South Sudan, the newest country in the world, is already facing a crisis. With more than 170,000 refugees on its northern border, and hundreds of thousands of people who have returned since independence, the newborn country is struggling. In July, the U.N. Refugee Agency accompanied South Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek to her native country during the one-year anniversary of its independence.
Wek, a refugee herself, has used her celebrity status to raise awareness about refugee issues for more than a decade; last year a partnership between her and UNHCR began to gel. "I went home for the independence with an open mind and to see how the returnees and refugees were doing," Wek said. In spite of the jubilee and pride that punctuated the independence festivities, the refugee situation is going from bad to worse. UNHCR is the lead agency managing seven camps on the contentious border between the north and the south.
Torrential rains and complicated terrain are becoming lethal forces for the aid agency as it works to stave off an increasingly alarming situation. At the Yusuf Batil camp in Maban County, where Wek visited last month, 15% of the children are being rushed into acute malnutrition programs. In Upper Nile, nearly half the refugees are children under 11, and this group is suffering the most. South Sudan refugee camp overwhelmed Refugee crisis worsening in South Sudan After talking with refugees who had recently arrived in the camp, Wek said, "I can't believe it's been 20 years and people are still fleeing violence."
Wek participated in handing out soap and mosquito nets as part of a widespread health and sanitation program. In spite of these efforts, the camp is seizing from the impact of diseases such as malaria and diarrhea. At a mobile health clinic, many people show signs of malaria, including aid workers. "I am so impressed by UNHCR staff who live and work side by side with the refugees," Wek said. "It's really remarkable."