(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • US refugee resettlement system reels from Trump ban

    The non-profit network for refugee resettlement in the United States may take years to recover from changes announced by President Donald Trump, charity managers and advocates say. The 120-day pause to the programme, and a reduction from 110,000 to 50,000 arrivals in the 2016-2017 fiscal year, will have far-reaching effects. The resettlement system is “not a pipeline you can turn on and off like a tap”, according to refugee advocate Amy Slaughter, who added that the programme faces an “existential threat”.


    The suspension affects 67,689 refugees who had been fully cleared by the Department of Homeland Security and were “travel-ready”. When the programme restarts, supposedly at the end of May, only about 20,000 can be admitted from then until the end of September under the new quota (30,000 of the 50,000 total arrived before Trump took office). The rest will be in limbo, according to Slaughter, chief strategy officer of US-based refugee agency RefugePoint. They include 13,928 Somalis, 10,680 Iraqis, 8,886 Syrians, 1,805 Sudanese, 983 Iranians, and 29 Yemenis. Many will likely have to repeat lengthy security and health clearances that expire after a relatively short time. The resettlement vetting process rarely takes less than two years. “They could take a couple more years to get in the country,” said Slaughter.



    The absorption of 85,000 refugees by the US last year, and some 700,000 arrivals over the last decade, have relied on 300 centres across the US. These are run by a core group of nine non-profits, backed by volunteers from dozens of smaller charities, religious congregations, and civic groups, amounting to a network consisting of dozens of agencies. NGO managers estimate total staffing is in the thousands. Just one of the resettlement charities, the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) lists $31 million in sub-grants to 69 US organisations, including, for example, $103,000 for the Refugee Services of Texas and $76,388 for the YMCA of Greater Houston.


    Bill Canny is the executive director of the US Migration and Refugee Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), one of those nine core non-profits. His group had drawn up an $80 million budget to resettle 25,000 refugees this fiscal year, the largest quota among the resettlement NGOs. He told IRIN he now expected to halve this plan. The cuts and suspension could destabilise the network’s “well-oiled machine”, Canny said, adding: “that will send the refugee resettlement network into a bit of a potential tailspin”.


    Slaughter noted that any changes to the vetting process (as the White House appears to plan)  and the overall disruption to the system will take much longer than the 120-day suspension to recover. Getting all the paperwork lined up is no small feat: “it’s hard on a good day”, she said of the “incredibly complicated” security clearance process. Following the introduction of new procedures after the 9/11 attacks, she said it took eight years to get the refugee resettlement system back to previous arrival rates.


    Reflecting anxiety among the agencies involved, Canny said: “We’re anxious to see how the US government will... maintain the integrity and the capacity of the network.“

    Public-private partnership


    Canny’s USCCB and the other non-profits use government funding and private charity to help refugees get established in their new homes; a mix the US government describes as a public-private partnership. The agencies are expected to mobilise significant cash and in-kind donations from non-governmental sources, to match and supplement taxpayer funds. These extra resources are quantified and tracked as part of government monitoring, according to Canny. Services for new arrivals include help with finding schools, housing, transport, language classes, and employment, as well as equipping families with food, clothes, and household goods.


    The US government spends about $1 billion dollars on incoming refugees per year, according to the most recent multi-agency report to Congress. In fiscal year 2015-2016, about $609 million of the spending went on the resettlement phase of the process, a significant proportion of which is handled by the NGOs. IRIN has been unable to secure a detailed breakdown of resettlement spending from the State Department.


    However, much of the State Department funding for resettlement is based on a per capita system, with NGOs receiving just over $2,000 per refugee. The Department of Health and Human Services and other federal and state bodies also contribute a range of additional funding.


    Keeping hundreds of NGO staff on salary (or deciding when to give them notice) while the system is suspended is a “big problem”, said Canny, whose organisation works with 80 Catholic charities. “These are all non-profit agencies that don’t have vast cash reserves,” he told IRIN.


    One of the better-known resettlement agencies is the International Rescue Committee, a giant NGO. More typical however are the other eight agencies, all with average annual revenues under $80 million. A review of their tax filings by IRIN shows that the group depend heavily on government funding. The Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services for example, in its latest tax filing, declared income of $51 million, 90 percent of which came from government sources. The USCRI collected 91 percent of income from government, while 96 percent of the  Ethiopian Community Development Council (ECDC)'s $18 million budget is from the taxpayer (see table below).  


    What’s at stake?


    The cost, security risk, and demographic impact of refugee resettlement have faced criticism from the conservative right, arguments which appear to resonate with the new US administration. But even those in favour of US engagement on refugee issues did not say the system was perfect. The way it is funded, the need for a private sponsorship system, and the lack of visas that allow refugees to work and study all need attention, some argue. But these policy “tweaks” have now been set aside. “It’s probably not the time to launch petty critiques… when we’re fighting for the existence of the programme,” Slaughter said. Tens of thousands of potential refugee arrivals have had their hopes dashed, hundreds of US jobs and dozens of small non-profits will feel the impact, and American influence and reputation abroad will take a hit, the resettlement agencies say.


    Some three million people have arrived in the US since 1975 via the resettlement programme. “It’s a humanitarian programme, in the best interests of the United States,” said Eskinder Negash, senior vice president of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigration. USCRI helped some 11,000 refugees get settled in the US last year, with about $30 million in funding from the government. The agency was formed in 1911, and has a “diverse portfolio”, according to Negash, which protects it from a sudden drop in resettlement income.


    Nevertheless, with about 200 employees, “there is going to be some adjustment we have to do,” Negash said, giving the example of a likely reduction in the number of translators hired.


    Defending the programme, Mark Hetfield of HIAS, one of the nine NGOs, said in a TV interview: “The United States is a leader in refugee protection. What makes us a leader is not the number that we take; it’s the way that we treat refugees when they come here.”


    Canny said he was “saddened” by the new policy and its impact on refugees. His church opposes the policy and its disproportionate impact on Muslims.


    Far from being a “gravy train” as critics allege, the nine NGOs are “deeply invested in this mission”, and have to work hard to keep up their end of the bargain, Slaughter said. The extensive network of local offices and support capacity are hard for new entrants to replicate and would be difficult to rebuild, NGOs agree. The State Department’s insistence on parallel fundraising from private sources is also demanding. “If helping vulnerable populations is an ‘industry’, I don’t mind being out of business,” said Negash.


    The programme costs hundreds of millions a year, but Trump’s executive order, which includes a temporary travel ban for citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries, appears to have sparked a groundswell of public support for refugees.

    It also has unpredictable consequences on “the fabric of diplomatic relations”, said Slaughter: “you pull a thread here and it disrupts everything over there… this resettlement programme is part of that.”


    “I think it buys us a lot more than we spend,” she added.



    (TOP PHOTO: Utah Governor visits a refugee education centre, November 2015. Photo: Utah.gov)

    US refugee resettlement system reels from Trump ban
  • Sudan and chemical weapons – a serial offender?

    An Amnesty International investigation that has put the spotlight on the Sudan government’s possible use of chemical weapons against civilians in the western region of Darfur, may not be the only instance of the security forces allegedly launching chemical attacks.


    Witnesses in South Kordofan, another region resisting government control, also report seeing civilians with symptoms suggesting chemical weapons’ exposure, from as recently as April.


    The Amnesty report, released in late September, claimed government aircraft conducted at least 30 chemical attacks in the remote Jebel Marra region of Darfur this year. Based on testimony from caregivers and survivors, it said that as many as 250 people may have been killed.


    Two separate, independent chemical weapons experts concluded that the injuries and reported symptoms suggested a chemical attack from blister agents such as sulfur mustard, lewisite or nitrogen mustard gases.


    Symptoms reported by 56 witnesses included bloody vomiting and diarrhoea; skin blisters and rashes which hardened; as well as eye and respiratory problems.


    The government has denied the allegations.


    Not just Darfur


    Further south, in the Nuba Mountains region of South Kordofan, aid workers and local officials have also reported suspected chemical weapons use by the government. If accurate, the reports suggest a more deliberate and wide-ranging campaign by Khartoum against its restive regions.


