South Sudan, Famine, Bangladesh Workers’ Rights: 19 Feb 2017

In this week’s prayer email:

  • South Sudan
  • Averting Famine
  • Short Notes: Bangladesh Workers’ Rights, Iraq and Pakistan

There are challenging words in this week’s Revised Common Lectionary readings. They remind us that the call to holiness and love of neighbour is nothing abstract or easy: it entails everything from ensuring that all – including the “poor and the alien” – have what they need … to taking responsibility for helping each other live rightly … to loving enemies and praying for those who persecute us. As we ponder the readings, it’s good to let their challenge sink in … and to ask for grace to follow what they command.
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South Sudan

Please continue to pray for people affected by the disastrous situation in South Sudan.

In December, the UN warned the country was on the brink of genocide.  Atrocities continue to be perpetrated, and this week a general of the government Sudan People’s Liberation Army, Lieutenant General Thomas Cirillo Swaka (a man who is respected by the international community) resigned saying, “President Kiir and his Dinka leadership clique have tactically and systematically transformed the SPLA into a partisan and tribal army. Terrorising their opponents, real or perceived, has become a preoccupation of the government.” The terrifying and costly impacts of the chaotic situation on local people trying to bring health care and relief to their region can be read here.

South Sudan’s economy is in ruins, with even military families – who would normally be amongst the more privileged – facing extreme hardship. Inflation rose to 830 percent at the end of last year and prices of basic foodstuffs are beyond the reach of most.

The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that nearly 7.5 million people in South Sudan are in need of humanitarian assistance and say that hunger and malnutrition have reached historic levels. They expect as many as 5 million people to be severely food insecure this year, adding, “more than one million children under age 5 are estimated to be acutely malnourished, including more than 273,600 who are severely malnourished”.

Over 1.5 million people have fled South Sudan since civil war broke out in December 2013,  making this the third largest refugee crisis in the world after Syria and Afghanistan. Some 698,000 refugees are being hosted in Uganda – the number tripling over the course of 6 months. More refugees entered Uganda last year than crossed the Mediterranean (PRI, UNHCR figures).  The UN reported that an average of over 3,300 people a day – more than 46,500 in total – entered during the two weeks between the 25th of January and the 7th of February. This represents more than the total number of asylum seekers being supported by the UK government at the year ending September 2016. And officials reported even greater numbers of people – 4,000 a day – entering in the week prior to February 16th.

Uganda has been lauded internationally for its openness to refugees. In addition to keeping its borders open, it has an official policy of allowing refugees freedom to travel and work, and to access education and health services. It also operates a ‘self-sufficiency policy’ offering refugees small plots of land on which to build houses and grow their own food, as well as basic resources to help with doing so – something which has been shown to benefit surrounding communities as well.

Uganda is endeavouring to do all this on a large scale very rapidly: the Bidibidi refugee camp has received over 270,000 refugees from South Sudan and is now at full capacity, having become one of the world’s largest refugee camps in just 6 months.  A piece from the Norwegian Refugee Council, published also in The Guardian, illustrates some positive stories of refugees and hosts in and around it. Amongst the refugees featured is 17-year-old Mary Kiden, who fled to Uganda from South Sudan last October with her brother and sisters. She expresses a note of hope: “It is good to be in Uganda. They allocated us a piece of land, we have free access to medical services and we feel safe. People were killed in South Sudan. It made me afraid. Here we no longer need to listen to the sound of the guns.”  Never Rukia, a Ugandan who is featured, says, “Wars are no good for the civilians. I am glad Uganda can give them land and provide security. It has some benefits for us as well. There are more goods being sold at the market now. And there are clean water sources available to us, as well as the refugees. I think we should stay together in harmony and share the available resources”.

The volume of refugees entering Uganda has, however, caused stresses in transit sites, refugee camps, and within the host communities. At a transit site in the Moyo district, refugees interviewed by Radio Miraya reported “dire conditions, mentioning a lack of basic necessities ranging from food, water and shelter to toilets and medicines.” Bidibidi has had issues with provision of water, power and food. With respect to food, last August a lack of funding forced the World Food Programme, UNHCR and the government of Uganda to halve the rations of South Sudanese refugees who had been in Uganda for more than a year – and as land becomes more scarce, the plots being given to some newer refugees to cultivate are widely recognised as not capable of supporting their needs. There are also tensions and flare-ups within the camp between refugees from different ethnic groups as the head of the camp, Robert Baryamwesiga, explains: “What is happening over in South Sudan affects the relationships of refugees in the settlement a great deal.”

As another snapshot, in this piece from Medecins sans Frontières, Rose and Richard share their stories of the violence that drove them to flee South Sudan and their experiences in the Bidibidi camp. They describe the relief they have found in Uganda, both in the finding a place of safety and in receiving basic, if limited, provisions.  But Richard, who now works as a translator for MSF, also describes the difficulties faced by people in the camp: “Most of our patients here have malaria. People are sleeping outside or have nowhere to hang the mosquito nets that have been distributed. There is also a lot of diarrhoea. People are neglecting the basics, cutting back on food and water, because they’re in a desperate situation and then they fall ill.” He also recalls a frightening altercation with some members of the local community in a dispute over land.

The Government of Uganda has noted that it cannot continue to absorb refugees well at current levels without greater assistance from the international community.

Please pray:

  • For peace in South Sudan – may God turn the hearts of the violent towards peace, and bring together the right people to work towards a new, just future
  • For healing for those who have suffered and/or are suffering as a result of the conflict.
  • In thanksgiving for all people and countries which are generous in welcoming refugees. Pray that they may receive the assistance that is necessary to enable them to continue their humanitarian efforts.

