With fighting in Sudan now in its seventh week, there are no signs of an end to hostilities.
The US and Saudi Arabia suspended ceasefire talks on Thursday due to repeated violations of multiple ceasefires, as the country plunges further into a deep humanitarian crisis.
Humanitarian agencies are struggling to deliver much needed aid, while the UNHCR has repeatedly called for an end to the conflict.
“We want to save lives by restarting programmes in the most affected locations, and go in and deliver humanitarian aid,” the UNHCR’s spokeswoman for the East, Horn of Africa and Great Lakes region, Faith Kasina, told The National.
Speaking from Nairobi, she spoke of the “real frustration” in the agency’s “inability to access or provide help to vulnerable people in need of desperate humanitarian need in Sudan.”
She added that the limited resources to support neighbouring countries without a regional refugee response has been a major challenge.
“It’s a huge amount and it's expensive. The humanitarian response is challenging given the logistical issues that we are currently having.”
About 378,000 people have crossed from Sudan to neighbouring countries, including refugees, asylum seekers and returnees, especially those in South Sudan.
While the largest numbers have fled to Egypt – about 169,000 – Chad has also taken in 100,000 and about 80,000 have crossed to South Sudan.
“The situation of people arriving is quite dire. Ninety per cent of new arrivals are woman and children.”
“People are exhausted from travelling for days and weeks trying to get to these border locations and they don’t have much on them. They are entirely depending on humanitarian agencies” Ms Kasina added.
“These areas also have very limited infrastructure and very limited resourcing. When people arrive, they need food, clean water, shelter, health care and all the essentials that they need to survive”
Last month, the UN called for $3 billion in funding for life saving aid for Sudan to help one million refugees, returnees and third country nationals.
“The security situation is hampering our ability to continue with our normal operations beyond minimal monitoring.”
Fighting forced the UNHCR to relocate staff from Khartoum to Port Sudan as well as Nairobi. The security situation is not only dangerous in the big cities, but also in refugee camps.
UNHCR is “aware of reports on human trafficking … That’s why we are boosting our activities in the camps, to raise awareness of the dangers of taking those channels” said Ms Kasina.
“We have raised the issue with the Sudanese authorities” who in turn have assured the agency that they are increasing border monitoring to ensure no one is forcibly returned, kidnapped or trafficked.
About 150,000 have fled Khartoum and relocated to safer cities in the country, such as White Nile, Gedaref, and Port Sudan where the UNHCR is still present.
“A huge concern for us are the people who remain, held up somehow in Khartoum. Because if the fighting continues our ability to access some of these vulnerable people is greatly constrained”.
New Darfur crisis
Last month, the governor of Darfur, Mini Miniawi, called on residents to arm themselves for self-protection.
Fighting has intensified and entire villages have been burnt to the ground. Aid agencies are now warning that the region is on the brink of a “humanitarian catastrophe”.
“The situation is worsening in Darfur and we’ve seen reports of escalating violence. We know that civilians including refugees and IDPs are living in dire conditions … But our ability to assist there has been seriously hampered because of the situation. We’re not able to go in to monitor effectively, to know the extent of the needs,” Ms Kasina said.
The UNHCR has set up hotlines running 24 hours a day. “We are trying to ensure we remain in touch with some of the refugees.”
The mission is not easy, and many refugees are stranded or unable to flee cities to neighbouring countries.
“For the most part it’s been very positive. Particularly in cases like Chad, South Sudan, and the [Central] African Republic. They had existing large populations of refugees and significant funding particularly for humanitarian activities at large,” said Ms Kasina.
“But the sudden influx has been very challenging, people need immediate assistance, our resources have been stretched. We ask countries to keep their borders open.”