    Without soil samples, it’s impossible to verify the allegations, but medical officials told IRIN they have seen symptoms consistent with chemical weapons exposure stretching back over at least four years of conflict.


    Tom Catena, the only surgeon at the Mother of Mercy Hospital in Gidel, said the first incident he observed of a possible chemical attack was in April 2012, during fighting in Talodi town.


    Eighteen victims of a government air raid were taken to the hospital, where they reported seeing grey smoke from the bombing turning white.


    “The people who were exposed to the smoke said they became paralyzed, had blurred vision, vomiting and some with diarrhoea,” the renowned surgeon said. “Several said they couldn’t move their bodies for several hours, but eventually regained full function.”


    Nuba children shelter in a foxhole at the first sound of an Antonov bomber passing overhead

    Nuba children shelter in a foxhole at the first sound of an Antonov bomber passing overhead
    Peter Mosynski/IRIN
    Nuba children shelter in a foxhole at the sound of an approaching bomber


    The symptoms could be the result of exposure to organophosphates such as insecticides and herbicides, or nerve agents, he said.


    The second incident took place around late March to early April this year in the embattled town of Al Azraq, where Catena said similar symptoms were identified.


    Ali Abdelrahman, director of the Nuba Mountains Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Organization (NRRDO) – a community-based support group – said his NGO has also come across cases of suspected chemical attacks on civilians in the Nuba Mountains. “But the problem is, we do not have the technical devices required to confirm these cases,” he said.


    The medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières reported the suspected use of chemical weapons as far back as 1999 in air attacks on Equatoria province, in what is now South Sudan.


    Evidence problem


    Repeated calls by IRIN to the Sudan Armed Forces for comment went unanswered. But a foreign ministry official, Abdel-Ghani Al-Na’im, had earlier dismissed the Amnesty report as “mere tendentious claims”.


    Reaching a firm conclusion on the government’s alleged use of chemical weapons remains difficult. Sudan has effectively blocked access by international organisations and the media to the conflict areas in both Darfur and the Nuba Mountains.


    Amnesty International said it was unable to collect soil and blood samples, and instead had to rely on interviews, satellite imagery and analysis of photographs of injuries.


    The hybrid UN and African Union peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) has also been unable to corroborate Amnesty’s findings because its movements are limited by the authorities.


    Sudan armour in South Kordofan
    Nuba Reports/IRIN
    Sudan armoured column in South Kordofan

    “Over the past year, UNAMID has consistently requested and been denied full and unhindered access to conflict areas in Jebel Marra by the government of Sudan,” a UN peacekeeping official told IRIN.




    “The government is obliged to provide UNAMID with full and unhindered freedom of movement throughout Darfur under the terms of its Status-of-Forces Agreement with the United Nations … We continue to urge it to do so,” the official added.


    “The government of Sudan makes it nearly impossible for journalists to report from Darfur,” said award-winning photojournalist Adriane Ohanesian, one of the few foreign journalists to gain access to Jebel Marra last year. “Obtaining any information from these regions in Darfur is an endless struggle.”


    The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international anti-chemical weapons body, said more evidence was needed before it could “draw any conclusions” based on the Amnesty investigation.


    In the meantime, the human rights group is presenting its Darfur report to the UN Security Council. According to Amnesty’s Sudan researcher, Ahmed El-Zubeir, the report refutes the government’s claim the situation in Darfur is stable.


    The area of the Jebel Marra where the chemical weapons were allegedly used is controlled by rebels of the Sudan Liberation Movement led by Abdel Wahid al-Nur, who is not part of a shaky peace process.


    The related conflicts in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile are being fought by rebels against an authoritarian government in Khartoum they regard as bent on exploiting and marginalising the country’s ethnic minorities.


    “Granting foreigners access would reveal what [the government] routinely denies,” said Abdelrahman, with NRRDO. “It will incur more investigations into [government] violence, [and] atrocities committed.”




    TOP PHOTO: Air raid in Kauda, South Kordofan, by Giovanni Diffidenti/IRIN 


    Sudan and chemical weapons – a serial offender?
  • Top Picks: What Syrians want, Africa's declining conflicts, and refugee deterrence policies

    Welcome to IRIN's weekly top picks of must-read research, podcasts, reports, blogs and in-depth articles to help you keep on top of global crises.


    Six to read:

    What Syrians want

    Public opinion polling in Syria, a country where the president regularly takes upwards of 90 percent of the vote, has never been easy. And, after five years of war, it’s the loudest voices we often pay attention to. A survey of 2,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, summarised in Foreign Affairs by Columbia University's Daniel Corstange, offers a rare scientific alternative, certainly as a sample of the approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

    A few key takeaways: just over half the refugees support the opposition, but a substantial portion (40 percent) backs the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Opposition supporters who back Islamist factions are barely more religious than those who prefer nationalist rebels.  As has been long thought, opposition supporters are found to be poorer and more poorly educated than those who side with the regime, but there is not an overwhelming demand for a religious state. Finally, those who back nationalist opposition groups are 50 percent more politically engaged than their peers who back al-Assad. There's a lot of useful information packed into this short piece, so best to check out the numbers for yourself.


    Get in while you can

    You read it first here of course, but in this blog LSE alumnus Charles Mulingi explores the migratory flow of Ethiopians along the southern route to South Africa and finds it’s a far higher number than those attempting the journey to Europe. The majority of those who choose the southern route (and not the westward alternative through Sudan and Libya to Europe) do so due to cost, convenience, safety, and the presence of relatives and friends in transit countries and South Africa. But proposed new measures contained in South Africa’s Green Paper on International Migration will make life much harder for migrants and asylum seekers.

    They include a “safe third country” principle that will deny asylum to those who have transited through one or more countries considered to be “safe”. The proposed measures also seek to introduce asylum processing centers near the borders where all migrants will stay pending the determination of their claims. During this period, migrants will be denied automatic right to work or study. South Africa seems to be modelling its response on the European model. It’s likely to be a domestic vote-winner for the government.


    The ‘ripple effect’ of refugee deterrence policies

    When Australia began pursuing its policy of deterring refugees from reaching its shores by turning back boats and transferring asylum seekers to offshore processing centres, it weathered criticism from the international community but no real sanctions. Instead, some European countries began viewing ‘the Australian model’ as something perhaps to be emulated, particularly in the context of the unprecedented movement of asylum seekers to the EU in 2015. Over the last year, we’ve seen more and more EU member states taking measures to deter asylum seekers. We’ve also seen the extent that both Australia and the EU are willing to pay origin and transit countries to make sure asylum seekers don’t reach their borders. This new working paper and policy brief from the Overseas Development Institute’s Humanitarian Policy Group warns that when rich countries implement deterrence policies, they create ‘ripple effects’ in lower-income countries. Using Indonesia, Kenya, and Jordan as case studies, the authors find evidence of increasing restrictions for refugees in numerous lower- and middle-income countries. While such policies are often the result of domestic pressures, the interviews also make clear the extent that developed countries set an ‘example’ to the rest of the world. The result: “a clear trend in the erosion of refugee protection on a global scale”. Ending on a slightly more upbeat note, the authors argue that the trend is not irreversible.


    The coming peace – Africa’s declining conflicts

    The idea of Africa as a war-ravaged continent is outdated. In the 21st century, the amount of warfare in Africa has declined dramatically, and today most Africans are more secure than ever. Troubled areas remain, but the larger picture of receding conflict “has implications for how we think about African security needs”, notes this article for Sustainable Security.

    For a start it means support to the African Union to improve peacekeeping and conflict resolution capabilities. Arms embargoes against combatants and trade restrictions in conflict minerals would also help, as well as, presumably, greater control of the related financial flows. And, most importantly of all, the world should “try not to create new ground for conflict”, such as in Libya.


