“We prefer when it rains during the day,” Napita tells us. She is 36 and recently fled the fighting in Khartoum with her family back to her old home, South Sudan. “It’s dark at night and we can’t see the poisonous snakes around us, which the rain lures out of their hiding places,” she explains further. Napita and her family are among the thousands of returnees from Sudan who crossed the border and are now without shelter, waiting in one of the camps that have sprung up in the border region to be transported by aid agencies to their destination. Most of them have relatives in South Sudan and will seek refuge with their families for the time being. However, due to the very long distances and the poor infrastructure in the country, it is almost impossible for anyone to reach them on their own. They are too exhausted from the cruel experiences in Khartoum, from the journey across the border, and from the difficult living situation in the camps.
The people and the humanitarian community in South Sudan are facing an enormous feat with this new crisis. Financial reserves for such an emergency do not exist. Decreased funding and increasing humanitarian needs in South Sudan due to flooding, hunger, disease outbreaks and inter-communal conflicts already pushed aid organizations to the limits of their capacity before this new crisis. And now, around 1,700 more people in need are returning daily to their old homeland, where 76 % of the population is already dependent on humanitarian aid.
“Most important for us is trying to make sure that the people are not stuck too long in the border area in order to have the best possible transportation and the best possible journey to their areas of arrival”, claims Christophe Reltien, Head of Office of the European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) in South Sudan.
In this, he shares the opinion of most people in the camps, who are eagerly waiting to be taken to their families as soon as possible.
“I don’t want to stay here in the camp,” Napita complains. “If a van were to come today and take me, I would be ready in a heartbeat. There is nothing here worth waiting for.”
While the humanitarian community continues to work to streamline and speed up transportation for people, immediately following immigration to South Sudan, challenges already exist for returnees on the ground in the camps that require urgent assistance. Responding to these immediate needs of the people is the ERRM Consortium, an alliance of the four international aid organizations Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), Danish Refugee Council (DRC), Medair and Solidarités International (SI), in collaboration with other local partner organizations – co-funded by the European Union. ERRM stands for “Emergency Rapid Response Mechanism” and sums up the consortium’s own mission: to provide rapid joint assistance where it is most urgently needed in an emergency. The complex situation in the border region brings out the strengths of the consortium. None of the partner organizations would be able on their own to respond to the needs of the people in such a versatile and comprehensive way as can be practiced by the joint effort and the focus on the individual specialties in the group.
„The advantage of the consortium is that we are able to tackle the different needs together and can combine our resources in a comprehensive and more holistically approach. Together, we have a great pool of skilled specialists in the different aid sectors like protection, water and sanitation, health etc. The idea of the consortium turned out to be brilliant and should be strengthened to serve even more people with our combination of resources.“
Project Coordinator Leju Diringi leads the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) team’s outreach around the Transit Center on the main road on the outskirts of Renk, where he sees the benefits of consortium collaboration for himself. Together with colleagues from the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), his team provides protection services to the arrivals there. NRC offers legal protection which includes replacing lost and damaged civil documents, critical to access services and essential rights in the areas of displacement and upon arrival to other destinations in South Sudan. Returnees from Sudan can apply for assistance at the organizations’ service point. Mustafa fled Khartoum with his family in search of a safer environment before the fighting and arrived at the transit center without money or valuables. He found support at NRC’s office there.
“When the fighting started it happened all out of sudden. We fled and came with almost nothing. I heard there were NGOs in South Sudan providing safety and security, so we came here. In the camp, I saw you helping people. We had no money for food. And my daughter suffers from a skin disease and needs medication. You provided us with support for this with cash assistance. We thank all your staff here for your support in this complicated situation.”
Solidarités International (SI) is dedicated to another important task at the same Transit Center: water and sanitation. Providing adequate and dignified sanitation facilities for a large and daily changing mass of people in transit is no easy task in such a setting. “Convincing people at the transit center not to practice open defecation and to use the sanitation facilities provided is an important first step and requires a lot of education,” reports Elias Edema, SI’s project coordinator.
Salma arrived with her family three days ago at the Transit Center when we meet her there and talk to her. She wants to get to the South Sudanese capital Juba and is waiting for a possibility of transportation for her and her family. She knows how important SI’s sanitation work is and tells us:
„I see a lot of children defecate openly here. The work of SI is good. We see you all the time working and cleaning the place and taking away all the rubbish. You prevent our children from getting diseases and keep the place clean.”
Many of the returnees find the walk to the latrines too tedious, especially at night. They therefore prefer to defecate close to where they sleep. This in turn increases the risk of disease outbreaks and contamination of the transit center and the surrounding area.
SI counteracts this daily with Mobile Sanitation Teams. While some of the teams do clean-up work, others clean the surrounding area of excrement and garbage and clean the sanitary facilities. Every day, a large truck arrives in the morning, which the teams load with garbage from the transit center, which can then be disposed of safely.
Just across the border from Sudan in Wunthou village, Medair’s Emergency Response Team is supporting resettled returnees and the host community with a water purification system, providing clean and safe drinking water for the greatly increased number of households. With this so-called SWAT system, water from the Nile River is treated into safe drinking water and is available to the community in sufficient quantities.
Mother Juru lives with her family in Wunthou and is happy to have clean drinking water that is sufficient for both her village community and the returnees the village now hosts. She shares:
“Before the SWAT system was installed, we drank water directly from the river. The water is cleaner now for me to drink. I know that it is safe now. The water is good. When people drink dirty water, it will cause diseases. I know it can cause diarrhea and infections. For me this water is better than the water from the river. This water in the river has many dirty things inside. You can even see the dirt inside.”
The high number of returnees also puts a strain on the healthcare system. The facilities are working to capacity. There is a shortage of medicines to care for the people. To ease the burden on health facilities, Medair is on the ground with a health team that uses the Integrated Community Case Management method (ICCM) to train and equip local health workers with medicines in various village communities around Renk. This allows the helpers to self-treat their neighbors at a designated location in the village for the most common diseases, such as malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhea. This strengthens local capacity and brings health services close to people who cannot afford medical care or have a significantly longer journey to the nearest health facilities.
While the spirit of the ERRM consortium is to respond to immediate needs of vulnerable communities in acute emergencies, the situation in Renk on the border with Sudan will remain a major task for the entire humanitarian community in the upcoming months. Consortium members will integrate relief services in Renk into other projects of their own or hand them over to partner organizations. In this way, the aid structures that have been established can be sustained while the ERRM consortium, with financial support from the European Union, responds to one of the many new emergencies in other underserved and needy places in the country.
About the ERRM Consortium:
Co-funded by the European Union, the Emergency Rapid Response Mechanism (ERRM) Consortium is a collaborative effort between the Norwegian Refugee Council, Danish Refugee Council, Medair, and Solidarités International, along with national implementing partners. The ERRM provides coordinated and rapid lifesaving aid to crisis-affected communities in South Sudan, especially in hard-to-reach areas or areas with low presence of humanitarian actors. Responses prioritise critical needs in health, nutrition, protection, shelter, water and sanitation, and education in emergencies.