Since September 2016, IOM, the UN Migration Agency, has transported over 100,000 South Sudanese refugees entering the Gambella Region in the west of Ethiopia through the Pagak border point to established camps.
Ongoing insecurity in South Sudan is forcing millions to suffer the effects of food shortages, economic collapse and displacement. Since the crisis began in December 2013, the violence has driven more than 1.95 million people to flee to neighbouring countries.
Assistance from governmental and humanitarian agencies in Ethiopia starts as soon as a person crosses the border. Having walked for days, if not weeks or months, vital life-saving assistance is given, such as water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), medical and protection support. Due to absence of refugee registration in Akobo and Burbiey entry points, Pagak is the sole point of entry for South Sudanese refugees into Ethiopia.
“My village was raided. They attacked the village and we all ran. I didn’t bring anything except my children. Before, I lived in a peaceful village, now it is destroyed,” said Nedol.
Prior to travel, IOM conducts pre-departure medical screenings to ensure that the new arrivals are fit for the journey to the camps. Medical escorts are provided for pregnant women, those still breastfeeding, unaccompanied children, people with disabilities, the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions.
In 2016, refugees were transported to the Jewi, Kule, Tierkidi and Nguenyyiel refugee Camps in Gambella Region. The increased number of residents in the camps severely impacts the already limited resources and places a significant strain on the communities hosting the refugees. With camps at full capacity, a new camp in a neighbouring region was established in April 2017 to host newly arrived refugees – the Gure-Shembola camp in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region.
Nedol looks blankly into space with her hands clasped as she recounts her story. A 27-year-old mother of five, she had to flee for her life together with her children to escape fighting in her village.
Majority of the refugees fleeing the crisis in South Sudan arrive in dire conditions in need of urgent life-saving assistance and access to basic services. Some refugees already have medical conditions that are exacerbated by the long distances that they have traveled to seek asylum.
Nedol and her children together with other members of her community walked for one month before reaching the Pagak entry point. In a few days, IOM will transport them to the Gure-Shembola Refugee Camp.
“They came in the night. They started shelling the village from a long distance. I heard gunshots and that was when I started to run. It was a close call. I remember it was terrible.”
In the third trimester of her pregnancy, Cholbuol narrowly escaped with her three children during a raid in her village in the Upper Nile. IOM helped Cholbuol get to Kule Refugee Camp in September 2016, where she gave birth to her fourth child.
“We managed to cross the river to Ethiopia by boat. At that time, there was no registration at Burbiey entry point, so we had to walk to Pagak. It took us 14 days to walk and even in the evening we were walking. We sought food and shelter in churches that we passed by along the way.”
Insecurity in both Akobo and Burbiey is preventing humanitarian agencies to provide assistance at these entry points.
IOM also helped Cholbuol build her family’s shelters. The construction of transitional shelters provides housing for refugees affected by conflict and disaster as they seek to develop alternative options for their recovery. IOM supports sustainable and people driven construction of culturally appropriate shelters in refugee camps. This involves active participation of refugees through mud plastering of their own homes, as well as thatching their roofs.
“I did the mud plastering and my husband did the roof thatching. The structure was constructed by IOM daily laborers. If you are a woman and a mother you need to have a wider space. Here it is good, you can easily see that we have space and children can roam around freely.”
Gatwhich explains this using his injured hands to remove his shoes and show his toeless feet. With his wife and five children, he managed to escape from their village in Matiang County, Upper Nile. They arrived in Ethiopia’s Nguenyyiel Refugee Camp last October via IOM transportation.
“It took us a month and two weeks to get to Pagak because we didn’t follow the usual road. People were dispersed, some managed to walk all the way here but others died in the forest”.
Recounting his ordeal, Gatwhich picks up his 10-month old and youngest child.
“Life is good here in the camp: I have protection, I cannot hear gun shots, my children are going to school and I can pay a visit to my relatives in neighbouring Tierkidi Refugee Camp. I am happy, children are running around. It is summer now and you can see it is peaceful here.”
The Three-day Convoy from Pagak to Gure-Shembola Camp
As of August 2017, IOM provided relocation assistance to over 3,000 South Sudanese refugees from Pagak border entry point to the new Gure-Shembola camp--a three-day journey over 800 kilometers. In coordination with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and Ethiopia’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA), IOM established and manages two way-stations in Metu and Gimbi on the route with a capacity to accommodate movements of up to 1,000 refugees at a time.
“Waat was a very peaceful county and I had a well-organized home. When the fighting came, everything was destroyed."
Nyelowak explained this at Pagak entry point as she carefully rations the lunch she has prepared to each of her children. She continues her story as she hands over a piece of meat to her son.
“We barely managed to escape. When we ran away leaving Waat, our county, behind, we managed to find transportation to proceed to Akobo.”
“Now I am preparing a sorghum dish,” she explained, “and I also made soup out of some meat. I accept everything that is given to me here to eat. If you’re being difficult, you cannot survive and you will die.”
Reath, 12 years old, is one of the newly adopted children of Nyelowak. He has one younger brother and one younger sister and he doesn’t know where they are.
“I don’t remember exactly how it happened. All I can remember is that it happened in the night. It was like a nightmare, we all just started running. I learned that my mother died and didn’t make it when I reached Akobo.”
Reath is one of the seventy-two children separated from their families who arrived at Pagak in July 2017. Some 67 per cent of refugees transported in July were under the age of 18.
“I am happy here in Pagak and I’m really looking forward to going to Gure-Shembola, where it is safe and where I can get an education. I want to be a pastor because I want to preach peace.”
IOM Ethiopia emergency refugee movements in 2017 are supported by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), the United States Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (BPRM), UNHCR and the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF).