Andrea Cippa, Barbara Egger Maldonado, Arnold Egli and Dominique Reinecke each worked for the UNHCR or the World Food Programme (WFP) in South Sudan and Ethiopia for several months. What they have in common is that they are all members of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA) and they have all worked to improve the lives of displaced persons and refugees in the region. Having returned from their missions, they explain the significance of their respective commitments.
Swiss people mobilised to help South Sudan's displaced populations
"There are constant population flows: refugees, displaced persons, returning families... The situation evolves from day to day, it's a real challenge." As a member of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit (SHA), Dominique Reinecke spent a year from April 2013 to April 2014 in South Sudan working for the UNHCR. Her long-term engagement allowed her to develop in-depth knowledge of the crisis affecting the region. For several decades, waves of displaced populations have been coming and going according to the successive conflicts which have shaken Sudan, a nation which has been separated in two since 2011.
Dominique Reinecke herself paid the price. She was deployed in a (north) Sudanese refugee camp in Maban, north-east South Sudan, until December 2013, when she had to be evacuated following clashes which broke out between the supporters of the South Sudanese president Salva Kiir and the supporters of the former vice-president Riek Machar. Dominique Reinecke ended her mission in the capital, Juba, and surrounding area to help South Sudanese people who had been displaced.
Over a million internally displaced persons
Around ten specialists from the SHA like Dominique Reinecke worked side-by-side with South Sudan's displaced persons between 2013 and 2014. The deployment of specialists with organisations such as the UNHCR and the World Food Programme (WFP) is one of the specific ways in which Switzerland has responded to the current humanitarian crisis in South Sudan. Since December 2013, 300,000 South Sudanese people have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. In addition, there are over a million internally displaced persons.
"Responding to all the needs is, under the circumstances, a real challenge," says Arnold Egli, another member of the SHA who was seconded to the UNHCR. "In particular, it is a question of not neglecting internally displaced persons and focusing solely on refugees. Because lots of internally displaced persons live in really miserable conditions, without access to drinking water."
Very real problems
Arnold Egli, a trained forestry engineer, spent six months in the region. During this time, he set up an environmental management team within the UNHCR. In practical terms, this meant that he negotiated with the local population and authorities for the needs of the Sudanese refugees living in South Sudan for wood used in cooking or construction. As for Dominique Reinecke, she worked as a protection officer. During the second part of her mission, she opened a UNHCR antenna office in Minkamann (ed.'s note: 150 km north of Juba). "Once we were there, we prepared emergency evacuation plans for the displaced persons who were living on the flood plains and coordinated the voluntary resettlement of families," explained Dominique Reinecke.
She was also in charge of gender questions within the UNHCR. "I didn't only deal with cases of assault and sexual harassment committed against young women on their way to the toilets in the camps of displaced persons," explained Dominique Reinecke. "There were also men who had lost their wives in the displacements and didn't know how to cook! Awareness and information sessions held for partner NGOs led to targeted actions."
Meeting the needs of the most vulnerable
Barbara Egger Maldonado, from Bern, carried out a mandate for the WFP. She said that, "In a crisis context, all displaced persons should have access to basic assistance. But we make sure that the most vulnerable people are given priority." With this aim, Barbara Egger Maldonado travelled to multiple distribution sites which were difficult to access to support the WFP teams and their partners in identifying amenities that could be accessed by all the beneficiaries.
Andrea Cippa was also involved in planning and evaluating needs. This rural engineer from Ticino, who has been a member of the SHA for ten years, was based in Ethiopia, ten kilometres from the border with South Sudan. On the ground, he advised the UNHCR and the Ethiopian authorities when selecting appropriate sites for welcoming South Sudanese refugees fleeing their country. "Thanks to geographic information technologies which offer a three-dimensional reading of the land and, for example, simulations of floods, I was able to convince the local authorities to move the refugee camp," explained Andrea Cippa. "The selected sites ran the risk of flooding.
The Swiss expert applied himself to identifying safer areas, taking care to involve local colleagues. "I noticed that the UNHCR was short of technicians specialising in cartography on-site. By training Ethiopians, I had the feeling that I left something in the country after my departure."
The SDC has allocated a total budget of CHF 18 million for the year 2014 in light of the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan. But Swiss cooperation, which has been present in the region since 1994, is not limited to emergency aid. Initiatives supported by the SDC aim to offer long-lasting aid to formerly displaced communities and their host populations. To date, two projects for food security and access to drinking water are being run in the states of Northern Bahr el Gazal and Warrap.
In parallel, the FDFA's Human Security Division (HSD) supports the peace talks and the process of reconciliation in South Sudan with a human security advisor based in Juba.