Today marks the beginning of another ill-conceived effort by the United Nations (UN) to close Yida Refugee Camp. Beginning today, the UN is officially ending all services to refugees in Yida in an attempt to force them to relocate to more dangerous areas. This highly controversial move is expected to only worsen the already strained relationship that exists between the UN and the Nuba people of Sudan. More on that below.
All photos in this update were taken only a few weeks ago between May 26-30, 2016 in Yida Refugee Camp. At the time these photos were taken, our media team was completing production of a new documentary film about Yida. During the course of many interviews and extensive access across this refugee camp, we discovered that many of the reasons the UN has provided for justifying its attempted closure of Yida are overstated at best, lack sufficient evidence at worst, and are all disputed by camp residents and leaders.
Photo: Women return home from a clean water source in Yida Refugee Camp. May 28, 2016. Photo by Katie Barber.
“More people are being displaced by war and persecution and that’s worrying in itself, but the factors that endanger refugees are multiplying too,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “At sea, a frightening number of refugees and migrants are dying each year; on land, people fleeing war are finding their way blocked by closed borders. Politics is gravitating against asylum in some countries. The willingness of nations to work together not just for refugees but for the collective human interest is what’s being tested today, and it’s this spirit of unity that badly needs to prevail.”
-June 20, 2016. UNHCR Press Release.
These powerful words from UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi deftly describe the situation over 65 million human beings around the world find themselves in today. The world's refugee crisis continues to get worse, not better, as refugees find that they are welcomed to fewer and fewer places in the world.
But what happens when UNHCR, a global organization tasked with protecting the rights and well-being of refugees all over the world, ends up doing exactly the opposite? That may sound like a highly unlikely scenario no one wants to entertain; but, disturbingly, that's exactly what is happening in Yida Refugee Camp in northern South Sudan right now.
Yida Refugee Camp Background
Since 2011, the growing population of Yida Refugee Camp has built a new life for themselves in this remote area that sits about 8.5 miles south of the international border that divides Sudan and South Sudan.
In 2011 the government of Sudan launched a brutal, genocidal war against the people living in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Government warplanes have bombed schools, clinics, markets, and homes in an attempt to drive the Nuba people off of their land.
Yida has exploded in size with refugees fleeing from the Nuba Mountains due to widespread government attacks against unarmed communities. At the end of 2011, Yida only numbered several thousand inhabitants. Today, the camp is home to well over 70,000 people and grows by the day as government attacks against civilians continue just across the border. Yida is now the largest Nuba city in the region, even though it sits in South Sudan.
Today, Yida is a relatively quiet place where refugees go about their daily lives: cooking, laundry, and more. It's almost hard to believe that just a few miles north, the Sudanese government's genocidal war grinds on.
Photo: A boy rides his family's donkey towards the largest market in Yida. May 27, 2016. Photo by Katie Barber.
UNHCR Is Pushing For Yida's Closure
Despite the presence of more than 70,000 Nuba refugees in Yida, the UN has never recognized Yida as an official refugee camp. Over the last 5 years, the UN has provided several reasons for not officially calling Yida a refugee camp, including: Yida being too close to the border, armed actors in the camp, and overpopulation. All of these excuses have been provided as reasoning for not providing the full range of services UNHCR can offer refugees, specifically Yida resident's calls for educational assistance. As many Sudan watchers and Yida residents have pointed out though, all of these public reasons provided by the UN for trying to close the camp are almost impossible to justify.
While it is true that Yida is less than the 50-kilometers minimum away from the border set by UN guidelines, the argument that Yida's location is a problem for the UN is irrelevant, especially considering that Ajuong Thok, the primary camp the UN is trying to force Yida residents to move to, is based only 1.2 miles further from the border than Yida is and also does not meet UN guidelines.
Most concerning though about this issue isn't even the distance of these camps from the border, but their actual location. Ajuong Thok is near a part of the border controlled by Sudanese government forces. Yes, you read that correctly. The UN is trying to move Yida's residents closer to the very soldiers and militias that they fled from in the first place. Ajuong Thok is only a mere 10.5 miles away from the proxy militias wielded by Sudan’s government and less than 62 miles from a Sudan Armed Forces garrison base. On May 26, 2016, Yida Refugee Council Chairman Al-Nur Al Saleh said to media agency Nuba Reports:
“These people [the militias] are the very same people we had to run away from in the first place...Everybody knows what happened now, yesterday and the other day; that this place [Ajuong] is a place of Bashir’s militias — this is their road.”
When our media team was in Yida between May 26-30, 2016, almost every camp resident we spoke with or interviewed mentioned that they felt safe in Yida and had no plans of leaving anytime soon. And it is easy to see why. Yida is a further distance away from Sudanese government forces and their proxy militias and is shielded to the north by the armed Nuba rebels battling government forces. Residents in Yida have also been more welcomed by the local community and are allowed to farm the area in and around the camp. The situation is much different in Ajuong Thok, where the local community does not like refugees to leave the camp and has even threatened those who do.
Photo: A mother checks on her newborn child in Yida Refugee Camp. May 27, 2016. Photo by Katie Barber.
One of the more concerning arguments the UN has made in an attempt to justify closing Yida is that the camp is militarized. This has been a story the UN has peddled for some time now despite changed security conditions in Yida and, very recently, took even further by making the bold claim that armed actors were "occupying schools and recruiting children." Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, who heads operations in Yida, is quoted in an article yesterday as saying:
“Yida is not a refugee camp...It’s a refugee settlement because refugees have settled here. You just never settle refugees in a militarized zone. Period. But of course nobody settled them, they came.
