Thousands of South Sudanese children are growing up in United Nations protection sites around the country after their parents sought sanctuary from the violent civil war that erupted more than five years ago.
Some have lived their entire short lives in the camps. They were born there. They live in tents, surviving on food rations and are now starting their primary schooling at educational facilities provided by humanitarian agencies.
The camps next to UN bases were set up to protect vulnerable people facing imminent threat of physical violence at a time of crisis. There is no doubt that many lives have been saved as a result.
However, as relative calm has begun to descend on many parts of the country, refugees and displaced people are beginning to return. In recent months, 95% of those arriving at UN camps in the capital Juba say they are not in immediate fear for their lives or seeking protection. Rather, they are looking to access basic services and reunite with family.
“PoCs (Protection of Civilians sites) are a last resort, not a long-term solution,” said David Shearer, the Head of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). “They are certainly not a place where children should grow up if we want them to reach their full potential.”
David Shearer, who is also the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, said the priority is to support communities and provide services in the areas outside the camps that people want to return to.
“We will work in full cooperation with our humanitarian partners to re-establish services in communities over time rather than continuing to use PoC sites as convenient hubs for delivering aid or because of a lack of housing,” he said. “There is also a fairness issue. We need to ensure that those who go home are not disadvantaged because they don’t receive education and healthcare while those living in the protection sites do.”
One of the greatest challenges is finding land for the internally displaced persons to return to.
“This is the responsibility of the government – both national and local,” said David Shearer. “The homes of some people living in PoC sites have also been illegally occupied by others. That is also the responsibility of the government, to ensure these are vacated for families to move back to.”
David Shearer said the Mission will do all it can to ensure the safety of those who choose to return home. It will also continue to work closely with humanitarian agencies and the government on this process.