    Where it’s not working so well

    Peace talks between the Sudanese government and the umbrella opposition group, Sudan Call, were supposed to commence this month, but are looking extremely shaky. On the Blue Nile conflict, the stumbling block is access points for humanitarian aid to war-affected areas, says Nuba Reports. Khartoum has refused any relief emanating from outside the country. Conversely the rebel SPLM-N has opposed all aid originating from Sudan, fearing the government would manipulate aid deliveries. On the Darfur conflict it’s more complicated, made worse by the rebel groups distrusting African Union mediator and former South African president Thabo Mbeki. Making peace stick is hard work.


    The struggle to talk peace in southern Thailand

    In the wake of bombings in seven tourist towns in southern Thailand, compounded by an ambush today that killed three police officers, the International Crisis Group offers this briefing on one of the world’s least understood insurgencies. The first point ICG makes is that the bombings show a change of tactics: they took place outside the “customary conflict zones in the deep south”, which indicates “the government’s approach of containing the insurgency is not working”. Thailand’s previous government, which was overthrown by the coup leaders who now run the country, set up the beginnings of peace talks with the insurgents, who are fighting for a separate state for ethnic Malay Muslims. The Malays form a majority in the south but make up a small minority overall in the predominantly Buddhist country. The ruling junta has continued the process but made moves that undermine it at the same time, while talks “are also hindered by the militants’ disunity and parochialism”. ICG suggests that a “decentralised political system could help resolve the conflict by giving respect to Malay-Muslim identity and aspirations while preserving the unitary state”. It’s a worthy goal, but one that seems out of reach at the moment.

    For more on the conflict, see IRIN’s special report.


    One from IRIN:


    Syrian evacuations break the will to resist

    The conflict in Syria appears to have reached a tipping point. As the latest attempt by the United States to hold together a fragile ceasefire collapses in recriminations, error and chaos, more bombs than ever are falling on the ruined city of Aleppo and the calculus of President Bashar al-Assad and his allies is clear: win and maintain power at any cost. IRIN contributor Tom Rollins took a hard look this week at the brutal tactics that are turning the tide in this war. Besiege the town, starve the rebels, evacuate it once they surrender: this was the chain of events in Daraya and the concern is that Assad’s forces are now looking to roll out this template across the country – next door in Moadamiyeh, in Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, in Homs, one day even in Aleppo. “It’s sectarian cleansing in the sense of re-engineering,” Syria expert and University of Edinburgh senior lecturer Thomas Pierret tells Rollins. “It’s basically the Syrian regime deciding that certain communities should live in certain places because they are now more easily controllable when they live there… a strategy of concentration.” Taking it a stage further, the issue becomes: is this a breach of international humanitarian law, are war crimes being perpetrated here? Perhaps we’ll look at that next.


    Coming up:

    “A Missing Link? Diaspora’s Place in an Enhanced International Humanitarian System” – Monday, 3 October – Copenhagen

    There is very little information about the role of the diaspora in humanitarian response – beyond the flow of remittances. A research project called DEMAC, the Diaspora Emergency Action and Coordination, aims to change that. Case studies by Afford, the Danish Refugee Council, and the Berghof Foundation focused on the Sierra Leonean diaspora’s response to the Ebola crisis, the Somali response to the crisis in Somalia, and the response of Syrians in Germany, Turkey, and Lebanon to the five-year civil war in their home country. In addition to examining the diaspora’s role, the researchers assessed perceptions among the aid community of diaspora efforts. Their final report tries to dispel misperceptions that such efforts are small-scale, and often inefficient or badly targeted. Often, diaspora humanitarianism goes beyond family ties and targets the most vulnerable communities, regardless of ethnicity or religion, and focuses on educational efforts as well as providing medical support, food security and advocacy. These findings, opening opportunities for humanitarian collaboration and coordination, will be disseminated at a conference in Copenhagen on 3 October, where IRIN Director Heba Aly will moderate a panel discussion.

    For more information and to register for the conference, click here.



    (TOP PHOTO: Most Syrians left in Aleppo are too poor to leave and live in the carcasses of apartment blocks. Tom Westcott/IRIN)

    Top Picks: What Syrians want, Africa's declining conflicts, and refugee deterrence policies
  • Should the UN surrender over peacekeeping?

    The bitter criticism heaped on UN peacekeepers in South Sudan this month over their failure to act to protect civilians and humanitarian workers is sadly nothing new. But it is now raising an urgent question: is the UN’s peacekeeping system fit for purpose?


    In early 2014, shortly after the outbreak of South Sudan’s brutal civil war, officials at the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations were feeling the pressure over their ability to protect more than 60,000 South Sudanese displaced by the violence that were sheltering in UN camps. It was, then, an unprecedented number.


    “We cannot protect those people from being overrun while at the same time doing patrolling in an area the size of France,” Kieran Dwyer, the spokesperson for DPKO said at the time. It wasn’t the job of peacekeepers, he continued, “to stand in the way of the anti-government forces fighting the pro-government forces.”


    Dwyer was speaking shortly after the Security Council had authorised the enlargement of the mission in South Sudan, UNMISS, from 7,000 to 12,500 troops. Even with 5,500 new blue helmets on the way, he was clear about how limited their role could be. Despite possessing a Chapter VII mandate, authorising the use of deadly force, DPKO said its soldiers were ill-equipped to save lives in the midst of a civil war.


    “The primary responsibility to protect civilians is with the government, and our job is to support the government,” said Dwyer.


    This month, following fighting in the capital Juba that left hundreds dead and countless victims of sexual violence, the UN Security Council voted once more to enlarge UNMISS. On 12 August, diplomats approved a 4,000-strong Regional Protection Force, mandated to facilitate movement in Juba, protect its airport, and engage with “any actor” believed to be preparing or undertaking attacks on the UN, international actors, and civilians.


    Its deployment – the terms of which, as well as the troops’ exact makeup, when they will arrive, or even where they will be housed, remains very much up in the air – is meant to give the UN a force that can intervene in ways the 13,000 peacekeepers already on the ground have been unwilling or unable to.


    The Security Council’s decision to deploy the protection force comes largely in response to violence waged by the government that UNMISS was originally meant to cooperate with – underscoring just how delicate and potentially explosive its presence could be.


    It also speaks to the changing environment that UN peacekeepers find themselves in: from Mali, where peacekeepers battle Islamist insurgents; to the eastern Congo, where they track down rebels in collaboration with government forces that have a gruesome record of human rights abuse; to Darfur, where they’ve remained bogged down for years, and faced accusations of covering up crimes committed by the government, including some carried out against peacekeepers.


    Outdated model?


    What happens in South Sudan could offer a window into what role UN peacekeepers can play in the future: whether they can really protect civilians in the midst of war; or if the UN is too slow, too risk-averse, and whether it should instead outsource peace enforcement to regional organisations working under UN authorisation.


    Eric Kanalstein/UNMISS
    Sheltering from the fighting in Juba


    The fighting that broke out on 8 July between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar left a peace agreement in tatters. It had briefly ended two years of conflict between the armies of both men that had left over 100,000 people dead, offering a new government of national unity in which Machar was sworn in as vice president. He is now in exile, and what happens next is far from clear.


    What the violence underscored was the limitations of the current UN peacekeeping model. As forces loyal to both Kiir and Machar battled it out in Juba, Human Rights Watch found that mortars and artillery had been fired “at or above” Protection of Civilian (PoC) sites, in clear disregard of the lives of the people sheltered there, and in a direct challenge to the UN.


    According to investigations published in the Associated Press, dozens of Nuer women – Machar’s ethnic group – were raped “just outside” a UN camp where they had fled to seek shelter amid the fighting. Several witnesses said Chinese and Nepalese peacekeepers watched as soldiers dragged a woman away.


    The July violence came just weeks after a UN Board of Inquiry completed its investigation into peacekeeper inaction during a government-orchestrated attack on a PoC camp in Malakal in February that left 30 displaced people dead. Malakal and the failings in Juba represent something of a pattern by UNMISS.


