managed. Once in the camp she will be issued with a package for the elderly – a special ration of maize, a commode, extra cooking utensils, mattress, extra blankets and crutches (if necessary) and eye glasses.