Tens of thousands of people are displaced and hundreds of people are dead after nearly a week of heavy gunfire in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, marking the fifth anniversary of the country’s independence from Sudan last week.
As many as 15,000 people have already sought shelter in churches, while 7,000 people are sheltered inside the country in United Nations-run bases, but these places may be unsafe if a fragile ceasefire breaks. With few South Sudanese refugees making the long journey to Europe, neighboring countries are shouldering the burden.
Here’s how South Sudan may soon experience an exodus of refugees:
Why South Sudan is so fragile right now
Since its birth, the youngest country in the world has been steeped in violence. After South Sudan broke away from Sudan in a referendum vote in 2011, the country descended into civil war when South Sudanese President Salva Kiir accused his then-deputy, now-Vice President, Riek Machar of trying to take over the country.
The country fell into chaos as Dinka supporters of Kiir and Nuer supporters of Machar clashed, leaving thousands dead. Kiir and Machar signed a peace deal last year to end a 20-month civil war and called for a two-year transitional government made up of both groups. Machar also joined the government as Vice President.
The latest deadly conflict began last Thursday when Kiir’s forces had a skirmish with Machar’s bodyguards at a roadblock, which spiraled into heavy fighting. Five government soldiers were killed as the two leaders held a joint conference inside the presidential compound marking the country’s anniversary. Very soon after, tanks, artillery, and helicopter gunships were deployed. So far, nearly 300 people have been killed.
The intense fighting came to a tense ceasefire on Tuesday, though there are fears that the country may return to civil war.
“It has been relatively calm after the ceasefire was declared. But people don’t know how long this ceasefire will hold. And they prefer to sleep at U.N. compounds in case of attacks,” Al Jazeera’s Haru Mutasa, reporting from Wau in the northwest of Juba, said.
Why South Sudanese residents can’t stay
Safe spaces, like the United Nations-run bases and a World Food Programme compound, are no longer safe. The maternity ward at an International Medical Corps-run hospital inside the Protection of Civilian site — a protected site run by the United Nations — was shelled. Supplies are also low, with water tankers being unable to bring water for the people in shelter.
One protected site is located in a district heavily controlled by fighters loyal to Machar, The Guardian reported. And 67 injuries and eight deaths were reported in the U.N. base on Sunday. These deaths include at least two civilians caught in the crossfire inside the U.N. camp, two Chinese peacekeepers, and a U.N. national staff member. And the morgue at the Juba Teaching Hospital is full.
Where South Sudanese people are fleeing
Security at the Uganda-South Sudan border was tightened after the latest battle between opposing army forces, with some refugees vulnerable to attacks at the border.
“Just 95 people crossed on Saturday, dropping to 36 on Sunday, compared with a daily average of 167 for July and 171 for June,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Leo Dobbs said, according to Al Jazeera. “Those that have managed to cross have reported indiscriminate attacks against civilians, with buses from Juba to the Uganda border being stopped and robbed.”
But even before Thursday’s fighting began — which displaced 36,000 people within South Sudan — an equal number of people had previously sought shelter at a Protection of Civilian location.
More than 871,000 South Sudanese refugees have already left the country since before 2013. About two-thirds of those refugees have fled to the neighbouring countries of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Uganda as of June, according to a United Nations agency report. In just this year alone, nearly 70,000 South Sudanese refugees have fled to neighbouring Sudan to the north, surpassing Ethiopia in the total number of arrivals since December 2013.
What issues plague South Sudan
About 2.8 million — or 25 percent — South Sudanese residents are classified as urgent cases for food and nutrition insecurity. And at least 40,000 people are “on the brink of catastrophe.” The number of children treated for severe acute malnutrition (SAM) last year was roughly 144,000.
An International Monetary Fund (IMF) report — which recommended that the government raise non-oil revenue and cut expenditures — pointed to an economic crisis that has led the country to experience a sharp decline in national income and high inflation verging on 300 percent. The value of the South Sudanese pound has also sharply dropped by 90 percent since December 2015. The country’s deficit in this coming year could close in on $1.1 billion. That report emphasized that a peace agreement must be met so that the country could achieve long-term development.
But South Sudan is also a host country for 260,000 refugees, mostly people from Sudan, with 3,600 people having arrived in the month of June.
How the international community is reacting to South Sudan’s recent fighting
Since fighting broke out, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the U.N. Security Council to impose an arms embargo and enact sanctions on leaders to block implementation of the peace deal.
“This is the time to massively reinforce UN action. When a Government cannot or will not protect its people, and when warring parties seem more intent on enriching and empowering themselves at the expense of their people, the international community has a responsibility to act,” the Secretary General told reporters at U.N. Headquarters in New York on Monday.
Other countries are responding by pulling out aid workers and citizens. Germany’s air force was in the process of evacuating its own citizens as well as other European nationals.
The U.S. Department of State also announced an “ordered departure” for all non-essential embassy personnel in the country earlier this week, with flights leaving as early as Wednesday. A group of 40 U.S. soldiers were also flown in to protect the embassy.
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