When I think of the broken state of the world’s refugee system, I readily recall the resigned words of Aisha, a refugee from Sudan’s troubled South Kordofan state. I met Aisha, along with her two young children, during an Amnesty International research mission in May 2015. All three of them had languished in exceptionally difficult conditions in a refugee camp in an isolated corner of war-torn South Sudan for nearly three years at the time.
Aisha’s journey out of South Kordofan had been perilous and dangerous. The situation she faced in the burgeoning Yida Refugee Camp was tense, with occasional security concerns and constant pressure from UN agencies to move to a different camp location. Armed conflict in South Sudan, which had erupted in late 2013, had become particularly intense in Unity State (where the camp was located) and drew closer with every passing month.
We spoke of her options. Returning to South Kordofan was impossible, with indiscriminate aerial bombardment continuing unabated, and Sudanese forces having cut off opposition-controlled areas from UN and humanitarian assistance. Yet the situation in South Sudan, whether she stayed at Yida or agreed to move, was also volatile and distressing.
Inevitably our discussion turned to the possibility of seeking safety further afield. That would have been a daunting prospect for a woman travelling alone with two young children in any circumstances. But our conversation did not even go that far—it was clear to Aisha that there were no further options that would bring her greater safety. “There is nowhere to go,” she said to me. “I know that other governments would prefer that we stay in this dangerous situation rather than try to find somewhere safer.” And no doubt about it,
Aisha was right.
Aisha’s feeling of pointlessness is also reflected in the staggering Syrian refugee crisis. It resonates with the harrowing tales of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar desperately seeking safety in Southeast Asia. Essentially, Aisha’s despondence speaks to the impossible choices refugees face the world over.