Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan are one of four areas in Africa identified by the Office of United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) as places in crisis. With the political turmoil, poverty, and resource scarcity in Sudan, communities have been devastated as over 1.8 million persons have been forcibly displaced.
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 45.2 million people around the globe are displaced. Approximately half of this population are children under the age of 18, and of the remainder, another half are women. This means that the vulnerable populations of women and children account for roughly three-quarters of the globe’s forcibly displaced persons.
Erin Downey, Sc.D., MPH is familiar with refugee situations. For three years prior to Hurricane Katrina, as Director of Emergency Preparedness for the Louisiana Hospital Association, Downey had been building a crisis response system for the entire state of Louisiana. When Katrina hit, she was in a leadership position at the State Emergency Operations Center. After that, Downey was an analyst for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, an arm of the U.S. Department of State. She has been teaching hospital incident command systems, globally, since.
With a background in public health and her experience living in Louisiana during and after Katrina, Downey began to study the long term effects of disasters on displaced populations, particularly as it effects access to medical care. She spoke with the author who, in full disclosure is her cousin, about the situation in the Republic of Southern Sudan.
“In 2011, Sudan split into two countries. Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan,” Downey said. “The country split over a fight for oil resources,” she said. “Increasingly, we are seeing political crises being precipitated by a fight over scarce resources like oil and, in the case of Sudan, water,” Downey said. According to Downey, climate control plays a large role in political crises and especially in Africa as does access to food and the lack of stable employment. “When people are forced to relocate, the critical infrastructure of communities is devastated. Persons who are forcibly displaced lose access to the social systems that keep them safe and healthy,” Downey said. The loss of continuity of identities and safety disrupt people to their core, she said.
“Populations in Sudan move around in an effort to find food and shelter,” Downey said. In South Sudan where the daily wage is the equivalent of one dollar per day, families have to make tough decisions just to survive. According to Downey there are two manifestations of the financial pressures that cause families to split up and women and children to be in vulnerable situations. In the first, men have secure employment in dangerous areas, so they send their wives and children away to a more safe location. This creates a migrating and vulnerable population that is open to exploitation. In the second, women and children are left behind in areas that become dangerous while men are away from home to make money to support their families. In Sudan and other crisis areas, forcibly displaced persons are desperate because their communities have been devastated and often their families have been torn apart, Downey explained.
“The other thing we are seeing is an increase in the rate of land grabbing,” Downey said, describing a situation that sounds a lot like an encyclopedic definition for the survival of the fittest. To get resources, people come into an area and take property and resources from the existing inhabitants who then flee from their homes to find safety. This leaves people wandering around their countries or into other countries just to find food and shelter. Of the 45.2 million people who are forcibly displaced from their homes, 28.8 million of them are living within their own national boundaries and are thus considered internally displaced persons (IDPs). In the Sudan, there are 1.8 million IDPs.
In Sudan, South Sudan, and elsewhere, communities are devastated as whole segments of the population become persons forcibly displaced. Access to basic survival needs like food, water, and shelter become threatened. Emotional and societal structures also suffer. “Once people are forced or driven out of their homes, they lose continuity of identity. They lose their homes, their neighbors, their history, and their art” Downey said. “They also lose the critical infrastructures that keep them safe and secure, like education, religious institutions, and health care. These things are necessary to stablize populations,” said Downey. “It is truly devastating, and I haven’t even mentioned the mental health costs that are wrapped up in this,” she said. In a country where a large segment of the population is migratory, not everyone is affected equally. What is sure though, according to Downey, is that the results of such dispacements permeate every part of the society and have long-reaching and generational effects.
By Kaley Perkins