UNHCR starts relocation of 15,000 stranded South Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia
MATAR WAY STATION, Ethiopia, November 18 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has begun relocating nearly 15,000 South Sudanese refugees who had been stranded for a few months at a way station in western Ethiopia after the refugee camp where they were due to live was flooded.
A first group of 125 refugees left Matar Way Station on Monday and headed along the Baro River to the Itang Transit Centre, where they spent the night before resuming their journey on Tuesday by road towards Pugnido Refugee Camp, some 300 kilometres away.
They were expected to reach the camp, home to some 45,000 mainly South Sudanese refugees, later on Tuesday. A further 29 refugees with special needs, including pregnant women, lactating mothers, the blind and older people will be flown to Pugnido on a helicopter.
Two boats were chartered by the International Organization for Migration for the maiden relocation voyage - one for passengers and the other for luggage. The refugees were provided with water, high energy biscuits, and relief items such as blankets as they boarded the boats wearing life jackets.
The refugees seemed to be happy that this particular ordeal was coming to an end. "I'm glad that we are leaving this place. I have never been happy here. Now I can smile again," said 26-year-old Nyapal, who arrived at Matar pregnant with her first child after fleeing the violence in South Sudan. She flew on the helicopter to Pugnido.
Nyapal walked through the bush for 20 days before arriving in Ethiopia in July. "It was very tough. We drank any water we saw on the way," she recalled. Her husband, medic Baro, made his way to Ethiopia separately. "It was very risky for the family to be together while fleeing," he explained: "I saw a lot of people who were shot dead."
Another young couple, Biel and Nyabol, were also happy to leave. "We just want to relocate and stay in Ethiopia in peace," said Biel, fighting back tears. Both she and her husband lost their parents.
The refugees had been stranded at Matar close to the border with South Sudan after heavy rains and floodwaters from the Baro River swamped the Nip Nip refugee camp, where they were originally destined to live. The floods also made access roads impassable.
Valentin Tapsoba, UNHCR's recently appointed representative in Ethiopia, was present at the launch of the operation and thanked the government and people of Ethiopia for taking in the refugees and sharing their meagre resources. He also presented two four-wheel-drive vehicles and an ambulance to the government's Administration for Refugees and Returnees Affairs (ARRA) for the relocation.
More than 190,000 South Sudanese refugees have sought refuge in Ethiopia's Gambella region since conflict broke out in South Sudan in mid-December 2013. Some 100 refugees continue to cross into Ethiopia every day, mainly through the Burbiey border point from Jonglei and Unity states in South Sudan. The new arrivals cite food shortages and insecurity, including sporadic fighting between rival warring factions, as reasons for their flight. Ethiopia is currently Africa's largest refugee-hosting country with more than 600,000 refugees.
UNHCR is currently working with the Ethiopian government to find land where some 50,000 flood-affected refugees can be relocated. Most of the refugees in Leitchour and Nip Nip camps had moved to higher ground.
By Reath Riek at Matar Way Station and Sulaiman Momodu at Itang Transit Centre, Ethiopia