Tracing his fingers over the metal fencing at a United Nations protected site in South Sudan’s capital, Nhial Nyuot Nhial hung his head as he contemplated going home after years of civil war. “At the moment it’s impossible for someone to leave,” he said.
The 33-year-old is among tens of thousands of people who are still sheltering in such camps across the country, the legacy of an unprecedented decision by a U.N. peacekeeping mission to throw open its doors to people fleeing war.
Nhial has been in the Juba camp since 2014, shortly after the country erupted in fighting. A fragile peace deal signed between President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar in September has brought little comfort. Like many in the camps, Nhial still fears for his life and refuses to leave.
What began as a temporary experiment is looking more like a permanent refuge for more than 190,000 people living in squalor in the six U.N. protected sites. Now the U.N. is pushing for the camps to close, amid warnings by the international community that rushing the process could re-ignite violence among ethnic groups.
“If or when the walls of the protection sites come down, there will still be dangerous intercommunal tensions and massive protection needs,” said Lauren Spink, senior researcher on peacekeeping for the Center for Civilians in Conflict, an international non-profit group.
An internal U.N. draft shared with aid agencies in September and seen by The Associated Press detailed a plan for “all services to be permanently relocated outside” Juba’s two U.N. sites by the end of January, according to the document.
The plan, which was never made public, has yet to be implemented and U.N. mission chief David Shearer said there has been no decision to close the camps at any particular time. “People moving back to their homes have to make their own decisions,” he told the AP.
Five years of fighting have killed almost 400,000 people and left more than seven million, or two-thirds of the population, in “dire need” of humanitarian assistance, according to South Sudan’s 2019 humanitarian response plan, which will cost $1.5 billion.
The country’s cash-strapped government doesn’t have the means to resettle the more than four million people who have been displaced from their homes. More than two million of them fled the country.
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