We stand together with refugees – Despite challenges, South Sudan is hosting 300,000 refugees
Johann Siffonite, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in South Sudan (photo: Opio Jackson)
By Opio Jackson
“No one can become refugee out of his or her own wish. Everybody wants to go back to his or her place of origin where their own kin is laid to rest,” said Johann Siffonite the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) representative in South Sudan.
According to United Nations there are over 2.5 million South Sudanese living as refugees in the neighboring countries due to the conflict which broke out in the country four years ago. However, despite many challenges the country is going through, South Sudan with support from UNHCR is hosting 300,000 refugees mainly from Sudan, Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Juba Monitor senior editor, Opio Jackson (OJ) had one on one an interview with UNHCR representative for South Sudan Johann Siffonite as South Sudan joins the rest of the countries in celebrating the World Refugee Day.
OJ: It has been almost a year since you assumed the responsibility as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative for South Sudan. Could you tell the public what you and the UNHCR have managed to achieved in this period?
Johann Siffonite (JS): My name is Johann Siffonite, the UNHCR representative in South Sudan. In deed I came to Juba in July 2017 and I am almost clocking one year in the country.
As a country South Sudan is the fastest growing when it comes to refugees in the continent. The increased displacement from years of civil war has seen it placed third globally after Yemen and Syria. Many of the South Sudanese residents have fled to the neighboring countries to seek refuge.
Despite these challenges in the country, South Sudan is hosting 300,000 refugees mostly from Sudan, Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of Congo across twenty one refugee settlement camps countrywide. We are working very closely with the government to make sure that the refugees in the country, of whom eighty percent of them are women and children, are protected and receive appropriate assistance.
It has been an interesting year for me. We have been on the forefront of providing asylum to these refugees. The narrative of South Sudan has always been one of “dormant glamour”. We do understand that the country has its own challenges and problems due to the ongoing conflict but our commitment to see them live a comfortable life still stands.
As an organization we have ensured a very close working relationship with the government so that there is no forced deportation. That way people can survive and live in South Sudan.
More importantly, with our collaboration with Commission of Refugee Affairs (CRA) under the Ministry of Interior, we have drafted one of the most progressive national legislation regarding refugees. This has been a huge achievement. As of recent the Transitional National Legislative Assembly (TNLA) has ratified the Refugee Convention and we are waiting for President Salva Kiir to append his signature so that it is made into Law. This would be another huge achievement for us.
Apart from refugees, UNHCR, in conjunction with other UN agencies and the government of South Sudan, is supporting at least 1.8 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) of whom 12 percent of them are in the Protection of Civilian sites (PoCs) while 88 percent are living outside the PoCs.
One of the biggest achievements of the UNHCR was the ability to reach those 88 percent of the IDPs who are living outside the PoCs though in very remote areas. We are able to provide protection and food supplies to them.
Last year, at least 800, 000 IDPs received aid from the UNHCR. The primary protection of the IDPs is the responsibility of the South Sudanese authorities including national, the states, local and non-state actors.
The UNHCR is a non-political and non-religious humanitarian organization which works in highly political loaded environment but the organization is not of a political nature.
We are also working for the prevention of statelessness. The organization is the guardian of Statelessness Convention. In 2011 after independence many people fell into statelessness. Right now we are working very closely with the government’s department of Nationality, Passport and Immigration to address the situation.
OJ: The number of refugees is growing and so far their likelihood to return to their original countries is minimal. How does UNHCR tackle such protracted situation and what steps is UNHCR doing to find a suitable solution to the matter?
JS: The protection of refugees is the primary responsibility of the government of South Sudan. However, the government itself has a lot of challenges and it needs to address the needs of its own population.
UNHCR with the support from international donor communities are reaching out to a lot of refugees in South Sudan. South Sudan as a sovereign country has provided the land for the refugee protection and that is extremely important. If you visit refugee sites in the country you will discover that the refugees have been given plots of land for constructing houses as well as to practice farming.