    The peacekeepers can “only protect a small proportion of Sudanese civilians at the best of times – those in or near the PoC sites – and at worst, it cannot protect civilians in the PoC sites,” said Paul Williams, professor at George Washington University and expert in international peace operations.


    “This is a very hard ask of troop or police contributing countries, many of whom will not want to die for the UN in South Sudan.”


    The July violence in Juba was testament to that. AP reported that foreign aid workers were raped and assaulted less than a mile from where peacekeepers were stationed, when as many as 100 government soldiers, some reportedly drunk, descended on the Terrain hotel compound on 11 July.


    Despite repeated and frantic calls to the UN, hours passed and no peacekeepers were ever sent. Aid workers watched as a Nuer journalist was summarily executed; one humanitarian worker said she was raped by 15 soldiers. The terror only came to an end when the US embassy contacted the government, which dispatched a rapid-reaction force.


    Ignoring the facts on the ground


    “The problem from the outset is that the international community had a hard time divesting itself from the fairytale story that it wanted South Sudan to be,” said Charles Petrie, former UN assistant secretary general and recently a member of the Group of Experts designated by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to review UN peace-building efforts. “As a result, the multiple signals that contradicted that narrative were completely ignored.”


    The US, which pushed this month’s resolution through the Council in less than a week, ultimately elected to hold off, yet again, on the inclusion of an arms embargo in the text – an element that Ban, peacekeeping officials, and several key allies have called for.


    That hesitancy is reportedly a product of senior holdouts in the Obama administration, namely current National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Rice was UN ambassador when South Sudan became independent in 2011, and is close to many in the country’s elite. A principal concern of the Americans is that an arms embargo would prevent the government from defending itself against the rebels, who could continue to receive arms from abroad, including Sudan. After the violence perpetrated in Juba, even Washington’s closest allies were having nothing of that argument.


    “Today, we also had a chance to stop the violence, by implementing an immediate arms embargo on South Sudan,” said British deputy ambassador, Peter Wilson. “On that, we failed.” The resolution, said France’s representative, “should have gone all the way by imposing immediately an arms embargo.”


    One peacekeeping official was even more explicit. "The firepower in the hands of the SPLA thanks to the absence of an arms embargo is overwhelming in terms of its superiority to what the mission has,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.


    According to recent analysis carried out by the Small Arms Survey, an embargo would  in particular impact the fearsome Mi-24 attack helicopters the government has in its inventory, as the foreign contractors that keep them flying would be outlawed.


    But it wouldn’t be a silver bullet. UNMISS claim they are routinely prevented from patrolling by government roadblocks, or by Juba merely declaring an area unsafe. In the Malakal attack, peacekeepers inexplicably sought “written authorisation” to engage with forces attacking a camp there that housed some 40,000 displaced people.


    South Sudan's leaders
    Samir Bol/IRIN


    “An arms embargo is a missing piece of the bigger puzzle, but it’s not going to fix peacekeeper underperformance,” said Akshaya Kumar, deputy UN director at Human Rights Watch.


    The need for alternatives


    For Petrie, there’s a larger question at stake in South Sudan: whether peacekeeping, and more of it, is the solution to an intractable and bloody conflict – one that is a low priority for world powers.


    “The overarching concern is that UN peacekeeping would increasingly seem to have become the default response for conflicts of secondary concern to the permanent members of the Security Council,” said Petrie. “In a way, it’s a reflection of the rapid decline of multilateralism, which since 9/11 has been replaced by coalitions ‘of the willing’.”


    Indeed, while four of the council’s five permanent members – save China – are bombing Islamists in Syria or Iraq, in South Sudan, they instead authorise forces made up of troops primarily from poorer countries.


    South Sudan’s government initially rejected the regional intervention force. If it maintains that position, it’s unlikely the deployment will take place. Few can imagine the UN fighting its way into Juba.


    The closest relative to the proposed regional protection force is the force intervention brigade (FIB) which the UN deployed in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo to track down rebel groups. But in the DRC, the UN enjoyed the official support of the government.


    Williams, who has for years analysed the UN’s varied peacekeeping responses, says the regional force falls into a growing trend of deployments, including in Darfur and Burundi, where the host government refuses to cooperate. In Burundi, the government eventually only accepted a small police force, and the UN’s mission in Darfur has been one of its most scandal-plagued.


    “The protection force is not a real solution to the core problem,” said Williams. “Military force that is not part of a viable strategy to resolve the conflict and move towards stable peace can only mitigate the worst symptoms of South Sudan’s toxic elite politics.”


    Five years after South Sudan became independent, there is little to show for all that initial hope. Development indicators are in reverse, the humanitarian crisis is growing exponentially, and a corrupt political class has shown little enthusiasm to bridge the divides that took the country back into war.



    Should the UN surrender over peacekeeping?
    The failure of UNMISS in South Sudan is a blow for international peace
  • Food on the frontlines

    The people of the Nuba Mountains in South Kordofan State are accustomed to hardship. Receiving little outside aid, they have managed to farm and survive despite the challenges of a protracted civil war with the Sudanese government. But that could be about to change.

    Local residents say poor harvests and the Sudanese government’s targeting of key farming areas will mean severe hunger later this year and potential starvation next.

    For more than five years, the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLA-N) and the Sudanese army and associated militia have fought each other to a standstill in the border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. Neither side has attained a significant military advantage and both have been accused of abuses against civilians, although President Omar al-Bashir's forces are charged with the lion's share.

    In a June interview with state-run Radio Omdurman, the governor of South Kordofan State (who is loyal to President Omar al-Bashir), Major General Issa Adam Abakar, disputed the notion of a military deadlock and said the Sudanese army was closing in on victory.

    The fighting in South Kordofan generally takes place from November to June, before the region’s rainy season muddies all access points to the rebel strongholds in the Nuba Mountains, making many roads impassable.

    This year marked one of the government’s largest campaigns yet. Al-Bashir's Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) attacked the Nuba Mountains in late March with seven offensives. The SPLA-N repelled all of these attacks except in two areas – but the damage to farmlands and markets has brought dire consequences for civilians.

    See: Forgotten Conflicts: South Kordofan

    War of attrition

    Attacks by al-Bashir’s forces and his warplanes have routinely killed civilians for years. What has changed now is that they are accused of waging a systematic war of attrition designed to squeeze civilians out of rebel-held areas by destroying farmland and markets, and blocking planting by civilians during the rainy season.

    “This year, the Sudan government has used a new tactic of war – explicitly targeting food supplies,” said Osman Tola, executive director of the rebel agriculture ministry. “President Omar al-Bashir has tried through land offensives that have so far failed, so he is [now] trying to get people to move to [government] areas of control.”

    According to the head of one aid organisation (who wished to remain anonymous), one of only a handful operating in the Nuba Mountains, Sudanese forces spent an entire week in late March-early April destroying all the farmland and water points in an area called Karkaria, which acts as a fertile greenbelt and water-flow area for the region.

    “It’s done purposely,” said Ali Abdelrahman, director of the Nuba Mountains Relief, Rehabilitation and Development Organisation (NRRDO), a community-based support group. “To set fire to people’s homes, to drive away livestock – purposely to get them hungry. Once you get into that situation, you [either] die or join government-controlled territories whereby youth are recruited against their own people.”

    Repeated calls to a Sudanese army spokesman for comment on the questionable tactics being used in its campaign went unanswered.

    On 18 June, al-Bashir declared a four-month unilateral ceasefire between the government and rebels in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states; a largely moot gesture since the ceasefire aligns with the rainy season, when fighting naturally subsides. The declaration came too late in the planting season for staple crops, leaving a devastating food gap for next year.

    Normally, government troops retreat before the rainy season begins in earnest, fearing their supply lines and exit points will be cut off. But this year, their forces appear set to remain in key positions, displacing the residents indefinitely and preventing planting.

    This is because while the ceasefire curbed fighting, it also allowed SAF garrisons to entrench themselves in two of the Nuba Mountains’ most productive agricultural areas: Al Azarak in Heiban County and Mardes in Delami County. The rebels had surrounded the two garrisons, effectively blocking most supply lines to the two SAF enclaves ahead of the ceasefire, according to rebel spokesman Arnu Ngutulu and eyewitnesses. The ceasefire allowed SAF breathing room from these offences, Ngutulu told IRIN.

