Today is World Refugee Day and the The UN Refugee Agency has announced that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time since World War II, exceeded 50 million people. Its annual report on the global displacement situation shows that 51.2 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of 2013 – 6 million more than in 2012.
“We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. “Peace is today dangerously in deficit.”
Undoubtedly, one of the countries contributing to this dramatic increase is South Sudan, where an estimated 1.3 million people have had to flee their homes as a result of the conflict that began last year. Peace talks in Ethiopia have so far failed to stop the fighting, and numerous ceasefire deals have collapsed. Thanks to our South Sudan appeal, we have been able to provide emergency relief to the leprosy community in Juba. Food, blankets and agricultural tools were distributed to around 500 people.
But in neighbouring Jonglei State, many residents of the leprosy community of Malek are still living in temporary shelters on an island in the river Nile, displaced from their own homes. At the beginning of February we received the sad news that two women from the village were killed. They were severely disabled and unable to flee their homes with the rest of their community. One of these women has been named as Mary Nydiang Chuck. The village’s chief, Gabriel Maduor, was also shot, but survived.
This month, TLM’s country leader in South Sudan, Yousif Deng, has visited the community – his first visit since the conflict began and accessing Malek became impossible. In the nearby town of Bor, some NGOs are providing healthcare but access to the region is still limited. At the time of his visit, there were concerns about outbreaks of cholera – a major problem for many camps in South Sudan, where disease is rife and sanitation facilities are limited. Most of the population has been displaced, either internally, or to Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya.
“On 4 June, I managed to visit Malek leprosy village. Along the way there we saw burned cars, deserted houses, and burned down homes. There was a huge armed presence and several checkpoints,” Yousif told us.
Of the 38 residents of Malek that we met on a visit in 2013, just 13 now remain the village. Families have been separated as many people are still living on a nearby island across the river Nile. One of the residents we met in 2013 was Rachel Aluong Joh.
“I have lost my son during the crisis. I have not managed to see his grave,” she said.
Rachel went on to tell Yousif about the death of Mary Nydiang Chuck.
“We heard gunshots all over, and some armed men came running into our place. One young man was so angry; all of a sudden he started shooting randomly and it was unfortunate that Mary was shot and died. There were no young men to bury her – we were not able to dig a grave for her’’.
Yousif was able to provide some food to the community, but they still have many needs – food, blankets, cooking utensils and fishing nets so they can catch fish from the nearby river. There are no nearby healthcare facilities, and many people require medicines, bandages and dressings for the wounds that can be caused by lack of adequate self-care in people affected by leprosy. We will be providing food aid in the near future, and will continue to support those affected by leprosy as they attempt to rebuild their lives. World Refugee Day is a day to reflect not just on those displaced in South Sudan, but the many people affected by leprosy worldwide whose lives have been made even more challenging and fraught with danger as a result of conflict.