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Ambassador Affey: Refugees show us daily how far the strength of the human spirit can go

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In an interview on the current situation in Sudan and South Sudan, the Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, Ambassador Mohamed Abdi Affey, explains the biggest challenges faced.

With 1.6 million internally displaced persons and nearly 2.2 million South Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries, South Sudan continues to represent the largest displacement crisis in Africa, and one of the biggest globally.

Ambassador Affey discusses UNHCR’s work on the ground and emergency assistance to around 125,000 internally displaced people and refugees affected by the recent devastating floods in Sudan.

Since South Sudan continues to represent the largest displacement situation in Africa, could you tell us how does the situation look like there?

Indeed, the South Sudan situation represents the largest humanitarian and refugee crisis in Africa. The product of decades of war and conflict, more than 3.5 million South Sudanese people were forced to leave their home: 1.6 million people are displaced inside the country while over two million South Sudanese refugees have moved to neighboring countries, mainly Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia.

The vast majority of refugees are women and children, and at increased risk of malnutrition and gender-based violence. In addition to their daily struggle, when the rainy season arrives, flooding, food shortages and illness become part of their reality.

The geographic scope of displacement is also worrying, placing pressure on hosting neighboring countries and host communities and essential services such as education and healthcare.

The long-lasting nature of the crisis has also had an impact on funding, with a comprehensive response to the mounting needs threatened by donor fatigue.

In light of the challenges, greater international solidarity and responsibility-sharing are essential to assist people of concern. The South Sudan situation is a humanitarian emergency that demands the attention and support of the entire international community.

How is UNHCR responding to the current crisis?

UNHCR has an extensive experience in providing international protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, IDPs, returnees and stateless people and to seek durable solutions for uprooted people worldwide.

For the South Sudan situation, UNHCR and its partners are providing assistance for immediate needs in the area of health, education, energy, shelter, food, WaSH, nutrition, protection and access to basic services.

Sustainable, durable, voluntary and safe solutions to displacement are also being sought and complemented through livelihoods, cash interventions and in-kind contributions when possible.

However, the South Sudan situation is tremendously underfunded. As we approach the end of the year, UNHCR and its partners only received 41% of the US$720.9 million funding required to support South Sudanese refugees in 2020.

Education, health and food supplies are all severely underfunded, putting additional pressure on women and children, who represent 83 percent of the refugee population.

Today, I urged the international community to support and to increase funding to the South Sudan situation, especially in underfunded areas such as education, protection and livelihoods.

How did UNHCR respond to the flash floods that happened in Sudan? Any durable solutions taken for people inside Sudan.

At the beginning of September, several geographic zones of the country have been affected by seasonal rains, affecting around 125,000 of internally displaced people and refugees in Sudan. Material damages are considerable: homes and infrastructures have been destroyed and roads are impracticable, resulting the interruption of humanitarian operations.

In terms of hygiene and sanitation, latrines have been damaged or destroyed and water supplies are contaminated. In this context, COVID-19 measures are impossible to apply and the risks of contamination is very high in such emergency situation. It is very alarming! In addition to their material loss, the people affected by conflicts are also facing economic challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of outcomes and opportunities.

UNHCR and its partners, in collaboration with the Government of Sudan, are provided emergency assistance to affected populations, including host communities.

However, even before the floods, the situation was dramatically underfunded. Today, the financial support of the international community is urgently needed in order to provide humanitarian assistance to displaced people and host communities in Sudan.

To be noted that flooding it is a seasonal issue for several countries in the region, including South Sudan. While yet not severe as the 2019 floods, an estimated more than 850,000 people have been affected since July this year. There, UNHCR is supporting the inter-agency response and delivering life-saving assistance to vulnerable families affected by rising waters.

UNHCR assists people affected by climate induced displacement as a humanitarian duty, and always in collaboration with government and inter-agency partners.

How is UNHCR Sudan (and S Sudan?) responding to the current health crisis, the COVID19 outbreak? (Any preventive measures taken regarding refugees and displaced families?)

The COVID virus knows no borders and is ready to attack all populations without distinction.  National health security is thus dependent on the health situation of all people within a given jurisdiction, regardless of status.  UNHCR, in line with its mandate, is doing its bit to ensure that refugees, displaced persons and their host communities are assisted to prevent the spread of the virus, and to mitigate its effect.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNHCR Sudan has provided continuous efforts to apply preventive measures for displaced population. Among the measures, we can mention the implementation of physical distancing measures in the camps, regular information sharing and coordination with partners and persons of concern, surveillance and disease control, protection measures such as the mapping of people with special needs and nutrition and food security measures.

The COVID-19 pandemic has a ripple effect and it affected strongly displaced persons who were already struggling to meet their basic needs. As it is a global issue, we should all join our efforts to assist the most vulnerable people and adequately support them in their recovery.What is the biggest challenge right now?
The biggest challenge is the limited financial resources in the area of education, protection, health, shelters etc. As UNHCR aims to find durable solutions for refugees and IDPs, livelihoods opportunities are also part of the top priorities in order for refugees to become self-reliant and autonomous. Refugees are capable, they are hard-workers and they have skills – all they need is some support to create a thriving life.However, despite the current challenge, it is very important to mention that there is a slight hope for refugees and IDPs in the region. Indeed, the new Peace Agreement signed in early October between Sudan’s transitional government and a coalition of rebel armed groups provides a turning point in the regional landscape. After almost two decades of war, the country has finally reached a peace agreement, bringing stability to conflict areas and laying foundation for democratic transition and economic reform in the country. This peace agreement represents an immense hope for refugees in the region, longing to return home after fleeing from violence and persecution.Within the framework of the Nairobi Declaration, the two governments of Sudan and South Sudan have agreed to pursue durable solutions for their displaced persons through a regional process under the auspices of IGAD, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. Partners including UNHCR, the European Commission, World Bank and others are coming together in coming weeks with IGAD and the two governments to define a roadmap that will culminate in a High Level Heads of State and Government meeting in the first quarter of 2021. This is a unique opportunity for the international community – including states, private sector, civil society, development partners, diaspora organizations and academia – to join the initiative and to be part of the solutions process. This will be a real opportunity for lasting solutions for refugees and IDPs in both countries. Let’s support this initiative through concerted efforts and joint action!

What are the implications of the lack of support/ funding? How will this affect refugee families?

In addition to the pain and trauma caused by the uprooting, the lack of funding and opportunities creates frustration for refugees, desperately longing for a brighter life.

The conditions in the camps are extremely difficult – especially for a protracted situation like South Sudan. Sometimes young refugees lose hope and unfortunately, they take the risk and attempt to take the atrociously dangerous migration route to Europe in search for a ‘better life’ on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea.

It also creates a generation of hopeless people, living a dull life with no dreams and ambitions. But I am convinced that there is hope! If we get together and provide enough support to displaced people, a new life can emerge from the dust. It is extremely important to remind the international community and the donors that their contributions are needed and they can make a difference.

What is the message you would like to voice on behalf of refugees and displaced families in Africa (Mainly Yemenis and Sudanese)?

In the name of refugees and displaced families in Africa, I would like to share a message to the international community. In the Horn of Africa and in the Middle East and Northern Africa region, millions of people left a whole life behind to become uprooted with no bearings. They escaped war, persecutions and unimaginable situations and all they dream of is dignity and humanity.

They are like you and me – everyone can become a refugee from one day to the next. This is why, once again, I request the international community and leaders to support the displaced people and to help creating favorable living conditions for them.

We must all come together to assist children, women and men, people with specific needs and elderly people. My appeal is to support the work of UNHCR and other humanitarian actors so that refugees in Yemen and Sudan are able to thrive and to build a new life with hope.

If, you can choose three primary beliefs you learned from working with refugees, what would they be? 

It’s a point of honor for me to meet refugees when I go on mission and I must admit that I am always impressed by their strength and resilience. I do believe that refugees in the Horn of Africa are the most resilient population in the world.

Some people were born in a refugee camp and despite the difficult conditions, they continue to have children and to raise them with the hope of a better future. To me, the Somalis and the South Sudanese refugees demonstrate daily the value of resilience and patience despite their protracted situations, and their only hope is to be able to return their home one day.

Nobody wants to become a refugee and nobody wants to stay a refugee forever. Also, refugees show us daily how far the strength of the human spirit can go. Despite the harsh conditions, they continue to love and to show kindness to each other.

UNHCR will continue to provide assistance to those in need and we hope to count on the generous contributions of donors and international community to help us.

How working in the humanitarian field is different from working everywhere else?

When I joined UNHCR few years ago, it was a real eye opener and it continues to be. To me, the best lesson I have learnt is that with a little intervention, we can change the lives of people and give them hope. Also, working with refugees reinforced my faith in humanity. When I see a refugee, I see another human being and I am always impressed how similar we are.

During my different assignments with UNHCR, I visited several countries affected by displacement and met thousands of refugees from different areas and backgrounds. Among this population, I have met former ministers, former military general or former rich businessman.

These people were having a comfortable life but when it comes to war, it doesn’t make any distinction whether you are wealthy or not, all you have to do is escape. These people lost their possessions and foundations but they never lost their strength. With their courage, they show us that as long as we are alive, we must continue to fight.

Can you recall a specifically inspiring story or moment during your visit to Sudan?

I have so many inspiring stories that I could not even narrate only one! Generally, I must admit that the human stories that I have witnessed in South Sudan and Sudan are quite spectacular. For some reasons, I am always particularly touched by young refugees who were born and raised in a refugee camp but they study at the university with the aim to one day go back to their country of origin and l participate in the reconstruction.

Also, I have seen mothers that, despite the challenging situation, continue to provide education to their children. With the support of UNHCR and other partners, they are able to send their children to school so they can receive educational tools for life. Education is extremely important and unfortunately, it is underfunded. We must unite and support refugee mothers, fathers and children to have a brighter future!

If anyone reading this right now and interested in working in the field of serving others, what would your advice be?

To me, there is no job that could give you passion and satisfaction as the humanitarian sector. It is sometimes difficult and tiresome but it also the most satisfying assignment somebody can take. Supporting each other and making a difference in the life of another human being can only give you more strength to continue your duty. I would encourage everyone to get involved in helping others, at your own scale – that way we can change the world.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in the world right now? How can communities work to fight it?

I believe in compassion, respect and love for each other. Love is the most powerful feeling in the world and with love, everything is possible. We must appreciate our differences and appreciate even more what makes us similar – when I see you, I see me. With the COVID-19 situation, today it’s time more than ever to support and care for each other.

Let’s put love and compassion at the center of our lives and we will learn and grow from each other!

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