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Ethiopia: WFP, UNHCR Chiefs Shine Spotlight On Plight Of South Sudanese Refugees

With conflict continuing in South Sudan, WFP's Executive Director Ertharin Cousin and UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres are calling on the international community to step up their humanitarian response. The two UN agency heads spoke with refugees, government officials and humanitarian workers during a visit last week to Ethiopia, which is registering one of the highest numbers of South Sudanese refugees.

KULE REFUGEE CAMP, Ethiopia - Nhial Gatluak was playing football with his friends when the shooting started in South Sudan's capital of Juba. The boys scattered. But when he reached home, Nhial found his family had already fled.

So began the 13-year-old's long trek to safety, across the border in Ethiopia.

"I saw people killed," recalled Nhial, now at Kule refugee camp in the western Gambella region.

Numbers are one way to sum up a conflict that is tearing apart the world's newest country and fuelling a humanitarian crisis. More than one million people have been uprooted from their homes, the majority displaced within South Sudan. Of that total, roughly 255,000 have fled to neighbouring Uganda, Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia.


A race against time

"This is a political crisis that is now evolving into a humanitarian catastrophe," said WFP's Executive Director Ertharin Cousin, who toured Kule camp and the nearby Pagak border crossing last week with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres.

"We must work together and redouble our efforts to ensure that people receive nutritious food, clean water and other basic services on both sides of the border," said Cousin, as the two UN chiefs made a joint appeal for international funds during their three-day visit to South Sudan and Ethiopia

With an estimated 90,000 South Sudanese having crossed the border since mid-December, Ethiopia is registering one of the highest refugee influxes. Most arrive here hungry and exhausted. The most vulnerable, especially young children, have soaring malnutrition rates.

At camps and border points like Pagak, WFP is distributing High Energy Biscuits and rations of sorghum or wheat, pulses, vegetable oil, sugar and salt. The most malnourished -- young children, pregnant women and nursing mothers -- receive fortified food supplements.

But with up to 1,000 South Sudanese now arriving here daily, the Ethiopian government and the humanitarian community are scrambling to meet their needs.


Appeal for further funds

"Our challenge here is funding," Cousin said at Pagak. "We don't have enough resources to support the response that is required."

An inter-agency appeal led by UNHCR is calling for more than US$ 370 million to fund the refugee response in Ethiopia, Kenya, Republic of Sudan and Uganda. Inside South Sudan, WFP is facing a funding shortfall of US$ 224 million over the next six months, while humanitarian partners require a further US$ 42 million for shelter and other non-food items.

This month, WFP launched a major cross-border operation from Ethiopia to deliver 15,000 metric tons of food by air, river and boat to hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese in remote areas.

 "We know we must continue to increase the food we're providing at the South Sudan side of the border," Cousin said, "so people don't feel they need to leave the country in order to feed their children."

Nhial standing with other children who have lost their parentsMany other refugee children arrive here alone. Nhial, a slender boy sporting a T-shirt and ragged green flip flops, is one of them. He describes a two-week journey by foot and boat to reach the Ethiopian border crossing of Akobo Tergol. From Akobo, Nhial was transferred to Kule camp.

After eating mostly wild dates along the way, Nhial is finally getting the food he needs at Kule. And, he says, "I feel safe here."

He describes a life in Juba that now seems very far away. At school, his favourite subject is geography.  He wants to become an engineer when he grows up.

And although the fighting continues across the border, he believes peace will eventually return to his homeland.