    Scorched earth: South Kordofan's war of attrition

    Nuba Reports/IRIN
    Civilians displaced from Azarak have lost their homes, and now they fear starvation

    The Sudan army’s ongoing presence in Al Azarak and Mardes blocks people from farming these vital areas. People who normally walk for hours from outside villages to farm the rich soil in Mardes, for instance, are now displaced primarily into the mountains of Tongoli, unable to plant in the high-yielding farmland.

    Haider Anur fled the constant barrage of shelling in Al Azarak. His wife and five children had no time to carry anything with them. Now living displaced, partly sheltered by rocky crags in Hajar Bako, a nearby village, he worries for the future.

    “Al Azarak is what is feeding Heiban County. It’s a large farming area and good grazing land,” Anur said. “Al Azarak is so important to us and for them [SAF] to be there… some people might die of hunger.”

    Mass displacement

    Government Antonov warplanes and Sukhoi fighter jets have also hit civilian areas, especially farmland, with 185 bombs dropped in May, according to the South Kordofan-Blue Nile Coordination Unit, an organisation that monitors food security and displacement in the two areas. Agriculturally-rich Heiban County alone had 62 bombs dropped on it in May, including one in Heiban town that killed six children.

    “As you can see, they mainly bomb civilian targets, just hitting indiscriminately,” said Mohamed Adam, whose home was destroyed in an Antonov attack on his village in June.

    Displaced from their farmland, many civilians find themselves trapped, hiding in caves from March to June: their survival dependent on winning an excruciating waiting game.

    Faiza Majar was displaced from Al Azarak, losing last year’s harvest, which she had relied upon to feed her five children, one of them a four-month-old infant.

    “I have no idea where we are going to farm, even where we can farm,” Majar told IRIN. “They [SAF] would bomb and shell us. It was so difficult to just get water.”

    South Kordofan 2.jpg

    Family shelters under rocks
    Nuba Reports/IRIN
    For some families, caves are the only shelter from warplanes

    In 2015, the rains didn’t start until July, roughly six weeks later than usual, causing poor harvests across all five of South Kordofan’s counties. According to the Famine Early Warning System, a US-funded food security monitoring body, cereal production from the 2015-2016 agricultural seasons is estimated to be 35 to 40 percent below the five-year average.

    Supply and demand

    Meanwhile, restricted access due to conflict areas and reduced supplies of commodities and currency is driving up market prices, further aggravating civilians’ hunger. Besides striking at farming areas, al-Bashir’s forces have also targeted frontline markets that act as lifelines to the Nuba areas, said Kukuande Karlo, field coordinator for the South Kordofan-Blue Nile Coordination Unit. In May, SAF launched ground offensives against two key black markets based in West Kadugli and Delami counties, he said. SAF-aligned militia also reportedly breached the ceasefire by attacking another farming and market area, Lima, on 11 July and 14 July.

    “Prices are going higher and higher every day,” trader Gasim Kuku told IRIN.

    Civilians in South Kordofan can’t rely on the South Sudanese pound, since it fluctuates wildly, and few have access to Khartoum’s more stable Sudanese pound.

    “Since you can’t get Khartoum money [Sudanese pounds], you buy goods via dollars, meaning you have to exchange the money, adding cost,” Kuku explained.

    Traders in the rebel-controlled capital Kauda say the rebel government attempted to control prices but this only led to them stopping sales since they couldn’t make a profit. The price of staples such as sorghum has doubled and may even triple in the months ahead. Traders are even beginning to stockpile the crop for fearing of running out of supplies altogether.    

    Deadly crisis

    The net result of all these factors is severe hunger during the ‘lean season’ through August this year, and, due to the conflict and ongoing planting restrictions, potentially worse to come in 2017.

    For some areas, the conflict has already brought a deadly food crisis. In February, the UN said 242 people, including 24 children, had died of hunger-related illness in eight villages over a six-month period in isolated Kau-Nyaro and Werni counties. The rebel-held region is trapped: a hostile South Sudanese militia in the south and the conflict in the north has left the population, estimated at 65,000, cut off from food supplies.

    Those who have managed to leave Kau-Nyaro have walked to the refugee camps in South Sudan in Yida and Ajuong Thok or to government areas in Abu Jubaiha County, said the mayor of Kau-Nyaro, Mohamed Nalteen. Some of those walked all the way with rocks tied to their feet as they lacked shoes to cope with the mixed, undulating terrain.

    “People’s reserves of grain are now finished,” the mayor told IRIN. Food rations ran out due to government aerial bombardments from April 2015, making it impossible for people to farm, he added.

    Karlo, field coordinator for the South Kordofan-Blue Nile Coordination Unit, said rebel-controlled areas in the northeast like Al Abbassiya and Rashad also remain isolated and people there are facing severe hunger too. Some people in Rashad have resorted to eating poisoned roots, in some cases not boiling the vegetation enough and dying from the consequences, he said.

    South Kordofan 3.jpg

    Family on mountain
    Nuba Reports/IRIN
    With food reserves used up and nowhere to farm, Al Azarak's civilians are waiting for help that may not come

    The danger now is that such high levels of food insecurity could spread to previously safe areas.

    “I’m so worried,” Benjamin Kuku, executive director of the New Sudan Council of Churches, a faith-based humanitarian organisation, told IRIN. “When 242 people die in eight villages alone, then it makes me worried. I don’t know where people are going to get food in the months ahead.”

    Aid agencies are reporting that children in Heiban County are already malnourished, but NRRDO’s Abdelrahman said the real worry is next year.

    “Host communities have already shared their food with those displaced, so no one will have anything left,” he told IRIN.

    Politics of access

    The issue of humanitarian access remains central to the seemingly unending peace talks. It was a key point of discussion during March peace talks, the eleventh such initiative, but neither side could agree on the route for such aid to take.

    Khartoum insisted on cross-line humanitarian assistance emanating from Sudanese territory while the rebels requested it through adjacent countries.

    “The same person dropping bombs on you, burning down your granaries, the same person shooting you – how can he be the same person giving you food?” Abdelrahman said.

    The debate is not new: in December, Sudanese and international organisations and personalities wrote a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and US President Barack Obama asking them to uphold international humanitarian law and ensure assistance is provided to the two conflict areas in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.

    “For obvious reasons, the people of the Two Areas [South Kordofan and Blue Nile] do not trust the government of Sudan, and many parts of the population may well refuse to accept assistance that emanates from government-controlled areas,” the letter reads.

    Many in rebel-held Kauda believe a more vocal, engaged international community is needed to break the humanitarian deadlock.

    “Look at the case of Darfur,” Karlo said. “It is because of the international presence and media coverage that triggered pressure against Khartoum and aid to the region. Why is the international community silent when it comes to us?”

    Self-reliant, the Nuba people are not waiting for an international response to solve their harvest challenges. Fearing attacks, more and more people are farming in the less arable but more secure mountainside areas using step irrigation as opposed to farming in the more lush valleys below.

    “This is how we survive,” said Hashim Abbas, a farmer in Lewere village. “It may not produce much [food] but at least we know that we can eat tomorrow.”


    Tom Rhodes is the Managing Editor for Nuba Reports

    (TOP PHOTO: SPLA–N soldiers patrol the front lines. Nuba Reports/IRIN)

    The Sudanese government’s war of attrition in South Kordofan
    Food on the frontlines
  • China’s dangerous double game in the Sudans

    Weapons manufactured by China and sold to Sudan have been funnelled to rebels in South Sudan, where two Chinese peacekeepers were recently killed.

    The London-based Conflict Armament Research group has told IRIN that in May it documented 1,300 boxes of ammunition captured by the government military, which is still referred to by its civil war-era name, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Government forces captured the ammunition from a rebel faction of the military known as the SPLA in Opposition, or SPLA-IO.