Averting Famine

South Sudan is one of four countries on the brink of famine. Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia are also at risk. Gareth Owen, humanitarian director of Save the Children, said: “The potential this year is we may have four famines looming, which is a truly scary thought and will stretch our resources. We are at a critical moment.” But the danger extends even more widely, with Owen adding, “Right now, in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, there are 12 million people affected [by food insecurity]. These three countries together look as bad as Somalia in 2011. If you add South Sudan on top of that, with that conflict, and Nigeria, you have millions more. And Yemen has 18 million people. That’s creating this real concern that we are facing a major crisis that we have not seen before.”

In Yemen, the UN estimates that “an alarming 18.8 million people – more than two thirds of the population – are in need of humanitarian assistance. An estimated 10.3 million people are acutely affected and need some form of immediate humanitarian assistance to save and sustain their lives including food, health and medical services, clean water & sanitation and protection. Nearly 3.3 million people – including 2.1 million children – are acutely malnourished while 2 million people remain internally displaced”. Launching an appeal on February 8th to raise US$2.1 billion in assistance for Yemen, Stephen O’Brien, from the UN’s OCHA, said, “Two years of war have devastated Yemen and millions of children, women and men desperately need our help. Without international support, they may face the threat of famine in the course of 2017 and I urge donors to sustain and increase their support to our collective response.”

The FAO report that immediate intervention is needed to assist over 5 million people facing food insecurity in north-east Nigeria. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network says evidence indicates there has already been famine in some inaccessible parts of Borno State and that “There is an elevated likelihood that famine is ongoing and will continue in the inaccessible areas of Borno State”. In its analysis of the situation the FAO say, “The Boko Haram insurgency has led to massive displacements and high levels of food insecurity in the area. Already poor and vulnerable host communities have absorbed large numbers of people fleeing violence, placing considerable pressure on fragile agricultural and pastoral livelihoods, while the insecurity has severely disrupted markets and food availability”.

Oxfam has an appeal for the wider West Africa region, saying “A desperate humanitarian crisis is growing in parts of West Africa as a result of the ongoing conflict with Boko Haram and the military operations to counter them. The violence has spread from north-east Nigeria into neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon forcing 2.6 million people to flee their homes and leaving over 11 million people in need of emergency aid. Unable to grow or buy food, or get to humanitarian aid, millions are going hungry. Thousands of people are estimated to have died already”.

Somalia is also at risk of famine. The short rainy season at the end of last year was poor and there is concern that if the long rainy season, due to start in April, fails, the possibility of famine will return. Already more than 6 million people – over half the population of Somalia – are in need of assistance (according to the FAO and Famine Early Warning Systems Network), with 3 million of these projected to be  “in crisis” or “in emergency” between now and June (up from 1.1 million six months ago).

The UN’s Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Peter de Clercq has warned, “we need to rapidly step up the humanitarian response to effectively respond to the extensive needs and avert a famine. If we do not scale up the drought response immediately, it will cost lives, further destroy livelihoods, and could undermine the pursuit of key State-building and peacebuilding initiatives. A drought – even one this severe – does not automatically have to mean catastrophe if we can respond early enough with timely support from the international community.”

Please pray:

  • For local and international organizations seeking to bring relief and aid in the face of multiple, acute crises and the resultant strain on resources and staff.
  • That governments, businesses and people around the world will respond to the extraordinary humanitarian needs rapidly and with generosity.
  • that in all the areas involved, God will bring an end to their conflicts, turn the hearts of the violent towards peace, and satisfy the needs of those who have suffered and are suffering because of the violence.

Short Notes: Bangladesh Workers’ Rights, Iraq and Pakistan

  • “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.”Please pray for the safety, well-being – and release – of Bangladeshi labour leaders and garment workers who have been imprisoned after workers struck for a rise in the minimum wage. The minimum monthly wage for people working a 48-hour week (8 hours a day, 6 days a week) in Bangladesh is about $67, a little under £54: a worker on this wage is below the World Bank poverty level. In theory, overtime could give more (many labourers work far more hours) – but overtime abuses are rife, and pay can be docked for any number of causes, from making an error on a piece of work to not meeting a target (which could be 120 to 150 pieces of work an hour for 14 hours). The Asia Floor Wage Alliance has calculated that a living wage in Bangladesh would be $367 (£296) a month. Pray that the workers’ actions will lead to fairer pay and conditions for labourers in Bangladesh and more generally throughout the world. Pray that companies with supply chains in Bangladesh will genuinely press for action in this area.
  • Pray for those who were injured or who mourn the dead in the recent bombing of a street of car dealerships and garages frequented by Shia Muslims in Baghdad, which killed almost 60 people and injured 66. The Islamic State claimed responsibility. Pray, too, for the residents of Western Mosul, which the Iraqi Government is hoping to retake from the Islamic State: there are reports that hundreds of thousands of civilians are suffering from hunger and lack of access to water, and are generally ‘under extreme duress’.  Pray for those injured or left mourning by an attack, also claimed by the Islamic State, on a Sufi shrine in Pakistan. Pray for wisdom for all responding to the attacks and grant that they may act with courage and discernment, and avoid the temptation to mirror the behaviours they fight.

Featured Image: David Lemi, a refugee from South Sudan, photographed near his new home in Bidi Bidi refugee camp, Uganda. Image from Trocaire on Flickr: http://bit.ly/2leoaVZ. Reproduced with thanks via Creative Commons License.