Sep 28, 2016

South Sudan refugee crisis looms large

Last year, Canadians were justly proud of the fact that our country decided to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees in just a few months. Last month, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that in just three weeks, it processed 37,491 refugees from South Sudan who were fleeing to neighbouring Uganda—8,200 arrived in a single day.

The largest number of those South Sudanese refugees joined 138,000 who were already at a nearby settlement in Adjumani, which I visited in January, before the influx caused by renewed fighting in the civil war.

The settlement is run for the UNHCR by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) Uganda and the work is supported by Canadian Lutheran World Relief (CLWR). LWF also manages the reception centre at the border and on July 19th, staff counted 41 refugees per minute.

“In all my career, I’ve never had a situation where we were receiving over 8,000 refugees a day and international media had not picked up on it, and that’s something that’s surprised us all,” says Jesse Kamstra, the LWF country representative in Uganda, a veteran of emergency relief in Africa and the man who toured me and my group through the Adjumani settlement earlier this year.

Stepping up to assist for now are Canadian churches: early in August, CLWR made an emergency donation of $20,000, matched by $30,000 from the Anglican Church’s Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund.

“You can’t even begin to image how timely this contribution is,” Kamstra wrote when he thanked them. “Yesterday we got confirmation that we have a cholera outbreak in our settlement.”

The outbreak was later contained with help from Médecins sans Frontières (MSF).

South Sudan seemed to be a good-news story a few years ago: it achieved independence from Sudan in 2011, ending Africa’s longest-running civil war against the government in the north. But bad news followed in December 2013, when a civil war began between political rivals in the new nation, divided on tribal or ethnic lines. The result has been one of the world’s biggest humanitarian crises: millions displaced, malnutrition, forced military recruitment of boys and men and sexual violence against girls and women.

Adjumani is a settlement, not a camp, because in Uganda, the government has not only allowed in over half a million refugees—an extraordinary achievement for a small country—but allows them freedom of movement, as well as the right to work and set up businesses. When I visited, I learned that in return for allowing the settlement, Uganda asked the LWF to support local schools that South Sudanese and local children attend together.

The settlement is an active place, where families receive not just shelter, but plots of land to grow their own food, and residents get paid employment, such as helping build housing for the elderly or the handicapped who cannot build their own.

When he spoke to my group, Kamstra was optimistic that Adjumani could serve its purpose and close again one day because Uganda and the LWF have seen it before: another settlement in the same location emptied out when the previous civil war ended and peace came to South Sudan. As he explained to me, the South Sudanese are herders and they do not like to stay away from their cattle for long.

The support the Canadian churches have provided to refugees in Adjumani would not have been nearly as effective without contributions from the Government of Canada, such as $875,000 for safe water, hygiene and other relief in 2015-2016, as well as $1.14 million for youth in 2016-2017, just as it has helped organizations like the Canadian Food Grains Bank provide food assistance in South Sudan itself.

But now Canadians need to ask themselves what more they can do: we should make donations for the South Sudanese to charities we trust. We should call on our government to step up its efforts to support both the victims and peace-making efforts to halt the fighting. And our media also need to play a role: they should turn their eyes to Africa, where not only great disasters are occurring, but great efforts are being made that it is time for us to join.

David Schulze is a Montreal lawyer who serves on the board of Canadian Lutheran World Relief (CLWR). In January, he and his family took part in the CLWR Global Encounter 2016 tour to Uganda.