    The ammunition was discovered in northern Unity State, which borders Sudan, and the boxes had been painted to obscure shipping information that showed they originated in China, said Justine Fleischner, CAR’s South Sudan researcher.

    “Despite these efforts, CAR identified that the materiel was part of a 2014 consignment to Sudan's National Intelligence and Security Service,” she told IRIN. “The consignment date also suggests that the materiel was very quickly diverted to the SPLA-IO in Unity State, presumably by NISS."

    "China is still struggling to coordinate its policy between the different actors in the Sudans"

    The discovery highlights China’s complicated relationship with both countries, as a long time ally of Sudan as well as a supporter of newly independent South Sudan, where it has major investments in oil. The find also suggests recent – and potentially ongoing – support to rebels in South Sudan by Sudan, which would be particularly egregious as Khartoum has pledged troops to a proposed African Union peacekeeping force for its neighbour.

    “Sudan is playing every card in its hand to ensure it has influence in South Sudan,” said Luke Patey, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies and author of a book about Chinese and Indian oil investments in the countries.

    “China is still struggling to coordinate its policy between different actors in the Sudans,” he told IRIN.

    China’s Foreign Ministry in Beijing did not respond to questions about arms deals and its continued commitment to the peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, where it has 1,059 soldiers.

    Border wars

    South Sudan declared independence from Sudan in 2011 after fighting a decades-long civil war (the second, after an earlier 1955-1972 iteration), during which China sold weapons to the government and China National Petroleum Corp invested heavily in oil production. A disputed border drawn at independence put three quarters of the oil reserves in South Sudan, while most processing facilities and the pipelines to the coast remained in Sudan.

    China was then in the awkward position of having to work closely with both countries while border clashes erupted sporadically and Sudan continued to back anti-government militias in the south. That relationship became even messier when South Sudan descended into its own civil war.

    In December 2013, tensions within South Sudan's ruling party boiled over and it split into two factions, roughly along ethnic lines. President Salva Kiir, from the Dinka ethnic group, remains head of the government, while Riek Machar, who is Nuer and served as vice president, leads the breakaway SPLA-IO.

    A peace process brokered by the AU stumbled along as both sides committed atrocities against civilians, including rapes and mass murder. Kiir and Machar finally signed a peace agreement and Machar returned to the capital, Juba, but the short-lived deal broke down this month.

    Hundreds were killed when fighting erupted in Juba just weeks ago, including two Chinese peacekeepers who died when government forces shelled their position outside the UN mission in South Sudan.


    Eric Kanalstein/UNMISS
    Residents of Juba take shelter at a UN base as government and rebel forces clash on 8 July

    Machar fled back to the bush, and his own fractured party has nominated a new vice president who Kiir now says he recognises. Once again, the country teeters on the brink of all-out war.


    Back to the future

    The recent discovery of Chinese arms captured from Machar’s forces in oil-rich Unity State is only the latest example of China’s complicated weapons dealing in Sudan and South Sudan.

    Last June, CAR released a report documenting Chinese ammunition and rifles that had been airdropped to SPLA-IO forces in eastern Jonglei State. The ammunition was “identical to ammunition supplied by Khartoum to South Sudanese rebel forces in 2012”, the conflict arms monitoring group said.

    The Sudanese government in Khartoum was not only providing anti-Juba militias with Chinese weapons in 2012; Sudan also used Chinese rockets against South Sudan when the countries engaged in a brief border war. South Sudanese forces overran oil fields in the the disputed border region of Heglig and Sudan launched airstrikes in Unity State. 

    In 2014, China was selling arms to both countries, and it was the largest supplier to South Sudan that year, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

    Related: Would an arms embago on South Sudan work?

    After Chinese arms sales to South Sudan in the midst of the civil war were exposed, Beijing stopped shipments, abrogating the contract between Juba and its state-owned arms manufacturer, China North Industries Group Corp, or Norinco.

    CAR's documentation in May of Chinese arms supplied to Sudan, which apparently then provided them to the SPLA-IO, shows that China is still struggling to come up with a coherent policy in the region.

    "China appears unwilling to intervene too deeply in Sudan's affairs, and unwilling or unable to rein in Chinese arms dealers, such as Norinco,” said Patey.

    What now?

    China isn’t the only country attempting to negotiate its role in the region.

    “China is a close partner to Sudan, while the US has held economic sanctions over Sudan for two decades,” said Patey. “But in actuality both China and the US struggle to exert any control over Sudan or South Sudan’s behavior.”


    Beatrice Mategwa/UNMISS
    People displaced by fighting take shelter at a UN base in Juba on 11 July

    Likewise, African efforts to impose peace have so far been stymied.

    When war broke out in South Sudan, neighbouring Uganda provided military backing to the government, thus ensuring that the rebel SPLA-IO would never see it as an honest broker. With Sudan providing arms to the rebels, Juba’s long history of distrust has only deepened. Kiir has categorically rejected the proposal by the AU to send troops – potentially including Sudanese soldiers – to bolster the UN mission.

    It’s hard to see a way out of the morass that South Sudan has become, but Patey said one way forward would be for the AU and the UN to provide more support to civil society and political groups that are not involved in the fighting.

    “Over and over again only those carrying arms gain political respect from the international community,” he said. “It's a worrying signal to send.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Chinese soldiers at a UN peacekeeping mission base in Juba, South Sudan, in February 2016 – Annemieke Vanderploeg/UNMISS)


    China’s dangerous double game in the Sudans
    Arms deals and oil investments don't mix well with peacekeeping
  • How does South Sudan move forward?

    Although a ceasefire between rival forces in the South Sudanese capital, Juba, is largely holding, the underlying tensions that led to five days of deadly violence earlier this month remains unaddressed.

    So what happens next?

    Amid the many dire warnings that South Sudan is about to dissolve into civil war, a small comfort is that it hasn’t happened yet.

    The mass ethnic killing of civilians in Juba that occurred in December 2013, marking the start of two years of terrible conflict, has not taken place. Apart from some pockets of trouble, the violence has not spread, and “we have seen some restraint from the leaders”, said Casie Copeland of the International Crisis Group.

    There was 30 minutes of wild gunfire on 11 July when President Salva Kiir’s SPLA forces celebrated the defeat of rival Riek Machar’s soldiers in Juba. Deep animosity remains between the two camps, and there are believed to be those within the ruling circle urging Kiir to go ahead and finish the job.

    Although the military option “will always be on the table, the towel has not been thrown in yet on the peace agreement”, said Copeland.

    Rebuilding trust

    But resuming negotiations in the current climate of fear and rumour, with Machar in hiding and his ministers holed up in various hotels in the city, will require a Herculean effort of confidence-building.

    “Right now, I can’t imagine that these two men want to say anything to each other that’s even remotely constructive,” said a Juba-based analyst, who asked not to be named. The idea of joint patrols by soldiers of the SPLA and Machar’s SPLA-IO, as envisaged in the peace agreement, seems preposterous.

    “Right now, people need time to acclimatise,” said the analyst, unwilling to give his name after the arrest of veteran journalist Alfred Taban at the weekend by SPLA soldiers after calling for Kiir and Machar to resign. “There needs to be enough physical distance between the forces, otherwise they will tear into each other.”

    However imperfect, the power-sharing agreement negotiated in Addis Ababa is the only framework there is for peace.

    After the death of more than 270 people and the displacement of 36,000 by the fighting, what is sorely lacking now is trust.

    UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called on the Security Council to approve more troops to the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to better protect civilians. At the current time, the much-derided 12,000-strong peacekeeping force can only conduct “limited patrolling”.

    Intervention brigade?

    The regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development has called for an “urgent revision” of the UNMISS mandate to establish a more robust “intervention brigade”, manned by additional troops from the region.  In a communiqué on Saturday, the eight-nation group called for the force to “separate the warring parties, protect major installations, the civilian population and pacification of Juba”.

    But if the deployment is part of UNMISS and paid for by the UN, then getting those additional boots on the ground could take between six to seven months.

