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JUBA, South Sudan, April 1 (UNHCR) - The heads of the UN refugee agency and the World Food Programme (WFP) today warned that the crisis in South Sudan could endanger millions of lives in the coming months if urgent action is not taken to put an end to the conflict and support the civilians who are struggling to survive.
"It is essential that the international community urgently comes together and does everything possible for the parties to forge peace," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. "If there is no peace in the next few months, the humanitarian situation risks becoming catastrophic."
Guterres's remarks came at the end of a two-day visit to South Sudan with WFP's Executive Director Ertharin Cousin. The two top UN officials said everyone - humanitarian agencies, donors and parties to the conflict - had a responsibility to see that civilians affected by the violence could receive help. They called on the parties to the conflict to spare no effort to bring about peace, and on the international community to make additional resources available to assist those most affected.
"Women we met in Nyal [in South Sudan's Unity state] who have been affected by the conflict asked us to convey three messages to the world: they need peace, assistance to relieve their suffering, and the chance for their children to return to school," a joint press statement quoted Cousin as saying. "Ordinary people are bearing the brunt of this conflict, and agencies like ours are facing far too many obstacles in trying to assist them. This must change. Lives are at stake."
The statement said that the heads of the two UN agencies had noted that the humanitarian community faced twin obstacles in trying to provide urgently needed assistance to internally displaced people, refugees and other vulnerable groups. They expressed concern that a mix of insecurity and other direct impediments to humanitarian access, as well as severe funding shortages for aid agencies, may combine to leave far too many people cut off from assistance as the conflict continues to wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods.
"It is tragic to see former refugees who returned with so much hope once again fleeing for their lives," High Commissioner Guterres said.
During their trip to South Sudan, Guterres and Cousin met with people displaced by the conflict who have taken shelter in the remote town of Nyal, where both the local community and an estimated 25,000 internally displaced people have struggled to access food and other basic necessities and where agencies, including WFP, have begun distributing assistance. They also visited IDPs sheltering at a UN peace-keeping base in the South Sudan capital, Juba, in dismal conditions.
The two agency chiefs discussed the crisis with President Salva Kiir and other government officials, and received the president's commitment to facilitate and support humanitarian assistance to all civilians in need. They also met with donor representatives and other members of the humanitarian community.
On Wednesday, they depart for Ethiopia, where they will meet some of the more than 80,000 refugees who have sought shelter there since the crisis began.
More than 800,000 people have been displaced in South Sudan by the conflict, which began on last December 15. This includes 68,000 people who are sheltering in UN peace-keeping bases. Another 254,000 refugees have crossed into neighbouring countries seeking shelter and food. Additionally, South Sudan was also hosting some 220,000 refugees from Sudan in camps close to conflict areas.
In the more than 100 days since the start of the conflict, more than half-a-million people have received food assistance inside the country, but continued conflict, combined with the onset of the rainy season has made it difficult to reach many people in need. The relief effort has been further hampered by a severe lack of funds.
An inter-agency appeal led by UNHCR is calling for more than US$370 million to fund the refugee response in Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda. Inside South Sudan, WFP is facing a funding shortfall of US$224 million over the next six months, while humanitarian partners require a further US$42 million for shelter and other non-food items.
Despite the crisis, Guterres noted that "South Sudan still has much promise and its people are extraordinarily resilient. It is a moral imperative that the international community doesn't fail them at this tragic moment."