“We only need peace,” Regina Emilio, a 59-year-old grandmother, told Refugees International (RI) outside her shelter in Wau, South Sudan. She is one of more than four million South Sudanese forced to flee their homes since civil war broke out in December 2013, just two years after the nation gained independence.
Today, Regina is one of some 200,000 people living in such Protection of Civilian (PoC) sites. These unique and unprecedented sites are essentially displacement camps set up within or directly next to UN peacekeeping bases. They are surrounded by walls and razor wire, patrolled by UN peacekeepers, and cut off from access for government soldiers. The PoC sites have been described as the UN’s best and worst ideas in South Sudan. When fighting first broke out, they undoubtedly saved tens of thousands of lives by providing a safe area between fleeing civilians and the forces targeting them. However, the sites were originally meant only to stay open just a few days. More than five years later, they remain open, presenting unique challenges to their inhabitants.
Regina and other displaced persons in the camps described the challenges of reduced rations, rampant crime, and difficulty obtaining sufficient firewood and charcoal for cooking. Leaving the sites to gather wood is dangerous, and women are often targeted and subject to sexual violence. UN peacekeepers organize occasional protected treks to gather firewood, but displaced persons continue to feel the need to venture out more often. Regina feels there is not enough attention given to the more vulnerable elderly and widows among the displaced. She also points to the lack of livelihood opportunities or education for children.
Displaced persons like Regina would like nothing more than to return to their homes, but they still do not feel safe to do so. Much of the population of the PoC sites are civilians from ethnic groups or tribes affiliated with groups in opposition to the government. Ethnic targeting has been an all too real horror of the civil war, and people are understandably wary of returning to areas now controlled by the very government soldiers who forced them to flee two years ago.
Nevertheless, talk of closing PoC sites gains momentum. The government sees the sites as refuges for rebels and opposition sympathizers. UN peacekeepers and humanitarian agencies see them as immense drains on resources and the ability to protect and provide services to the much larger displaced community outside of the sites. But, despite the ongoing challenges within the PoC sites, in speaking with the displaced persons in those sites, it is apparent that the time for closure has not yet come.
RI is presently advocating for the United Nations to improve protection in these PoC sites through such measures as providing better lighting, securing border fences, and exploring ways to better address criminality. RI also argues that it is not presently safe to close PoC sites and encourages the full funding of the humanitarian response in South Sudan.