Vulnerable South Sudanese refugees relocated by air in Ethiopia

Making a Difference, 28 May 2014

© UNHCR / L-F Godinho
A UNHCR staff member helps a vulnerable older lady into a seat on the chartered-helicopter. UNHCR hopes to extend the helicopter service in a region where refugees are arriving in very remote areas.

AKOBO, Ethiopia, May 28 (UNHCR) When South Sudanese refugee Nyabang Gut was informed that she and her family would be relocated from the border to a refugee camp in Ethiopia by helicopter, she started to cry.

The only words she could say to the humanitarian workers getting her four children on the aircraft was a simple: "God bless you."

Nyabang and her children had arrived a week earlier in Akobo, a remote town in eastern South Sudan on the border with Ethiopia. About 34,000 South Sudanese refugees, fleeing conflict in their country since December, have arrived at Akobo in Ethiopia. Most, like Nyabang carry little with them as they are intent on just getting their children to safety.

To add to her problems, her youngest child, Nerek, suffers from severe hydrocephaly an abnormal accumulation of brain fluids that causes pressure inside the skull and progressive enlargement of the head, as well as convulsions, tunnel vision, and mental disability.

Nyabang has her own physical difficulties as well. She sustained a bullet wound to her ankle during fighting between government forces and rebel fighters in South Sudan and suffers severe discomfort, though the wound has healed.

Most of the South Sudanese who have arrived in Akobo since December, had no choice but to take a 15-hour boat ride along the Baro River to relative safety. They arrive in Burubiey in Ethiopia, where they spend the night in a makeshift camp and the next day are bused to a new UNHCR-run refugee camp in Kule II.

But now the most vulnerable can avoid this arduous trip aboard the helicopter, chartered by UNHCR with the support of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), from Akobo to the emergency hospital at Leitchuor refugee camp and eventually to Kule II.

All South Sudanese arriving in Akobo are registered by UNHCR and Ethiopia's national Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) and receive assistance. After that, they are screened and those identified as unable to take the boat trip are put on the flight. Priority is given to pregnant and lactating women, older people, children aged under one year, the injured and people with mobility problems and their relatives.

Soon after Nyabang and her family left aboard the helicopter from Akobo, another group of refugees arrived. Among them was 23-year-old Nyamach Lual, who approached the improvised UNHCR airstrip with her aunt, 54-year-old Cicilena Peter. The older woman could barely walk and yet had made the difficult journey in South Sudan to Akobo, where they arrived two weeks before.

Nyamach has taken care of her aunt since the beginning of the conflict, as her uncle was killed. They fled from Malakal, the capital of South Sudan's Upper Nile State, which borders western Ethiopia's Gambella state.

In Malakal, they were sheltered at a base for the UN Mission for South Sudan, along with thousands of civilians, but were forced to flee because of the attacks against the base. But Nyamach, as well as her five-year-old child and a number of relatives, had to make their way on foot, a journey that took eight days.

As she prepared to board the UNHCR helicopter, Nyamach said: "We feel good and relieved, as we are not fleeing again. We feel secure."

The UNHCR-chartered helicopters are also used to deliver food, medicine and technical equipment to support protection and registration needs. A significant amount of cargo has been transported, including telecommunications equipment to set up a UNHCR office in the city of Nyinyang, which covers the Leitchuor camp.

This helicopter operation started at the end of March and will continue at least for two months. There are five flights a week. UNHCR is seeking authorization from the Ethiopian authorities to expand the operation to other locations, in a region where refugees are arriving in very remote areas with little if no infrastructure. Many are suffering from ill health and lack of nutrition from their days and weeks on the road in search of a safer immediate future for them and their families.

By Luiz Fernando Godinho in Akobo, Ethiopia




UNHCR country pages

South Sudan Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Donate now and help to provide emergency aid to tens of thousands of people fleeing South Sudan to escape violence.

Donate to this crisis

Southerners on the move before Sudanese vote

Ahead of South Sudan's landmark January 9, 2011 referendum on independence, tens of thousands of southern Sudanese in the North packed their belongings and made the long trek south. UNHCR set up way stations at key points along the route to provide food and shelter to the travellers during their arduous journey. Several reports of rapes and attacks on travellers reinforced the need for these reception centres, where women, children and people living with disabilities can spend the night. UNHCR has made contingency plans in the event of mass displacement after the vote, including the stockpiling of shelter and basic provisions for up to 50,000 people.

Southerners on the move before Sudanese vote

New Arrivals in Yemen

During one six-day period at the end of March, more than 1,100 Somalis and Ethiopians arrived on the shores of Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden on smuggler's boats from Bosaso, Somalia. At least 28 people died during these recent voyages – from asphyxiation, beating or drowning – and many were badly injured by the smugglers. Others suffered skin problems as a result of prolonged contact with sea water, human waste, diesel oil and other chemicals.

During a recent visit to Yemen, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller pledged to further raise the profile of the situation, to appeal for additional funding and international action to help Yemen, and to develop projects that will improve the living conditions and self sufficiency of the refugees in Yemen.

Since January 2006, Yemen has received nearly 30,000 people from Somalia, Ethiopia and other places, while more than 500 people have died during the sea crossing and at least 300 remain missing. UNHCR provides assistance, care and housing to more than 100,000 refugees already in Yemen.

New Arrivals in Yemen

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

South Sudan Crisis: One Year OnPlay video

South Sudan Crisis: One Year On

Uganda: A Father's TroublesPlay video

Uganda: A Father's Troubles

Forty-five-year-old Gabriel fled South Sudan with his wife and children to find safety in the UN compound in Bor. But, in April 2014, his wife was killed when an armed mob forced their way in, and now he is a single father to five children, seeking a better life in Uganda.
Ethiopia: Far From Home Play video

Ethiopia: Far From Home

Nyabuka Lam arrived in Pagak, Ethiopia in September after escaping armed men who shot her three children and husband back in her home country, South Sudan. After walking for 15 days to reach the safety of Pagak, she is now finally on a path to recovery.