This year alone, more than 31,000 South Sudanese refugees — over 80% of them women and children — have emerged from hiding in the country's swampland and fled to Sudan to avoid starvation, violence, and conflict.
The numbers are drastically higher than any predictions by the United Nations, the UN's refugee agency said today.
"Initial expectations were that 60,000 refugees may arrive through 2017, but in the first two months alone, over 31,000 refugees arrived," a statement from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Khartoum said.
More than three years after conflict erupted in South Sudan's capital city of Juba, about one million people are on the brink of a man-made famine, and that number is multiplying by the day. A shocking 5.5 million people of the world’s youngest nation are expected to have no access to food by July, the United Nations declared last week.
The civil war started in 2013 when President Salva Kiir Mayardit fired Vice President Riek Machar, inciting the largest mass exodus of any conflict in central Africa since the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Some 3.4 million have been uprooted, says the UN. Their livelihoods destroyed, these displaced refugees have been unable to harvest crops or tend to livestock without the threat of raiders armed with guns and machetes.
To make matters worse, heavy flooding has worsened sanitation, exposing malnourished children to diseases like cholera. Aid groups working in Bentiu, the Unity State’s capital, say that children are dying every day because of severe malnutrition and other diseases.
During the chaos, countless humanitarian compounds have been looted. In Central Equatoria, aid workers were denied access last week to key locations outside of Lainya town, where tens of thousands of people in need have not been reached with aid in months. And as stated by the UN’s Eugene Owusu on Tuesday, 28 aid workers had to leave the Mayendit county this past weekend, the latest in a series of events that have hampered relief operations and put civilians at risk.
Under mounting pressure, Salva Kiir pledged last week to give aid groups protected access.
“Time is of the essence, and lives are in the balance,” Owusu said, “so it is critical that these words be translated into concrete actions on the ground immediately.”
Aid workers warn that it is already too late for many, but the Feb. 20 declaration of famine has put pressure on international aid agencies to increase their efforts.
Humanitarian organizations are urgently appealing for funding in response to the escalating crisis. But, in a potentially troubling sign, the media announced that President Trump has proposed significant cuts to funding for foreign aid.
Of the $3.8 trillion in the federal budget, around $60 billion has traditionally been spent on foreign assistance — just under 1% of the Gross National Income. The US has a history of setting the global aid agenda and committing to humanitarian crises.
Calling his plan “a public safety budget,” it is not yet clear whether President Trump will address the $1.6 billion required to provide emergency assistance for the 5.8 million across South Sudan.