In a move to a new camp, refugees in South Sudan respond cautiously

News Stories, 17 April 2013

© UNHCR/T.Irwin
In the newly opened Ajoung Thok refugee camp in South Sudan, Hassam Neel Salom tells a member of the Danish Refugee Council, which manages the camp, that he will bring his family once he has finished building his shelter.

AJOUNG THOK, South Sudan, April 17 (UNHCR) During the past three weeks, Hassam Neel Salom has been among a small, but growing number of refugees who have moved from a crowded and insecure settlement near a contested section of the border between South Sudan and Sudan to a new camp.

Salom first came to the Ajoung Thok camp as part of a UNHCR cash for work programme and, together with other refugees and men from the surrounding host communities, helped to construct a refugee camp meeting international standards in a wooded area away from the militarized zone. It will eventually be able to accommodate 20,000 people.

"Working at the camp, I could see the potential it had," he said. "There is more space and services here and I feel more secure." Once he has constructed a rudimentary home using material provided by the UN refugee agency, Salom plans to bring his family.

Many other families living in the Yida settlement closer to the border have expressed a reluctance to move. Yida was established in 2011 by refugees fleeing conflict in Sudan's South Kordofan state.

As the numbers of arrivals dramatically increased, UNHCR, sister UN agencies and non-governmental organizations mounted emergency response operations while at the same time encouraging refugees to move to more secure areas.

Today, Yida's population stands at over 70,000. The government of South Sudan has made it clear that it is not a long-term option and that Yida's residents will, eventually, have to move to the new camp.

Marian Selam and her three children walked for four days to escape the conflict that had reached her village in Sudan's Nuba Mountains. A day after an aerial bombing killed her neighbour and her child, Marian said goodbye to her husband, who was unable to travel due to an injury sustained in an earlier attack, and set off with her children for South Sudan. She had heard in the community that there was a place where people from her region had settled.

At the UNHCR registration centre in Yida, Marian was told that assistance, such as food, relief items and shelter materials were available at Ajoung Thok, but she insisted that she would stay in Yida. "If I heard from my people that the new camp is safe, that there is protection, then I would go," she told a staff member.

Like many of the arriving refugees, Marian had expressed the hope that her children would be able to attend school. UNHCR does not offer primary education in Yida due to security concerns. In November 2011, two bombs dropped by an aircraft landed in the Yida settlement, one of them near a school. Fortunately, there were no casualties. In March, a dispute in the camp resulted in a shooting incident that left a police officer dead.

Residents of Ajoung Thok will have access to schools and medical services and will be provided small plots of land on which they can build a shelter and grow some vegetables. They will also be issued with refugee registration cards.

Boutros Magub also initially declined to go to the new camp, leaving the UNHCR registration centre with his wife and four children for Yida. Nine days later he returned to the centre to register for the next movement to Ajoung Thok.

"Yida was so full of people," he said. "I hear that in the new camp we will have more space, that my children will be able to go to school and that we will receive food rations."

Cosmas Chanda, UNHCR's representative in South Sudan, said that as more people arrive in Ajoung Thok and as the camp continues to grow and develop, "We're confident that more refugees will see the benefits of living in a place where assistance and protection can be better provided."

By Tim Irwin in Ajoung Thok, South Sudan