South Sudan Crisis – a humanitarian catastrophe

The South Sudan emergency is now Africa’s largest refugee crisis, displacing 3.3 million people since conflict between government forces and rebel groups reignited in 2016. It has become the world’s third largest refugee crisis, after Syria and Afghanistan.

UNHCR estimates that 1.8 million people are displaced within South Sudan, and the country is also hosting 260,000 refugees from conflicts elsewhere.

A further 1.5 million South Sudanese have fled to neighbouring countries, such as Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Over 60% of these refugees are children.

People fleeing the violence lose everything as they are forced to abandon their homes. Ongoing conflict and lack of funding are leading to severe malnutrition as food supplies are cut, with almost one million people on the brink of famine.

The vast majority of South Sudanese refugees are women and children, with many children fleeing alone after losing their families. 

More than 9,800 South Sudanese children have fled unaccompanied to neighbouring Kenya.

The UN Refugee Agency is at the forefront of the humanitarian response to this crisis.

UNHCR is on the ground across South Sudan and neighbouring countries to protect people displaced by this conflict. It is providing protection and life-saving aid, including emergency nutrition, water, shelter, sleeping mats, mosquito nets and basic cooking sets.

UNHCR also provides protection for vulnerable refugees, such as women and girls, who face the threat of sexual violence, and unaccompanied children, to help trace their families or provide alternative care.

Australia for UNHCR is appealing for public support to help UNHCR protect those fleeing the South Sudanese conflict. Currently, UNHCR only has only 6c for every $1 needed for its humanitarian operations.

UNHCR is providing basic supplies for survival but more is needed.

A refugee child undergoes a UNHCR Mid-Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) Screening. MUAC is used to measure the prevelance of acute malnutrition in children aged between 6 and 59 months.

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Three South Sudanese refugees carry their non-food items from a UNHCR distribution point in Uganda


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South Sudanese children wait to be registered at a UNHCR collection point in Elego, Uganda


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A South Sudanese refugee carries sleeping mats to his family at the Numanzi Transit Centre in Uganda.


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South Sudanese women wait for their food rations in the new arrivals area of Kakuma camp, Kenya


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Protection Protection Protection
Shelter Shelter Shelter
Food Food Food
Water Water Water
Medicine Medicine Medicine
Supplies Supplies Supplies

Providing Protection

People fleeing war, disaster or persecution can be very vulnerable. UNHCR supplies displaced people with essential items, food and shelter to protect them from having to make dangerous decisions to survive. On a larger scale, UNHCR negotiates safe passage, asylum spaces and humanitarian access, upholding the rights of refugees and minimising the threat of violence, including sexual assault.

UNHCR leads the inter-agency protection cluster, which works to ensure the safety of particularly vulnerable South Sudanese people who have been forced from their homes. This includes creating child-friendly spaces in refugee camps to assist unaccompanied children with family identification and reunification. UNHCR’s Protection Monitoring System (PMS) also helps identify those affected by sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) for treatment and support.

Providing Shelter

UNHCR provides refugees with emergency shelter — tents, tarpaulins and demountable housing — in the immediate aftermath of displacement. More broadly, we are responsible for site planning and camp management to ensure refugee settlements are economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. For those living outside camps, UNHCR funds the rehabilitation of communal shelters, the construction of new homes and rental assistance for those in urban situations. UNHCR also provides materials that displaced people need to build a home themselves under self-help schemes.

UNHCR is providing support to South Sudanese refugees in five UN Mission bases in South Sudan. The temporary shelters we provide include lightweight emergency tents and plastic sheeting. These tents give a displaced family of five protection from the elements: wind, rain, the blazing sun and the bitter night cold.

Providing Food 

Malnutrition is a common consequence of conflict and displacement. UNHCR works with the World Food Programme (WFP) to ensure that all refugees have access to adequate nutrient-rich food. UNHCR assists with the distribution of food rations in camps and provide urban refugees with vouchers and cash assistance for the purchase of food and groceries. In acute situations, UNHCR supports emergency nutrition and therapeutic feeding programs, supplying fortified milks and ready-to-use therapeutic foods.

There is an ongoing shortage of food and clean water in many of the camps for displaced people in South Sudan, there is an ongoing shortage of food and clean water. UNHCR and the World Food Program have been distributing emergency food aid to families in the worst affected camps. They have also increased food rations in regions where food security is a grave concern

Providing Water

When people flee their homes, they often struggle to safely and easily access adequate water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, endangering their health. UNHCR provides extensive infrastructure in refugee camps – wells, pumps, tap-stands and latrines – to meet refugees’ water needs and prevent disease. The water containers we provide as part of our basic survival kit enable displaced families to fetch and store clean water.

Providing refugees with clean drinking water is an ongoing challenge. UNHCR has overseen the installation of major water infrastructure in displacement camps, but medical staff continue to battle outbreaks of deadly diseases like bloody diarrhoea, cholera and Hepatitis E. UNHCR staff distribute jerry cans that allow families to carry and store clean drinking water and protect themselves from waterborne illness. They also run community education programs to improve water usage and sanitation practices in the camps.

Providing Medication

UNHCR facilitates access to basic healthcare for refugees through camp clinics and local healthcare providers. Priority health services include emergency medical care for those who have suffered violence, reproductive services and treatment for infants and the elderly. UNHCR also coordinates immunisation programs to prevent the spread of diseases in crowded refugee settings.

In the north of South Sudan, UNHCR is supporting health clinics in ten camps for displaced South Sudanese. Conditions in the camps are harsh and residents suffer high rates of acute malnutrition as well as outbreaks of malaria and waterborne disease. Pregnant women and children make up a large proportion of patients in need of emergency and ongoing medical care.

Providing Supplies

UNHCR distributes life-sustaining items such as mattresses, blankets, kitchen sets, jerry cans, stoves and fuel, soap and other sanitary items to refugees under its care. These supplies are tailored to the specific needs of the refugee population: for example, winterisation kits are distributed in camps and communities where sub-zero temperatures occur. UNHCR maintains global stockpiles of core relief items for immediate delivery in emergency situations.

UNHCR has been delivering emergency relief and ongoing services to men, women and children in ten large refugee camps near the Sudanese border. Getting emergency staff and relief equipment to these camps is an ongoing challenge given their remote location. The persistent insecurity and an annual rainy season, which causes widespread flooding, can cut road access to the region for months at a time.

Get the latest statistics on the emergency in South Sudan.

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