Refugees in South Sudan enjoy full freedom of movement including access to basic services such as education and health without discrimination. We do not expect the refugees to go back home soon because the number of immigrants has been increasing daily. Our role is to make sure that those refugees are accepted by the host community. If we build schools or health Centres for refugees, we want to make sure that the host community must also benefit so as to promote peace and harmony among themselves.
However, I cling on to the hope that the refugees will one day and at one time return to their countries of origin but I do not anticipate their return. As they continue to stay around we want to makes sure that their presence in the country does not have a toll on the well-being of the host community.
Many people are quite aware that the host communities have equally benefited from the presence of refugees due to our balanced services. We do not give the refugees more assistance than the local communities because this would create conflict between the two groups.
For instance in Maban and Jamp Jong, there is a very nice hospital, mobile phone network, boreholes and schools which have been built by UNHCR and the host community is benefiting from the facilities because of the refugees.
OJ: There have been several reports about Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) both within and outside the refugee camps. How does the UNHCR deal with such cases? What kind of support does it provide to the survivors of SGBV and what needs to be done to prevent the vices in future?
JS: Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) is something which is very common in the country and we have more responsibility to play in order to address the issues in South Sudan. In 2017, we had 1,232 cases of SGBV reported to the UNHCR and its partners.
We believe that the cases are higher compared to the ones documented. As an organization we take the SGBV issue very seriously. Even one case is too many and it is our duty to make sure that there is no SGBV in the refugee camps.
We are working closely with the authorities, partners, community based structures such as the women camp leaders, parents, children and teachers through awareness campaigns. So far we have conducted a lot of trainings to refugees and the local communities plus the authorities on how to handle an investigation. I am very glad that the CRA is reading from the same script.
Our plan is not only to do prevention but to enlighten the community about how to respond to SGBV in order to address the matter on time. We have a lot of psychological support which have yielded positive impact on the social well-being of the survivors of the SGBV.
The UNHCR believes that there is a decrease in the cases of SGBV compared to the ones reported last year. This shows that there was an improvement in our reporting mechanism because we need to know the tale of the scope in order to devise strategies to prevent it as well as to come up with a plan of action. UNHCR needs to continue with the awareness campaign.
OJ: It is almost two years since the government issued a directive for the relocation of the refugees from Yida camp. How far has the process reached?
JS: The Yida refugee settlement was situated right at the border of South Sudan and Sudan which hosted over 50,000 refugees from Sudan. The government has stated in many occasions emphasizing the need to relocate Yida refugee camp deep inside the territory of South Sudan to ensure that there was no back and forth between the two countries.
Although we have managed to relocate new arriving refugees at Yida camp, those who have settled in the area for years don’t want to move. We gave them option of moving to the newly established camp where they will benefit from all necessary basic services unlike in Yida where they will only receive minimal services.
The removal of the refugees from Yida camp to the newly established settlement remains the responsibility of the government of South Sudan. However, I would like to acknowledge the government for not using forceful means to relocate refugee from Yida. It is not good when you forcefully relocate refugees. The UNHCR knows that the authorities have been advocating for peaceful resettlement but the refugees are very slow in responding.
OJ: Today South Sudan joins the rest of the world in celebrating the World Refugee Day. What is your message to the citizens as well as the refugees living in South Sudan?
JS: Behind every human figure or statistics there is a face and a story. There is a unique story in every person who has sought refuge in the country. Those people could be our parents, sisters, brothers or children. They have their own stories which have led to their displacement. No one can become refugee out of their own wish. Everybody wants to go back to his or her place of origin where their own kin is laid to rest. Everyone also wants to own a piece of land which is harder when you are displaced.
When we talk about refugees or people who have been displaced, we should not to think of only about their number of statistics but there is human history. It is our moral obligation as human beings to alleviate and apprehend their suffering.
On this special occasion of world refuges Day, I would also like to thank the government of South Sudan for its generosity to host 300,000 refugees despite challenges in the country. No asylum seeker has been forcefully returned to the place of origin.
We pray for peace in the country so that those South Sudanese refugees who are living in the neighboring countries could return home.