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Stranded refugees face health risk at Ethiopian border

Author: Danis | Published: Monday, August 10, 2020

New arrivals at Pagak Reception Center | Credit | UNHCR

Aid agencies have raised the alarm over a serious health emergency as thousands of South Sudanese refugees are said to be stuck at the border with Ethiopia.

An organization called Action Against Hunger said there is an influx into Ethiopia of people escaping violence in Greater Akobo.

After intercommunal conflict broke out in parts of South Sudan in May, UN agencies say more than 8,200 people arrived in the Pagak Reception Center, a temporary station set up before the border closed due to coronavirus.

The relocation process for refugees to better-established camps is said to have been delayed for months due to coronavirus restrictions and a lack of testing kits

Action Against Hunger stressed that the reception center has no hospital facility, substandard water and sanitation services, and little capacity to provide other essential support.

Last month, the organization conducted a mass screening of 1,955 refugee children younger than five years old in Pagak Reception Center.

Its data released on Saturday shows that 23.6 percent of children were acutely malnourished, including five percent diagnosed with severe acute malnutrition, the deadliest form of hunger.

The data also reveals that nearly one in four South Sudanese refugee children who recently arrived in Gambella suffer from life-threatening malnutrition.

“We are deeply concerned about the health of these children,” said Beza Abebe, Ethiopia Program Director, Action Against Hunger.

“This vulnerable population does not have access to enough food, clean water, and health services needed to prevent malnutrition. On top of this crisis, COVID-19 presents a real threat to refugees, host communities, and humanitarian workers alike. People are desperate and afraid. We are facing a true emergency.”

Humanitarian workers say high malnutrition rates in Pagak are linked to the low availability of nutritious foods, limited access to water, sanitation, and hygiene, and poor infant and child feeding practices.

The situation was again worsened after the UN World Food Program cut food rations to refugees in Ethiopia by 30 percent in April.

According to Action Against Hunger experts, crowded settlements and poor access to water, sanitation, and hygiene services make coronavirus prevention extremely difficult in Gambella, which is seeing an increased community transmission.

There are 595 coronavirus cases currently confirmed in Gambella.

The UNHCR says there are more than 750,000 refugees in Pagak and the wider Gambella region.

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