The recent sighting of unidentified planes over Yida, South Sudan, and the aerial bombing of a nearby community have raised fears about the safety of refugees and aid workers in the highly militarized area, the United Nations said today, fearing these incidents might signal an increase in violence in the strife-torn country.
"[We are] concerned about the safety of refugees from Sudan and aid workers in Yida, after unidentified aircraft circled over the settlement several times on 9 April," said Melissa Fleming, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Speaking to the press in Geneva, Ms. Fleming said that Yida is located in the north of Unity state, close to the highly militarized Jau corridor, and that the plane sighting raised fears that the refugee settlement might soon come under direct or indirect military attack.
Further, the overflights came just two days after the aerial bombardment of Neem, a community 26 kilometres north of Yida, and close to the disputed border area of Jau.
Ms. Fleming said that local authorities reported that on 7 April, a suspected military aircraft had dropped more than five bombs over Neem, which is along the road used by refugees fleeing the war-torn Nuba Mountains in Sudan. "According to UNHCR information, refugees had not been directly affected in this week's attack," she added.
She explained that Yida, a spontaneous settlement sheltering 70,000 Sudanese refugees, has come under aerial attack before. In November 2011, two bombs fell inside the camp, including one close to a school for refugee children.
With the ongoing conflict in South Sudan, Pariang County, in which Yida is located, has seen increased militarization by regular and irregular armed groups. Shifting conflict lines have left refugees exposed to serious protection risks, including gender-based violence, she said.
Asked to identify the aircraft and whether the attack came from the Sudanese or the South Sudanese, Ms. Fleming responded that she could not speculate on the issue. As to whether there were any people injured in the attack, she said that there was no bombing this time and hence no injuries.
"The previous overflights led to attacks, which is why the people were terrified this time. Nonetheless, they still have a certain feeling of security living in the border areas and are reluctant to move," she said, explaining that UNHCR is trying to show the refugees that conditions in another camp are better, but the agency could only transfer refugees on a voluntary basis.
Ms. Fleming noted that for more than two years, UNHCR and the South Sudan Commission for Refugee Affairs has been advocating for the relocation of refugees to safer areas inside South Sudan.
"National authorities are aware of the protection concerns, and agreed with UNHCR and NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that the civilian character of the camp could be maintained in Yida," she said, but added that refugee leaders had nonetheless been reluctant to move, citing proximity to their homeland, as well as similarity in soil composition, vegetation and other topographical features.
She recalled that in March 2013, a model refugee settlement had been established in Aujong Thok, further from the disputed border zone, and the Government of South Sudan had decreed that no new arrivals should be registered in Yida. Donor support had enabled the construction of primary and secondary schools as an incentive for refugees to relocate voluntarily. "Refugees in Yida, however, were slow to accept that offer," she said.
Ms. Fleming told reporters that she had just returned from a visit to South Sudan and Ethiopia, where she witnessed "a very grave situation," with more than one million people uprooted over several months.
"What is very frightening is the large food crisis because people have not been able to plant their crops, and are fleeing to areas where there is absolutely nothing," she said, adding that UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP) are having problems transporting aid to remote areas via road because the ceasefire was not being respected. WFP has had to resort to very costly airdrops.
She went on to spotlight the "very dramatic situation" in Ethiopia, where the conditions of the people arriving there were "terrible." Some had been walking, mostly barefoot, for more than 25 days; 37 per cent of them were malnourished.
"It is a very desperate situation for people on the run, and hunger is a huge concern."