Q&A: UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi on South Sudan's 'dead ends'

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. Photo by: UNMISS / CC BY-NC-ND

South Sudan is the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency’s Global Trends report released Monday. Since fighting broke out in 2013, 2 million people have fled to neighboring countries, with another 2 million internally displaced.

During his first visit to the world’s youngest nation, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said it’s the government’s responsibility to restore peace.

He also called on a global community to exert its influence: “The international community has a responsibility in the future of this country,” Grandi said. “Most of the world supported the South Sudan project and we can’t let it go after so short.”

During his three days in South Sudan, Grandi visited protection of civilian sites, where civilians seek protection and refuge at existing U.N. bases, in the capital of Juba as well as in the town of Bentiu. Bentiu hosts the country’s largest camp, with 120,000 internally displaced people.

“The coincidence of violence, ethnic strife, underdevelopment and poverty, climatic factors and,  frankly, international neglect that you see [in Bentiu], is matched nowhere else in the world.”

— Filippo Grandi, U.N. high commissioner for refugees

Grandi said the camps aren’t ideal, as they create a “kingdom of dependency,” and is urging the government to provide security so that people feel safe enough to move back into their homes.

Devex accompanied Grandi on his trip to Bentiu’s U.N protected camp and spoke with him about his impressions after the visit. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What struck you about the IDPs camp?

I don’t think that the protection of civilian sites are ideal at all, as clearly these are places where people become very quickly dependent on aid, and there are no opportunities for any kind of self-reliance. As well, the opportunities for education are rather limited.

On the other hand, when you ask people why they stay there and why they don’t take the opportunity to leave, the answer you get is that people are afraid. It’s very difficult for me to judge after two days whether that fear is genuine, but frankly I believe that what is happening in this country justifies the concern of many people about their safety. The U.N, as a whole, is in a bit of a dilemma. We certainly must continue to offer people a safe space, but at the same time we have to avoid that they become dependent and live for a long time in a camp-like situation.

This was your first trip to South Sudan. How does what you’ve seen here so far compare to other countries in similar situations?

The coincidence of violence, ethnic strife, underdevelopment and poverty, climatic factors and,  frankly, international neglect that you see here, is matched nowhere else in the world at the moment. In my year and a half as high commissioner, I’ve made it a point to go to our most difficult places where our colleagues work including: Afghanistan, Somalia, Lake Chad region, Ukraine, the list is long. I’ve almost completed this very grim tour, but nowhere did I feel this sense that wherever you look, there are dead ends. I think we can still do something, but we desperately need international pressure on the parties to go back to the table, and be serious about peace. Otherwise all the other things cannot be done, and we’re back to the protection of civilian sites as the only solution, which is really short term.

South Sudan is the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world. What worries you the most if it’s not scaled back?

One of the interlocutors told me that this is a country emptying itself into neighboring countries, and communities are emptying themselves somewhere else. This is terrible if you think about it and this needs to stop. It can only stop if people feel some confidence that there is a secure future. The rates of arrivals in the three main countries of asylum — Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda — continue to be very high, with thousands of people per day entering since the July events. That seems to be a turning point here, as everyone always refers to the fighting in Juba as the tipping point in the trust process.

Doesn’t the international community have a large responsibility?

When this country was created six years ago, it was also created because the international community, most of it, supported the South Sudan project. Somehow the refugees leaving the country are addressing that international community and are bringing the message outside of the country and saying now you have to help us. When I met the refugees in Uganda, overwhelmingly, they wanted to return here. There was no sense, as in some other situations, of no more return. However, they told me that this isn’t the first time. For many, this is the second and third time and the level of confidence goes down with repeated exiles. I think the international community, and especially states of the region that have an influence on the parties, need to exercise that influence with much more determination. I think that unfortunately in this country, like with many other internal conflicts, there doesn't’ seem to be enough will to move towards peace. You need some outside help to do that.

Do you think UNHCR needs to play a role in building more permanent shelters for people when they leave the protection of civilian sites?

I don’t think it’s too early to start thinking of what needs to be done if there ever is a political solution. Sometimes they come quicker than you expect and you need to be ready to help people go back, because clearly these aren’t people who are just afraid — they are people who have lost everything.

“Peace building is something the international community has not got right yet.”

UNHCR isn’t really a long-term reconstruction organization, but we can certainly do as we’re doing in Iraq, with a displaced intermediate solution. What would be interesting would be to see if the big development organizations, who are experts in reconstruction and who have the resources and the means, would be prepared to come here. Perhaps now it’s premature with this very fraught situation, but if things progress, would they be ready to invest early in the process when it is still probably going to be a bit fragile? This is what we see over and over again. Fragile pieces being put together, the situation still very mixed in a country and then development resources waiting outside. This is really a problem, and peace building is something the international community has not got right yet.

How do you convince development community that it’s worth spending money here given the context?

If you have to spend money in a country which is coming out of conflict, it’s as worth risking development resources that are longer term as it is to put humanitarian money in, that in any case doesn’t last for very long. Humanitarian money saves lives, which is an imperative, but development money allows people to stay in. If you don’t take that risk, I don't think peace can come easily to these countries.

I imagine the [U.N.] secretary-general, in his vision, is trying to say, let’s make peace politically but let’s ensure that development comes on the heels of it very quickly, because otherwise you continuously miss opportunities. We’ve seen it in so many places, this delay in development. It’s not only houses, but building institutions, a reliable police force, an interethnic army. This is reconstruction. If you don’t do that, you see countries falling apart very quickly. We’ve started hearing good noises from institutions like the World Bank and there’s much more attention on what they call fragility. Bankers take risks when it’s about profits — why don’t they take risks when it’s about the development of people?

How do you walk the line between offering support to people but not creating a dependency?

It’s difficult. One thing organizations on the ground have proposed, is if they put 100 into relief operations in the camp, to put 100 or 200 outside. A lot of resources are going into that camp, such as water and food, and they need to make a deliberate choice to invest outside. The people working there told me that they feel there are some people who will leave the camp if they think there’s enough material support. It’s important to make that investment outside, so that there is no excuse for people to stay there just because this is the only place they can get their blanket, their food or their water. That investment is not yet there, it’s more imbalanced toward the protection of civilian sites. That’s a very pragmatic way of looking at the situation, but we need more resources and this isn’t a very well-funded operation.

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About the author

  • Sam Mednick

    Sam Mednick is a Devex Contributing Reporter based in Burkina Faso. Over the past 15 years she has reported on conflict, post-conflict, and development stories from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. She recently spent almost three years reporting on the conflict in South Sudan as the Associated Press correspondent. Her work has also appeared in The New Humanitarian, VICE, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and Al Jazeera, among others.