Reflections on IDP Camps in South Sudan

As the situation in South Sudan deteriorates, we asked Richard Parkins, the Executive Director of American Friends of the Episcopal Church of the Sudans, to respond with a first-hand viewpoint of the emergency to a recent opinion piece from IRIN — Politicised humanitarian aid is fuelling South Sudan’s civil war.

The IRIN piece on “Politicised humanitarian aid” makes several key points:

  • “Protection of Civilians” sites (PoCs) in South Sudan, set up to protect at-risk civilians, serve distinctly political purposes such as depopulating oil-producing areas and creating ethnically homogenous enclaves.
  • For example, services provided for out-of-school children in these UN protection camps support ethnic segregation of what were previously integrated urban school systems and are de facto reinforcing momentum toward permanent ghettoisation and lasting social divisions.
  • The biggest obstacles to closing the PoCs are not practical; they are political and conceptual. The PoCs should be dismantled and the vulnerable populations moved en masse into neighboring countries where it is safer and logistics lines are better.
  • Humanitarian aid groups inadvertently reinforce this ghettoization and social divisions, resulting in prolonged violence.
  • More needs to be done to provide humanitarians and donors with resources and safe spaces for engaging in reflection on the complex ethical and political dilemmas they face – both at the policy level and in the field.

Following is Richard Parkins’ response, which points to the recurring problems that almost all populations in the midst of conflict face, as well as those aid groups – “secular” and “faith-based” – who try to provide some relief.  We invite readers to respond with their own experiences and ideas, whether from the point of view of aid recipients or aid providers.

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I have visited two sites established for the Protection of Civilians (PoC) in South Sudan – also known as camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) – and have seen the conditions and experienced the sentiments of the desperate folks who inhabit them. My organization, given the premises of the IRIN article, would be considered among those who have done harm when meaning to do good.

I would resist such an indictment, given what I have seen and experienced. We responded to pleas from camp residents who expressed a sense of abandonment and a desire to return home but who realized that that was not a near-term option. Not to have responded would have been a heartless act.

While accepting the truth of much of what is in the article, there are a few issues that warrant attention to provide a more complete analysis of the situation:

  1. Considering the abruptness of the displacements that occurred in South Sudan, there was little time for a more thoughtful strategy – namely the relocation of thousands of persons to adjacent countries. Considering that the consent of such countries would be required as well as the garnering of resources to create these alternative safe havens, UNHCR would have to anticipate such upheavals and be prepared to respond immediately to the crisis. Even if the other country alternative were to be preferred at a later time after the initial interim response, the difficulty of relocating thousands of persons to another country would be extremely difficult. Because displaced persons move spontaneously, often in large numbers, their orderly evacuation to another country presents serious logistical challenges, especially if the crisis in their country of origin persists. Then those relocated might spend years in that other country, presenting an array of social, economic, and political challenges. Host countries might be less willing to receive refugees if they find themselves encumbered with large populations of needy persons for protracted periods of time.
  1. One of the consequences of these camps is the isolation experienced by those fleeing to them for safety. The two camps that I visited were populated by a single ethnicity. They entered these camps full of anger and revenge, desperate because of being forcibly uprooted and painfully relocated. Given the marginal existence experienced by camp residents, the suffering that they have experienced and continue to experience, the camps become places where anger and grief are nurtured and revenge deepens as a dominant emotion. The fact that a PoC becomes a place where retaliation is considered an option is something to worry about when anticipating what South Sudan might be like should this civil conflict end. The IRIN article might consider the behavior that is cultivated when rage is nurtured. Possibly even worse than depriving groups of their land and communities is the prospect of condemning them to a life of further conflict.
  1. The camps noted in the article were improvised as alternatives for protecting civilians in lieu of anything else. The brutal displacement that accompanies a refugee crisis leaves little time for planning arrangements that are more humane or reasonable. The ideal setup of a well-managed camp with requisite services, including attention to trauma healing and peace and reconciliation work, would be wonderful if certain conditions were present or if steps were taken to introduce these conditions.

Would there be a military presence in the warring nation that would have a mandate to protect at-risk civilians? Without this, those targeted will run for their lives and seek whatever space is available that allows them a respite from violence. Would those host countries that might receive thousands of refugees be prepared to accommodate them for the extended period that would be required, given the duration of the refugee crisis such as we are likely to witness in South Sudan? For example, the Kakuma camp still is home to refugees who relocated there in the 1990s. One would also need to hope that donor nations continue to be generous in supporting the UNHCR as the custodian of these sites for displaced refugees.

A debate about the PoCs and their impact on those who live there is warranted, and this article sets forth some legitimate concerns. However, the debate needs to also give thought to the healing and reconciliation which should be a part of the IDP/refugee experience, as well as what conditions are required in any camp if these settings are to be places from where transition to a life of peace and stability is to occur. In the meantime, starving displaced persons are going to need the generous response of non-government organizations to their plight.

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