Smith CODEL Meets Famine Victims & US Aid Workers Fighting to Save Lives

Talks w/ Presidents of Uganda & South Sudan on crisis

WASHINGTON, DC— Refugee camps in East Africa have swelled to the size of American cities, overflowing with starving children and displaced families and growing by the thousands every day, said U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), who led a bipartisan congressional delegation (CODEL) mission to war-torn South Sudan and neighboring Uganda.

The chairman of the congressional panel that oversees Africa, global health and global human rights issues led the mission to observe U.S. efforts to address the famine in South Sudan—a manmade crisis caused primarily by armed conflict—and to evaluate what more can be done to help the victims.

More than 3.8 million people are displaced, a figure that grew by 200,000 in April alone, according to U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) estimates. The ranks of the displaced include 1.8 million refugees who have fled to other countries like Uganda since the conflict began in December 2013.

Smith, who returned to Washington late Friday, had a schedule packed with meetings at three refugee camps where they visited health and nutrition centers, food and water distribution sites and met directly with displaced, starving people combating failing health conditions.  They also met with dozens of non-governmental humanitarian aid organizations, religious leaders from various faiths, United Nations officials and American government workers on the scene to help mitigate the impact of the famine.

In Uganda, the Smith delegation met with President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni and in South Sudan he met with President Salva Kiir Mayardit as well as First Vice President Taban Deng Gai and military (SPLA) Chief of General Staff James Ajongo Mawut.

PICTURED: Reps. Smith and Bass listen to the victims who have been displaced talk about their ordeal.

“We visited the Bidi-Bidi refugees in Uganda at one of the largest refugee camps in the world, with a population nearly three times larger than the population of Trenton, N.J.,” Smith said. “The families are on the brink. They have lost everything but their lives, and even those are on a precipice. They are entirely at the mercy of international donations to survive. The government of Uganda has been as generous as possible, despite its own problems.”

To visit the camp in South Sudan, the delegation took a two-hour U.N. mission flight out of the city to the dry desolate landscape where they met with U.N. World Food Program leaders and USAID officials who briefed the CODEL on their emergency food and shelter operations.

American government officials, including U.S. Ambassador to South Sudan Molly Phee, and US aid workers are representing our country well, working tirelessly to alleviate the mass suffering.” Smith said. “They are doing good work. And while there’s an undeniable feeling of sadness and helplessness on the part of the refugee families, lives are being saved.”

Back in Juba and meeting with President Salva Kiir, Smith was advised that the South Sudanese have finally initiated the trial of soldiers accused of criminal violence, including rape and human trafficking. Smith was in South Sudan in August of 2016 when he called on the government to issue a zero-tolerance policy for all armed forces against sexual violence and human trafficking. At that visit Smith obtained a personal pledge from Kiir to hold the perpetrators to account.

U.S. Ambassador Phee advised Smith that this week’s trial became a reality when news of Smith’s impending return trip was announced in South Sudan.

PICTURED: The Smith CODEL visited with aid workers trying to feed and shelter victims.

It is said there can be no peace without justice, and soldiers, especially those who are tasked to be peacekeepers, must be held to a high standard and be held accountable for their actions,” said Smith. “Law-abiding soldiers are absolutely critical to peace and stability and work hard—often in dangerous places—to protect the weak and vulnerable and keep them safe. But soldiers who rape and pillage make a bad situation intolerable and they cannot be allowed to act with impunity.  The government’s actions are a positive step.”

More than 28 million people in East Africa are in desperate need of food aid. In Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan, the food aid needs have reached emergency levels. More than half of Somalia’s population and nearly two-thirds of South Sudan’s population face life-threatening hunger—a crisis taken up in a March 28th subcommittee hearing chaired by Smith entitled “East Africa’s Quiet Famine.”  Smith has held a dozen hearings on South Sudan and Sudan, going back to 1996, including one entitled South Sudan’s Prospects for Peace and Security in April of 2016.

Over the past several years, the United States has provided more than $2.2 billion in humanitarian aid to the region, including funding for refugee operations. In February, the U.S. government pledged more than $25 million in humanitarian aid to Uganda, which is now host to more than 800,000 South Sudanese refugees.

In northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin region, people are experiencing the fourth largest humanitarian crisis in the world, with 5.2 million people facing food insecurity, largely due to conflict caused by the terrorist group Boko Haram. Conflicts in South Sudan and Nigeria have created famine conditions and blocked humanitarian access to significant percentages of those populations.

NEXT STEP Smith is writing legislation to address the threat of regional famine in Africa, and plans a hearing on Africa’s regional famine crisis in the next two weeks. Both will address innovative means of getting aid to endangered populations faster and ways to help refugee populations to become more resilient in the face of ongoing crises.

The Smith CODEL including Subcommittee Ranking Democrat, Rep. Karen Bass (CA-37), and senior staff  headed to the conflict region May 27th and returned June 2nd.