World Refugee Day – displacement in South Sudan

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.

Emergency aid is distributed to the Luri Rokwe leprosy community in Juba, South Sudan.
Emergency aid is distributed to the Luri Rokwe leprosy community in Juba, South Sudan.
emergency aid
Displaced persons with disabilities have many additional needs which can make life even more challenging and full of hardship.

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’’.

Rachel Aluong Joh, standing, speaks about the impact of the conflict on her community.
Rachel Aluong Joh, standing, speaks about the impact of the conflict on her community.

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.

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Breaking down the barriers

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Media and Publications Officer Charlotte Walker blogs from Crete, where she has been spending the week with supporters undertaking the Samaria Gorge Challenge and visit to Spinalonga.

‘Community cohesion’ are buzzwords used by PM David Cameron when addressing tensions between the diverse groups of people making up British society in the 21st century.  Undoubtedly where there are people there are divisions between groups who are seemingly ‘different’ and, crucially, misunderstandings.

Never has a truth been so apparent as when crossing the strait of cobalt-blue water between the upmarket tourist resort of Elounda and Spinalonga island, Greece’s leprosy colony until 1953.

I was fortunate enough to visit Alcatraz island, home to the former US jail for the country’s most notorious offenders off the coast of San Francisco, a few years ago.  There I was beguiled by stories of intricate escape efforts and the mysterious fate of those prisoners who successfully escaped into the treacherous seas encapsulating the prison.

Although many of the inhabitants of Spinalonga were devastatingly disabled, some in the earlier stages of leprosy were more than capable of swimming the calm sea to Plaka, a stone throw’s away on the mainland.  Yet, tellingly, there is no record of any escape effort from Spinalonga.  Τhe truth is that the people of Spinalonga were already life-long captives of one of the world’s most stigmatised diseases.

A newly-unveiled plaque in the former cemetery at Spinalonga reads that it is the resting place of those who already had buried their hopes and dreams, painting a particularly gloomy picture.

But contrastingly, a stroll around the faithfully-preserved community gives rise to a sense of peace, love and acceptance.  On the wall of one of the former shops hangs a grainy black and white photograph depicting women in starched white uniforms.  They had taken it upon themselves to care for the sickest inhabitants at the island’s hospital which witnessed scenes of great suffering and grief.

Leprosy may have robbed these people of their health, freedom and dreams but God did not leave these people, who undoubtedly endured more than their fair share of suffering and heartbreak, without hope.  There is a sense, heightened by a story of the island’s priest who remained on Spinalonga for five years following the final death knell despite its evacuation, that people pinned their hopes on what is higher and yet unseen.

They cared for another, supporting each other through trials and tribulations, nursing one another through the toughest of times.  They showed great love for one another at a time when they were outcast from society.

It is a timely reminder of the great strides The Leprosy Mission has yet to make in breaking down the boundaries between leprosy-affected communities and ‘uninfected’ people.

In India I had the privilege of visiting a leprosy-affected community on a project designed to inform residents of their human rights and to empower them to stand up to the driver throwing them off the bus after clocking their leprosy-affected hands.  But despite valiant efforts, the community requested for higher walls to be built around the colony.  The concept of breaking down barriers remained alien.

Tackling attitudes and putting right misunderstandings is our toughest battle yet in the fight against leprosy – now an easily-treatable disease.  But not until we crack this will we win our fight.

Sanitation matters! Why toilets are a global development priority.

World Toilet Day

Yesterday the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution to make access to sanitation for all a global development priority, designating 19 November as World Toilet Day.

The Assembly encouraged member states to implement policies to increase access to sanitation among the poor, and called for an end to people being forced to defecate in public, which it deemed “extremely harmful” to public health. In a statement, UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said:

“This new annual observance will go a long way toward raising awareness about the need for all human beings to have access to sanitation.”

Only 4.5 billion out of 7 billion people worldwide have access to toilets or latrines – meaning that 2.5 billion people, mostly in rural areas, do not have proper sanitation. In addition, 1.1 billion people still have to defecate in the open, and it is in the countries where this is the norm that child mortality is high and that there are high levels of malnutrition and poverty.

Lack of sanitation facilities therefore impacts many wider issues. In addition to the burden of disease and an assault on dignity, women and girls often risk rape or abuse when they have to use areas that are unsafe or unsheltered.

A woman affected by leprosy living in the slum in Ethiopia.
A woman affected by leprosy living in the slum in Ethiopia.

As part of our work in Ethiopia, Leprosy Mission staff have seen first-hand the impact that lack of access to sanitation facilities has on some of the world’s poorest people. Visiting Addis Ababa in 2012, we visited one slum with a population of 24,000 – with 500 people affected by disabilities including those caused by leprosy, where there was just one toilet for every 120 people. With no access to showers and waste disposal facilities,  people living there are severely affected by disease and child mortality is high.

Another view of the slum showing stagnant water - a breeding ground for disease.
Another view of the slum showing stagnant water – a breeding ground for disease.

Our new Slum Development project there will build new toilet blocks and renovate old ones, build new shower blocks, provide waste disposal systems, renovate houses, and provide health and hygiene training. Some of this work will also provide livelihood opportunities for residents. With enthusiastic support from the community, it’s hoped that the project will have a major, lasting impact and transform many lives.

Between 1990 and 2011, over 240,000 people a day gained access to improved sanitation facilities worldwide. But with 2.5 billion people still lacking facilities that we take for granted, the resolution adopted by the UN yesterday is an important step forward and one that we’re pleased to be supporting through our work.