Article: Ned Colt, Stefano Gelmini, Dominique Tuohy, Photography: Ned Colt, Peter Biro/The IRC
They walk for miles in a long, single file across the Syrian Desert on a moonlit night, or sit crammed into the back of a rusty truck trundling across the parched grassland between Sudan and South. These are the stories of some of the refugees who, over the last few months, have been forced in their hundreds of thousands to leave their homes, their countries, and often their families, in order to escape violence or the threat of starvation, or both.
They have joined the over 10 million refugees currently registered across the globe, whose ranks have swelled by 800,000 last year – the highest increase in over a decade, according to the UN – because of conflicts and natural disasters in Libya, Sudan and Somalia. New and old emergencies, in Mali, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and elsewhere, continue to uproot thousands more people every week.
Today, World Refugee Day 2012, International Rescue Committee teams are busy helping thousands of refugees worldwide by supplying water and other essentials, giving special food and medical treatment to malnourished children, and providing medical assistance to women giving birth and survivors of violence.
Their living conditions are dire. Nine members of a Syrian family I met last week are packed into just two rooms. While they are grateful to the Jordanian family who opened their home to them in the border city of Ramtha, it’s difficult. They have access to a bathroom, but there is no kitchen, so they cook outside over a wood fire. They’ve been here for three months, when they fled fighting in their southern Syria hometown of Deraa. It was dangerous journey; they feared being turned back at the border crossing from Syria, so crossed illegally by walking across the desert. All they could carry were clothes and cash. Today, they have a handful of blankets and little food. Their diet is built on macaroni supplied by a local aid agency. And with the value of the Syrian currency dropping by half in the past year of fighting, everything is now twice as expensive.
No one knows for certain how many refugees are now in the Kingdom of Jordan. The low figure is the approximately 5,000 who have been registered by the UN refugee agency. The highest figure is 80,000, supplied by the Jordanian government. The disparity in numbers appears to be based on the fear that many refugees have of being identified publicly. They’re worried that family back home could be targeted, or when they themselves return, concerned they may suffer retribution. Most have found temporary shelter in the border cities of Ramtha and Mafraq, where they’ve rented apartments or are living with Jordanian families.
The International Rescue Committee has been working in the Kingdom of Jordan since 2007, when we responded to a wave of refugees pouring in from neighbouring Iraq. In reponse to the recent influx of Syrian refugees to Jordan, IRC medical teams are now treating patients at two medical clinics in the border cities of Ramtha and Mafraq. The clinics offer primary health care and medication to Syrians, most of whom have no money to pay for medical support.
IRC emergency coordinator Tom McNelly, speaking from an IRC satellite office in northern Jordan, said: “We’ve been planning this for weeks, and it shows. All is proceeding flawlessly — and our entire team is absolutely thrilled to see the impact we are already having.”
Mali and Niger
The drought that has swept across Africa’s Sahel region in the past two years has hit the south of Mali particularly hard. The resulting hunger crisis has been aggravated by a still-simmering coup in the capital and an ongoing rebellion in the north.
More than 320,000 people have been displaced by the conflict in the north; some have relocated to the severely drought-affected southern areas, while the majority have fled to neighbouring countries.
In response, the IRC is launching emergency programmes targeting some of the neediest areas in both southern and northern Mali, and across the border in Niger.
The IRC is working with six community health centres in the Kati district of Mali, focussing on care for children. More than 8,000 children under the age of five in Kati alone suffer from severe acute malnutrition.
Many of the health centres in the region lack supplies, staff and sanitation facilities. The IRC is training health centre and community health workers; providing additional medical staff; procuring essential medicines and vaccinations; covering the often prohibitive 80 pence cost of paediatric visits; and organising mothers’ groups to improve infant and child nutrition and encourage good hygiene practices to prevent the spread of disease.
We are also repairing and rehabilitating water, sanitation, and waste management systems in the six health centres and training staff to maintain them.
These efforts will help approximately 5,000 children who are brought to the community health centres for malnutrition and paediatric care, improve water and hygiene for the thousands of community members who visit the health centre, and reach approximately 24,000 children through nutrition programmes and other outreach.
Since the start of the year, a combination of protracted fighting and severe food shortages in Sudan's South Kordofan and Blue Nile states has forced tens of thousands of people to leave their homes and flee across the border to South Sudan. About 50,000 refugees have already arrived in Unity State alone, and more are expected as the influx continues at a rate of nearly 800 a day.
Most of the refugees in Unity State have concentrated in the Yida refugee camp, situated just 15 miles south of the border. Ibrahim Kallo, IRC emergency field coordinator in Yida, said: “Those arriving in the camp in recent weeks are visibly exhausted and malnourished after walking for four or five days with little food or water, and some children show signs of severe malnutrition. Women are being raped and assaulted, both on the journey and once they arrive. Fear of hunger is likely to trigger a further wave of displacement in the coming weeks, as people try to get out before the rains make the trek across the border more arduous.”
The IRC has opened a health centre for women and girls in the camp, offering a range of reproductive health care services and assistance for women and girls who have been sexually assaulted. Services include deliveries, pre- and post-natal care, family planning, treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, specialised care for survivors of rape and abuse, counselling, and health education.
To mark this year's World Refugee Day please show your support for the millions of refugees in need around the world by making a gift to the International Rescue Committee.