YIDA, South Sudan: In February, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) held a public meeting in the bustling camp and reiterated plans to relocate 70,000 refugees to an alternative site, Ajuong Thok, also in Ruweng state, South Sudan, by June. The relocation process is now in full swing. The new camp, according to UNHCR’s South Sudan head of office, Ahmed Warsame, is more secure and therefore better suited to provide services such as education and healthcare.
According to recent U.N. reports, 848 out of 977 new arrivals from the Sudan state of South Kordofan living in Yida camp were registered and relocated to Ajuong Thok camp.
But several Yida residents said the new camp is insecure. Ajuong Thok is located 10 miles (17km) away from proxy militias used by Sudan’s government and less than 60 miles (100km) from a Sudan Armed Forces garrison base. “These people [the militias] are the very same people we ran away from in the first place,” Yida refugee council chairman Al-Nur Al Saleh told Refugees Deeply.
“Everybody knows what happened now, yesterday and the other day; that this place [Ajuong Thok] is a place of [Sudan president Omar] al-Bashir’s militias – this is their road,” Al Saleh told the crowds of Yida refugees and UNHCR officials during a recent public meeting.
“We can’t see a fire and just [knowingly] go into it,” added Husna Nur, a Yida camp women’s community representative.
Amid years of mass rapes and genital mutilation during armed conflicts between the government of Sudan and various armed opposition groups, incidents of intimidation and sexual abuse have been a recurring experience for women’s rights advocates from the Nuba Mountains. Human Rights Watch issued a report in March 2016 that detailed sexual abuse by Sudanese security forces “to silence female human rights defenders across the country, including the communities from South Kordofan state.”
Despite U.N. assurances, basic survival in Ajuong Thok camp remains a pressing issue. Unlike in Yida – where refugees can supplement their aid rations through farming – the host community in Ajuong Thok does not allow refugees to work outside the camp confines. World Food Programme (WFP) funding cuts have forced the U.N. agency to reduce rations in South Sudan by 30 percent since August, according to WFP senior regional spokeswoman Challiss McDonough.
Previously, each refugee in Ruweng state’s camps received roughly 26.4lb (12kg) of grain per month, but now it is only around 15-17lb, according to aid workers. “By mid-month you’re finished,” said Nur, the women’s camp representative. “You have to get out of the [Yida] camp to collect grass to sell, or find some other means to survive.”
Publicly, UNHCR and others justify the move by claiming that Yida remains too close to the Sudanese border, and hence defies UNHCR refugee-camp location rules. But this argument appears a non sequitur considering Ajuong Thok is only just over a mile (2km) further from the border.
“The talk of Yida being on the border is political talk,” said Mario Nyok, a frustrated South Sudanese representative for the host community at the February meeting.
The UNHCR has cited overpopulation in Yida as another reason for the relocation. In a 2013 interview, UNHCR’s former head of operations in Unity state, Marie-Helene Verney, voiced concerns about having a potential 100,000 refugees in one place. “We know what that means from other countries, we know the problems of health, with availability of water, with security, the problems that come with that [overpopulation] and we fear the same for Yida, too.”
While densely packed settlements are a legitimate source of concern, Yida residents’ wariness over relocation under UNHCR stems from past experience. In 2012, UNHCR asked Yida’s 30,000 residents to move to another refugee camp, Nyeli. The local refugee council insisted that the land in Nyeli was prone to flooding, and would soon be a virtually uninhabitable swamp, according to several Yida residents. But U.N. officials pushed ahead, and the small fraction of refugees who moved were rendered homeless within a year when flooding inundated the Nyeli settlement. The U.N. was forced to close the camp.
UNHCR’s insistence on relocating Yida residents may be political rather than practical. The root cause of controversy over the camp’s existence has stemmed from Sudan’s criticism that South Sudan supports the rebels currently fighting Khartoum in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile state. This accusation is denied by South Sudan presidential spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny. In late March, Sudan blocked the border and ordered any South Sudanese residing in Sudan to leave the country – citing South Sudan’s alleged support for the rebels in the Nuba Mountains as the reason behind the reversed decision.
Yida camp’s relative proximity to the rebels in neighboring Sudan has been a serious bone of contention between Sudan and Africa’s newest nation, according to a South Sudan official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The closure of Yida with its perceived connection to rebel groups is potentially part of this process, the same source said.
Since October, South Sudan forces cleared out any rebel soldiers who resided in the camp, Saleh said. Now the camp is quiet, and only unarmed citizens are allowed inside. While not militarized, the camp still acts as a safe haven for those fleeing the fighting, including the families of SPLA-North forces, Nur confirmed.
Laden with resources, the oil-rich land on which Yida was built has added to the geopolitical wrangling over the camp. Refugees fleeing the Nuba Mountains conflict set up Yida in 2011 by themselves, without realizing the land was situated in an oil-producing area; Chinese, Malaysian and Indian companies have previously operated concessions here. Ajuong Thok, on the other hand, is situated in an area where no oil production is expected.
The government’s oil-extraction interests were confirmed when South Sudan’s minister of petroleum Stephen Dhieu Dau said in news reports that production would resume in Ruweng state. Yida camp is situated within the region, one of the new 28 South Sudan states set up by presidential decree.
But oil production is unlikely to commence soon, according to Sudan scholar Egbert Wesselink, because of extensive damage to the drilling sites and with production in the concession area having already peaked in 2011. “It would cost hundreds of millions to resume oil production in this area,” Wesselink said, “and it is unclear whether these oil companies are prepared to cover these costs given the diminishing returns.”
Regardless of the underlying reasons, Yida residents are willing to relocate. They have no intentions of contesting the UNHCR’s decision. But they have suggested other potential areas for relocation that are away from the border, Saleh claimed.
“Wherever they tell us to go we will go – the only condition is that our security is the priority.”