UN World Food Programme

Fleeing Homes, South Sudanese Find Refuge And Food In Ethiopia

South Sudanese children lining up for registration as refugees at Pagak entry point in Ethiopia. WFP is distributing special nutritional supplements at border points and camps to counter alarmingly high malnutrition rates, especially among vulnerable women and children.  Copyright: WFP/Lisa Bryant

Tens of thousands of refugees from South Sudan are pouring into Ethiopia, fleeing the fighting in their homeland. By the end of the year, officials say Ethiopia could be hosting some 150,000 South Sudanese refugees. WFP is distributing food rations to refugees in camps and border crossings, along with special, nutrient-packed foods for the most vulnerable. But the sheer numbers of new arrivals are straining the resources of the humanitarian community.

KULE REFUGEE CAMP, Ethiopia - Nyanhial Moun, 18, squats next to a bag of US-donated sorghum, a fleeting smile on her worried face. She will share the grain, along with the vegetable oil, pulses, salt and sugar that WFP has also distributed today, with two other women.  Their shared hardships of loss and hunger under a searing sun has produced a strong desire to help each other.

Like many of the tens of thousands of South Sudanese refugees who have poured into western Ethiopia in recent weeks, Moun fled the fighting that erupted in her country in mid-December. It took two weeks walking through the bush before she crossed a muddy creek into Ethiopia at the entry point of Pagak. From there, she was transferred to this refugee camp.

"I don't know where I am," says Moun, who hails from Malakal, the capital of South Sudan's Upper Nile state. "I just arrived here. My family is scattered."

Variations of Moun's story are recounted by many of these refugees at Kule. Most are women and children who arrive here exhausted and famished, having eating little more than leaves, wild fruit and handouts from fellow countrymen along the way.

Children at risk

"I came here to eat," says Nyaluak Chol, 31, as she cradles her listless toddler. Chol reached Ethiopia with three children after a 270-kilometre trek from her home in Upper Nile state. Two other children and her husband are unaccounted for.  "We're staying until things get better," she says.

The influx of new arrivals is straining the capacities of humanitarian agencies and the Ethiopian government. Some of the weakest and youngest children have died of a lethal mix of malnutrition, measles, malaria and respiratory infections.

"Children are arriving in the camps in a very worrying condition, and there are alarmingly high levels of malnutrition," says WFP's acting Country Director Purnima Kashyap, who visited the region this past week as part of a humanitarian delegation who came to assess the situation.

 WFP has been distributing food rations at the refugee camps and some border points since the crisis erupted in December. The new arrivals also receive high-energy biscuits, and the most fragile - children under 5, pregnant women and nursing mothers - receive special, nutrient-packed food supplements.

"I would say the situation has improved since WFP began the supplementary feeding programme," Kashyap adds. "But the dramatic increase of people seeking refuge in Ethiopia is having an impact on the resources we have. We will need more resources very rapidly over the coming months."

More to come

At the nearby border crossing of Pagak, thousands more South Sudanese wait to be bussed to Kule camp.  Another camp, Leitchor, with a capacity to host 20,000 refugees, is bursting at the seams. Today, more than 30,000 South Sudanese are living there, and officials are scrambling to expand it.

"These people are coming here because they have problems. They are our brothers and sisters," says Ayalew Awoke, deputy head of Ethiopia's Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA).

Unless peace takes hold in South Sudan, these asylum seekers may keep pouring in. Today, humanitarian officials predict the number of South Sudanese seeking shelter in Ethiopia may double - or more - by the year's end.

The food is a lifeline for now. But very soon, the rains will arrive, turning roads into muddy tracks that will hamper delivery of humanitarian assistance.

And for many of these South Sudanese, who celebrated their country's independence just three years ago, it's hard to look ahead.

"The 21-year-old conflict destroyed everything," says 33-year-old Gatuoth Bithow, who worked for the government's disarmament commission before fleeing to Ethiopia. "Now, people are dying of malaria and other sicknesses. We need help - as soon as possible."