    “IGAD has called for the UN to build an intervention brigade, but it’s not going to happen any time soon,” said Malte Brosig, a peacekeeping specialist at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand. “The UN is extremely reluctant to take on something like this.”

    The more immediate concern is that Kiir has warned he will not accept any additional foreign soldiers. That has not stopped Uganda sending in its soldiers to rescue its nationals, but the touchy issue of sovereignty may well resonate for some Security Council members, including Russia and China.

    Regional support

    Members of an intervention force, likely made up of troops from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda, are not going to be expected “to fight their way in”, said Cedric de Coning of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. It will have to be part of a peace process in which both Kiir and Machar “stand down their forces in a demilitarised Juba”, he explained.

    Achieving that goal “will be the [diplomatic] dance”, said Copeland. She sees the first step as possibly being regional troops guaranteeing Machar’s protection, alongside talks on a broader military intervention.

    UNMISS has little credibility in South Sudan, but the country’s neighbours have influence. IGAD’s heads of state (with help from some key Western governments) have invested hugely in the peace process and are determined to see it work. “Stabilising South Sudan stabilises their own [national] interests in the country,” said one analyst.

    Political dynamics

    Much has been written about the apparent fragmentation of power in South Sudan. On Kiir’s side, the figure of hardline Chief of General Staff Paul Malong Awan looms large, as does the alleged influence of the Council of Dinka Elders.

    Machar, on the other hand, is believed to have lost the support of commanders in his SPLA-IO movement long before the peace deal was signed. “This is not a two-man show, but a very complex landscape now,” said the Juba-based analyst. Central control has never been strong in South Sudan, but its bankrupt economy and the current political and military instability are making it a good deal weaker.

    But Copeland believes there are moderate voices on both sides that could help steer the process. She argues that the mistake IGAD made was to lose sight of the implementation of the agreement, particularly over issues such as demilitarisation, cantonment areas, and tensions around the boundaries of new states decreed by Kiir.

    International levers?

    The traditional response from the international community when confronted by truculent parties to a peace deal is to threaten sanctions. Western governments waived that stick during the sticky stages of the talks in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia, the leader of the IGAD process threatened, perhaps apocryphally, to lock both leaders in their hotel to get an agreement.

    But neither approach delivered a sustainable peace - it was the traditional carve-up of power by those that had taken the country to war. It also unhelpfully created the expectation in Juba that a government of national unity would be rewarded with a flood of Western aid and financial support – which failed to materialise. The donors were waiting for progress on a list of their demands.

    “It’s now unhelpful at this stage to talk about sanctions,” said Rashid Abdi, also with the ICG. Underlining that sentiment, the region has already turned its back on Ban’s idea of an arms embargo.

    “An arms embargo would also destroy the local force on which a strong, integrated national army should be built,” Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni reasoned, rather strangely, in a tweet.

    “There is no other acceptable alternative to talking,” said Abdi. “But we don’t have to start at Ground Zero. We have a framework. We just need to resolve the issues around cantonment, integration, and power-sharing that led to the violence.”


    Lead photo: South Sudan President Salva Kiir (in hat) with Vice President Riek Machar (left) and Vice President James Wani Igga at a press conferenceas fighting broke out on 8 July. By Samir Bol

    How does South Sudan move forward?
  • Forgotten Conflicts: Blue Nile

    World Refugee Week highlights the big conflicts around the world that force millions of people from their homes. But in the southeastern corner of Sudan a little-known struggle has succeeded in depopulating an entire region.

    Blue Nile – Sudan’s Forgotten Front is an exclusive in-depth IRIN report from inside rebel-held territory. A small team of filmmakers and writers spent two weeks touring the region documenting the humanitarian tragedy – from the terror of being bombed from the sky, to a slower death from hunger and disease.

    • EXCLUSIVE look inside Sudan’s forgotten Blue Nile conflict
    • INTERACTIVE with videos, maps, timeline, and explainers
    • INTERVIEWS with rebel military and political leaders
    • REVEALED: how repurposed Janjaweed militia have opened up a new front
    • REVEALED: how gold and gum arabic fuel the cycle of conflict

    Blue Nile sits on the southern frontier of Sudan, where war has raged for more than 60 years. The fight is a continuation of the struggle that birthed the world's newest nation, an independent South Sudan, in 2011. It’s also a humanitarian crisis that has been compounded by the evacuation of all international aid organisations.

    This interactive multimedia package draws on rare interviews with military and political leaders of the rebellion, and those caught up in the violence who are just trying to survive. It reveals how the notorious Janjaweed militia are being redeployed to Blue Nile as a paramilitary wing of the regular army. It also explores the spluttering peace process, which is denying people desperately needed food aid; and explains how the economic lifeline of locally mined gold and gum arabic is smuggled north, to profit a government trying to crush the rebellion.
    The package includes maps, timelines, and unique film footage from inside a rebel training camp.
    Blue Nile holds great promise. It sits on a literal gold mine and the land is the most fertile in the country. But a lifetime of war has bought nothing but suffering. There is not yet a path to peace – all attempts have fizzled. This multimedia project draws urgent attention to the humanitarian cost of a forgotten conflict.

    See the feature



    Back to Forgotten Conflicts
    Sudan's forgotten front
    Forgotten Conflicts: Blue Nile
  • South Sudan hit by mysterious Ebola-like illness

    South Sudan has been reeling from civil war, widespread hunger, and desperate poverty. The last thing the world’s newest nation needs is a deadly mystery disease. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what it’s got.
    At least 10 people have died so far from the disease, which has symptoms that include bleeding, fever and vomiting. These effects are similar to Ebola, but tests show that it’s not, leaving medical workers perplexed.
    “The lab results are not consistent with the symptoms, and that is what is concerning,” Dr. Rohit Chitale, an epidemiologist with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told IRIN in a phone interview.
    So far the risk of an epidemic seems low. The disease hasn’t come anywhere near the levels of the Ebola epidemic that appeared in 2014 and tore through the West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
    Since late December, South Sudan has had 51 reported cases of what the World Health Organization is referring to as “undiagnosed haemorrhagic fever syndrome”. All cases are from two counties in the northwest: Aweil North, where 45 people were infected and 10 died; and Aweil West, where there have been six cases, none fatal.
    The region borders Darfur in Sudan, where 469 cases of undiagnosed haemorrhagic fever syndrome were reported between August and November 2015, and 129 people died, according to the WHO.
    “Because of frequent population cross-border movement between Sudan and South Sudan, the risk of international spread of the disease cannot be ruled out,” the WHO said in a statement.
    Searching for answers
    So far, 33 blood samples have been shipped from South Sudan to WHO laboratories in Uganda, Senegal, and South Africa. Five turned up positive for onyong-nyong, three for chikungunya, and one for dengue. Those mosquito-borne viruses, however, do not explain the 10 deaths. All samples tested negative for Ebola and Zika.
    “Further laboratory testing is ongoing that may confirm the causative agent,” said the WHO.
    The new disease may not even result from a virus at all. The WHO said “ecological risk factors” in the region suggest that it could be carried by mosquitos, ticks or fleas. But researchers are also conducting tests to determine if it could be transmitted through food or water contaminated by bacteria, parasites or viruses.
    “Currently, there is no evidence of person-to-person transmission of the disease,” the organisation said.
    Young people appear to be most at risk, with 74.5 percent of the victims below 20 years of age.
    “Based on the data so far, it may be something that children and women are exposing themselves to,” said Chitale, from the CDC.
    Research barriers
    He said that violent conflict and underdevelopment are hampering efforts to solve the mystery of what’s causing the disease in Aweil, which may be the same as the one that cropped up in Darfur last year.
    “There are a whole host of challenges in uncovering the cause of this outbreak,” he said. “For example, the regional instability, the poor infrastructure, and therefore just a lack of easy access.
    South Sudan’s severely underfunded health system also hampers efforts to identify and control the disease. The health ministry has taken the lead role in the response, but it has not been given a budget to do so. 
    The government’s expenditure on health accounted for only four percent of GDP in 2013, the eighth lowest rate in the world, according to the World Bank. The 2016 national budget allocated more than 10 times the amount of funding to its military than it did to the health sector.
    After almost half a century of war, South Sudan split from Sudan in 2011, but clashes continued to erupt along the newly-drawn border as well as between tribal and militia groups. In 2014, South Sudan’s military split along tribal lines and civil war erupted. The conflict choked off oil production, virtually the only source of revenue, further impoverishing the country.
    Still, health ministry officials say they are trying their best with the resources they have.
    “Since December, we have put in place some safety measures,” said Dr. John Rumunu, director general for preventive health services at the health ministry in the capital, Juba.
    The building is almost always lacking electricity since the ministry cannot afford to run generators and city power is rare.
    “We have been communicating the risk, and we are asking people to come for whomever has these kinds of symptoms,” he said in an interview in his dimly lit office.
    (PHOTO: A patient gets treated at a hospital run by Médecins Sans Frontières​ in the South Sudan town of Malakal. Anna Surinyach/MSF)
    South Sudan hit by mysterious Ebola-like illness
  • Sudanese refugees in Chad must adapt or starve

