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Retooling Health Services for Internal Refugees in South Sudan

Poktap refugee camp in South Sudan, where staff supported by the John Dau Foundation are now providing nutrition support and health care.

Poktap refugee camp in South Sudan, where staff supported by the John Dau Foundation are now providing nutrition support and health care.

In 2014 there were almost 60 million refugees worldwide—more than at any time since detailed record keeping—according to a new report from the UN agency charged with helping refugees. The report also finds that one-sixth of the world’s refugees—11 million—are people who have been displaced within their countries. Called internally displaced persons, or IDPs, these “internal refugees” often don’t make the news because their displacement doesn’t disrupt another country. But their suffering and need is just as great.

In South Sudan the John Dau Foundation, an Aid for Africa member, has seen its mission altered and refocused on internal refugees because of ongoing fighting in that country since December 2013. The Foundation has supported the Duk Lost Boys Clinic, which was started by “lost boy” and genocide survivor John Dau in 2007 to provide health care to the people of the area.

During the conflict, Duk County has suffered some of the worst fighting in the country, according to Daniel Pisegna, the Foundation’s executive director. The clinic was destroyed and the population scattered. UNHCR estimates there were 1.4 million internal refugees in the country in 2014.

“Although the clinic is no longer operational, we have been able to provide support in refugee camps,” said Pisegna. That support has focused on nutrition, particularly for children five years old and younger and pregnant and lactating women.

“This conflict brought South Sudan to the brink of a severe famine, so the nutrition situation has been dire,” he said.

At the Poktap camp, women and young children gather daily for nutrition monitoring and food rations.

At the Poktap camp, women and young children gather daily for nutrition monitoring and food rations.

The staff of 20 from the Duk clinic are now working in three refugee camps, some in partnership with UNICEF and USAID, monitoring nutrition as well as providing maternity and primary care for some 40,000 internal refugees.

Word of the medical and nutrition services available at the camps has spread, attracting individuals from both sides of what has become a civil war. But conflict has been minimal.

“We don’t see a lot of animosity,” Pisegna said. “There is an understanding that the war has been unfortunate for everyone.”

Meanwhile, the work continues. Pisegna said that during the last nine months at the Poktap refugee camp, severe malnutrition has been reduced from 25 percent to 1 percent in children under five.

For the next six months, rain will make the camps unreachable by road. Supplies have been brought in and staff are in place to keep the health and nutrition programs in focus and ongoing.