Geneva — The U.N. refugee agency says recent reciprocal attacks between South Sudanese residents of Maban County in Upper Nile State and Sudanese refugees have forced up to 8,000 refugees to flee from the Yusuf Batil Camp.
UNHCR spokeswoman Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba says the refugees have since returned to the camp, but tensions persist and have spread to the Doro and Kaya refugee camps. She says villagers and refugees are fighting over limited resources, including wood, grass and grazing land, and that hostilities between the groups recently reached a fever pitch that saw both groups set fire to each other's houses, tents and granaries.
"They are not in any better shape than the refugees," she said of the villagers. "This is all due to the current situation. Maban is an isolated area, [and] with the fighting since December, it has been one of the hardest hit areas and people cannot - whether it is humanitarian or commercial agencies - go in and out of the town.
Maban County currently hosts an estimated 125,000 Sudanese refugees who fled embattled Blue Nile state. According to UNHCR, one-third of the refugee population is made up of small children, pregnant and lactating women, as well as the elderly, disabled and chronically ill.
"Just the day before yesterday, when I was reading the reports and talking with my colleagues on the ground, Maban was under the control of rebels," she added. "This morning it was taken over by the government. So there is a lot of fighting going on."
Since fighting between government and rebel forces broke out in South Sudan in mid-December, instability and conflict in Maban County have disrupted the planting and harvest seasons. In addition, aid agencies are having great difficulty transporting food and other supplies to the region because of insecurity along the roads.
Lejeune-Kaba says local residents angered by growing food shortages are demanding that some 60,000 refugees in Yusuf Batil and Gendrassa camps leave within two months.
"Realistically, we cannot do it," she said. "The rainy season is coming. Sixty-thousand is a lot of people, and Maban is an area where you cannot move people fast. You need trucks and we do not even want to get to that situation where people would have to be moved because it takes a lot to identify a site. The land on the sites we identify belong to people. You have to negotiate with them for them to agree to take them in, and if they learn that there has been fighting, I do not think they would want to welcome refugees."
UNHCR is coordinating with authorities and other humanitarian agencies to diffuse the tensions. Governments of South Sudan and Ethiopia have agreed to let the World Food Program bring much-needed food supplies into Maban through Gambella in Ethiopia.
The food, which will be distributed to internally displaced people and refugees in the coming days, should help reduce some of the tension between the refugees and locals.
Lejeune-Kaba says insecurity and hunger are forcing more South Sudanese to flee into neighboring countries, and that Ethiopia is currently receiving an average of 1,000 South Sudanese refugees every day.