    The Darfur conflict fell out of the headlines years ago, but more than 300,000 Sudanese are still living as refugees in neighbouring Chad, a country with its own problems of poverty, climate change, and insecurity. As humanitarian aid has dried up, how are they surviving in this harsh, arid setting?


    At first sight, nothing distinguishes Djabal refugee camp from surrounding towns and villages, except perhaps the billboards along the main road promoting various international aid organisations. This sprawling settlement of huts near the town of Goz Beida in eastern Chad’s Sila Region is home to some 20,000 Sudanese who fled war-ravaged West Darfur in the early 2000s.


    The camp’s marketplace is as busy and colourful as any local market. Vegetable stalls offer tomatoes, carrots and onions, and butchers slice and hack at pieces of fresh meat displayed on wooden table tops.  Across the street, barbers attend to their customers in a makeshift shop, and a teenager behind a laptop offers to download pirated songs. He also sells petrol in plastic bottles, cigarettes, mobile phone credits, and can recharge a mobile phone battery for a modest fee.


    Mahamat Adamou
    A makeshift barber shop at Djabal Camp's marketplace

    However, beneath this veneer of normalcy is a protracted displacement crisis that the humanitarian aid system seems to have forgotten about as it deals with more pressing emergencies.


    The refugees of Djabal represent just a fraction of the 304,650 Darfur refugees living in eastern Chad (in the south, the country hosts another 74,000 refugees from Central African Republic and Nigeria). Sila Region alone hosts 62,000 refugees, in three camps – Djabal, Goz Amir, and Kirfi – that have been running for more than a decade.


    Jenada Boldadet, a local prefect dressed in a traditional white robe, said the camps are putting a huge strain on this poor, sparsely populated region. He gave IRIN an avalanche of figures and statistics to explain the impact the refugees have had. For example, he said Goz Beida’s water supply system, designed to cater for 7,000 people in the regional capital, has struggled to cope with the additional demand.


    Hard choices


    The aid agencies providing for most of the refugees’ basic needs over the past 12 years have challenges of their own. With dwindling funding available from donors preoccupied by newer emergencies, they have had to take tough decisions.


    By the end of April, UN refugee agency (UNHCR) operations in Chad were only 16 percent-funded for the year. Lack of funds has forced the World Food Programme to cut monthly food rations by as much as 60 percent since 2014. Food is now distributed based on four categories of need, ranging from the very needy to the relatively well-off. The very poor receive 70 percent of the previous full ration of 2,100 calories a day, while the less needy receive only 40 percent of a full ration. More cuts to these already meagre rations may be on the way.


    Mary-Ellen McGroarty, WFP’s country director for Chad, told IRIN that the agency was in urgent need of $17 million for its refugee assistance programmes in the country. “WFP needs to pre-position large quantities of food stocks for the refugees in advance of the rainy season as many of the refugee camps become inaccessible for trucks from June onwards,” she said. “WFP faces significant funding shortfalls to complete this exercise.”


    With little prospect of refugees being able to return to Sudan anytime soon and funding drying up, UNHCR and its partners have little choice but to push the refugees towards being largely self-reliant.


    “The way UNHCR and partners have been delivering assistance has entrenched a dependency mentality that we need to work on now if we’re going to give them the capacity to fend for themselves and be self-sustaining,” the UN agency’s representative in Chad, Antonio Canhandula, told IRIN.


    He added that the task was not made easier by the region’s arid environment and the struggles that even local people face in finding livelihoods.


    Adapting to survive


    Last July, Refugees International released a report that was highly critical of the aid system’s lack of support for Sudanese refugees in Chad to move towards self-sufficiency and local integration.


    “It is unrealistic to expect refugees to become self-sufficient in a place where livelihood opportunities are hard to find, government services are limited, cost of living is high, host community tensions are increasing, and most crucially, little development funding exists,” wrote the authors.


    A year later, there is evidence that some of the refugees, eager to improve their living conditions, are making their own way. Those with personal contacts in nearby villages have persuaded traditional chiefs to grant them land to cultivate. The village of Koutoufou for example, offered some refugees from Djabal parcels of arable land for farming.


    Starting in 2014, refugees and villagers organised themselves into a farming association, or “groupement”, which receives funding from UNHCR in partnership with the Lutheran World Federation. LWF provides agriculture kits – seeds, farming tools, water pumping generators and fences – as well as technical assistance. The project is boosting the income of the villagers and helping refugees integrate into the local community.


    Koutoufou, which had just 60 inhabitants before, has seen its population more than double with the arrival of the refugees. “We are much better today,” said Mahamat Zene Youssouf, a villager whose annual income has soared since joining the association, from around 15,000 CFA francs ($26) to about 75,000 ($130).


    Thinking long-term


    Sidikh Djimet Idriss, 25, who arrived at Djabal camp when he was just 13, joined the association two years ago. Since then, he has married and had a child. He told IRIN he worries less about his own future than about how he’ll ensure his child gets the education he didn’t. His hope is to attend a vocational training school like the one set up by LWF in Djabal.


    Mahamat Adamou
    Sidikh Djimet Idriss, 25, joined a farming association in a village near refugee camp two years ago and can now support his wife and child

    In operation since 2006, the centre has trained around 2,000 refugees and local Chadians in trades ranging from construction, carpentry, soldering, mechanics and electricity, to agriculture. The course initially lasted nine months but has had to be reduced to six due to funding shortages, explained Khamis Barka, head of the training centre.


    But such initiatives are only benefitting a minority of the refugees. Others compete for occasional casual work in Goz Beida and surrounding villages. Job opportunities are few and far between in this drought-prone region, where many of the local Chadians are themselves in need of food assistance.


    Abdallah Djouma, 58, lives at Djabal camp with his wife and four children. He earns a few dollars a day reselling goods he buys from traders at local markets. He also farms a small plot of land. “Last year was bad,” he told IRIN. “We didn’t have sufficient rain.”


    “I am not an idle man,” he added. “I always manage to get extra revenue to take care of our basic needs.”


    Without that extra income, the family would not survive. “The reduced rations are far from sufficient to cover our everyday needs,” he said.


    The reality is that aid agencies like UNHCR cannot provide for the refugees’ needs in the long term. “People see us as a development body, but we are just an emergency aid agency,” commented Peggy Pentshi-a-Maneng, head of UNHCR operations in Goz Beida. 


    After 12 years, the Darfur refugees can no longer be considered as an emergency case, said Canhandula, the UNHCR country head, adding that they should be seen as part of the broader development challenges facing their host country. “I think more attention needs to be paid… to what 400,000 refugees represent to the government of Chad, because it’s a country that’s quite poor, where the standards of living, health, water, and education are very low.


    “There should be solidarity with the government of Chad.” 



    Sudanese refugees in Chad must adapt or starve
    How the needs of more than 300,000 Darfuris are neglected by the aid system

Support our work

Donate now