"With the presence of armed elements who are openly occupying schools and recruiting children, we just decided this is not going to work. The government [of South Sudan] is responsible for the safety of the refugees and they want to make sure that refugees are assisted where it’s safer."
There's a myriad of obvious problems with Lejeune-Kaba's statement, most notably that Yida residents flatly deny claims that schools in Yida are "occupied" by armed elements. A visit to classrooms in Yida does a good job at dispelling Lejeune-Kaba's accusation.
Photo: Our media team visits one of the schools that now exists in Yida. We did not find any evidence of or hear about any openly-occupying military force, armed or unarmed, in this school or others visited as Lejeune-Kaba claims there are. May 27, 2016. Photo by Katie Barber.
While there are many other issues with what Lejeune-Kaba has stated about Yida and its residents, there are two more in particular worth noting here. The first is that saying "we just decided this is not going to work" makes it sound as if the UN is only just now deciding to try to close Yida. This is factually wrong as the UN has tried to close Yida before with disastrous results. In 2012, UNHCR urged Yida’s then estimated 30,000 residents to move to another refugee camp, Nyeli. Refugees pointed out that Nyeli and the surrounding area was prone to severe flooding and would turn into swamp with heavy rains. Ignoring the legitimate concerns of the refugees, UNHCR officials pushed ahead and resettled a small number of Yida residents to Nyeli. Unsurprisingly, all of the resettled refugees found themselves homeless about one year later when flooding made Nyeli impossible to live in. The UN closed the camp soon afterwards.
The second issue with Lejeune-Kaba's statements is that finding the "armed elements" in this "militarized zone" that she insists are there is, well, very difficult. The only "armed elements" we found in Yida were a handful of South Sudanese police, only about half of whom were actually armed, patrolling the main market in Yida and fewer than a dozen South Sudanese soldiers moving along one of the main highways that leads into and out of the camp near that market. During our extensive multi-day tour and film production across Yida, this was the only location weapons and military fatigues were ever spotted. The reason it is so difficult to find evidence to support Lejeune-Kaba's claims is simple: armed Nuba rebels who used to be in the camp were cleared out by South Sudanese forces in October of 2015.
Photo: Yida Refugee Camp is a fairly sprawling area with a large amount of infrastructure now in it. May 27, 2016. Photo by Mark Hackett.
The final issue that the UN has provided for attempting to close the camp is a fear that it may become overcrowded. This is actually a real concern as overcrowded refugee camps near other conflict areas usually leads to additional health issues and insecurity. While Yida does have space left to grow, additional growth could cause problems such as these for the camp's residents.
However, as with the other issues the UN is claiming for attempting to close the camp, this is a moot point based on recent U.N. actions to ensure Yida does not become overcrowded. The UN has actively been moving new arrivals in Yida to Ajuong Thok since January of this year to slow Yida's growth. More obvious is the simple fact that if the UN does somehow manage to force the 70,000+ Yida refugees to Ajuong Thok and Pamir, those camps will instantly become overcrowded.
Yida's large population and the needs associated with it have been offset by large infrastructure investments thoughout the camp and the volunteering of the community itself. Most of Yida's residents have access to clean water sources, markets, and areas to farm to supplement the World Food Programme's 30% cut in rations this year due to funding issues. Many of the new schools that have popped up through Yida the past few years have teachers that are volunteering their time.
Photo: Children play and draw water from one of the many clean water access points that now exist in Yida. May 28, 2016. Photo by Katie Barber.
The UN would quite literally be destroying the enormous progress made here and throwing aside the large investments in life-changing infrastructure should it succeed in closing Yida. And for what? For Yida's residents to move to camps that would become overcrowded, are already more dangerous, and where there are even fewer options for them to help support themselves?
So, What Are The Real Reasons Behind The UN's Efforts To Close Yida?
It's hard to say. One camp leader I spoke to in Yida on May 26, 2016 believes the government of Sudan is pressuring the UN to close the camp. The Sudanese government has long hated that Yida is where it is as it provides an access point for journalists, filmmakers, and others to enter the Nuba Mountains and document government war crimes there. In fact, the government of Sudan went so far as to bomb Yida Refugee Camp in November of 2011, an attack that UNHCR condemned. The government of Sudan also alleges that the government of South Sudan uses Yida as a launching place to support the Nuba rebels, although there is little evidence to support that accusation.
Regardless of the reasons, the UN's renewed efforts to shut down Yida when the only options available will just make things worse is, frankly, a terrible road to go down. Many Nuba people on both sides of the border already deeply distrust the UN or are outright angry with the global body for doing so little to protect them. In one of the article's cited above, Roopa Gogineni writes why:
The pervasive distrust of the UN in Yida stems back to events in Sudan. When war first broke out in June of 2011, thousands sought protection around a UN base in the state capital Kadugli. Sudan security agents walked among the crowds, shooting people suspected of supporting the rebels. UN peacekeepers did not intervene.
Many of the first refugees that arrived in Yida came from Kadugli. They brought with them first hand accounts of the killings. Similar atrocities have recently occurred on UN bases throughout South Sudan, making it difficult for the refugees to put their fate in the hands of the UN.
UNHCR's current approach will most likely just provide more reasons for the Nuba people to reject the agency and remain in Yida anyways, or worse return to the Nuba Mountains. Hopefully, UN officials will recognize sooner rather than later that Nuba refugees deserve protection and support, which is not what they are currently being offered.
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