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Refugees find security in Ethiopia, but how long will it last?

Refugee children are suffering from high rates of acute malnutrition
Refugee children are suffering from high rates of acute malnutrition

A crisis is developing as conflict in South Sudan forces hundreds of thousands of people to flee to Ethiopia.

Gambella was already one of the poorest areas in Ethiopia when, in December 2013, it became home to over 76,000 refugees fleeing the fighting in South Sudan. As the conflict intensifies, The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is preparing to deal with another 150,000 in the near future. However, the deputy director of the Ethiopian Administration for Refugees, Ayalew Aweke, tells the Guardian newspaper that the actual figure could be as high as 300,000.

The fighting is between rebels, mostly from the Nuer ethnic group, and forces loyal to the South Sudanese government, mostly ethnic Dinkas. Many refugees have also fled to other neighbouring countries, like Uganda and Kenya. However, the impending rainy season could spell disaster, making it extremely difficult for aid organisations to transport supplies to refugee camps. Therefore, it is necessary to act quickly to address the challenges ahead and support the people involved.

The toll on children

Dr Peter Salama, who represents the UN children's agency (UNICEF) in Ethiopia, is particularly concerned about the number of children crossing the border without parents. Many children were separated from the families as the conflict began and have yet to find them, some never will. All refugee children are suffering from especially high rates of acute malnutrition, just under 38%, and Salama warns that they are at increased risk from a measles outbreak.

The refugees are mainly women and children from the Nuer ethnic group, since many Nuer men stayed behind to fight. However, there are reports of children as young as fourteen being kept behind in South Sudan in order to take up arms. Regardless of whether they have fled or not, all affected children need immediate aid to deal with the imminent risk and long term support to get their lives back on track.

Working hard to help

UN agencies and the Ethiopian government are doing their best to help the asylum seekers who have reached the country. Already UNICEF and the government have collaborated to ensure the vaccination of over 22,000 children against measles. Local people have also been very welcoming to those who are fleeing the crisis, and the Ethiopian government has confirmed that it will not close the borders.

However, as numbers grow and resources in the region become stretched, this welcome may become more and more strained. Equally, Salama warns of a large number of preventable deaths if the measles vaccination programme is not scaled up soon. Aid is needed now to help these vulnerable groups. However, as Gambella's regional president, Gatluak Tut Khot, tells the Guardian, the only long term solution is to bring the conflict in South Sudan to an end as soon as possible.

We are helping children and families affected by the crisis in South Sudan. Find out how we are helping the most vulnerable at this difficult time.