South Sudan’s vicious civil war is disproportionately harming children.
Of the 1.8 million people who have fled the country since the conflict erupted in 2013, more than 1 million, or about 62 percent, are children, according to new data from the United Nations Children’s Fund. And when they crossed in neighboring countries, 75,000 were unaccompanied or separated from their families.
“The horrifying fact that nearly one in five children in South Sudan has been forced to flee their home illustrates how devastating this conflict has been for the country’s most vulnerable,” Leila Pakkala, UNICEF’s Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, said.
Another estimated 1.14 million children have been displaced within South Sudan.
The U.N. classifies South Sudan’s refugee crisis as the world’s most pressing. Since 2013, more than 1,000 children who stayed in the country were injured or killed. Those who remain risk recruitment by armed forces and are especially vulnerable to sexual violence. The country also has the highest proportion of out-of-school children worldwide: Three in four don’t attend.
The brutal civil war is the result of political tensions between President Salva Kiir and former vice president and current rebel leader Riek Machar. Since the outbreak of the conflict, armed groups, including the government’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), have killed more than 50,000 people, according to U.N. estimates from 2016. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also accused South Sudan’s government forces of using “the cover of an ongoing conflict to act as a ‘smoke screen’” to initiate the process of ethnic cleansing.
The conflict escalated dramatically last July, intensifying already dire food shortages, which the U.N. Security Council has called the worst in the world. In February, the U.N. formally declared famine in parts of the war-torn nation, and as many as 1 million children are estimated to be malnourished.
To make matters worse, the government has repeatedly interfered with humanitarian efforts by restricting and expelling aid workers. As a result, some officials in the country have amassed fortunes and live in luxurious homes while the rest of the country suffers.