JUBA (Reuters) - The United Nations called on South Sudan’s leaders to take more responsibility for stemming the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis, as it said the number of people displaced worldwide had risen to a record 65.6 million.
The head of the U.N.’s UNHCR refugee agency, Filippo Grandi, said world powers had to step up pressure on South Sudan’s warring parties to go back to talks on ending a civil war that has forced about a third of the population to flee.
In South Sudan to launch the UNHCR’s annual refugee report, Grandi said his agency had already worked there for decades, helping hundreds of thousands fleeing the territory’s long wars with Khartoum.
UNHCR was still there, helping many of the same people now fleeing an internal conflict, he told local government officials in the northern town of Bentiu.
“Now, the authorities have a greater responsibility because they are in charge of this country and it is under their leadership that we must seek security,” Grandi said. “We are here to help but, in the end, as you know, the responsibility is with you and your colleagues in Juba and here.”
South Sudan’s civil war erupted out of political infighting in late 2013, just two years after South Sudan declared independence from Sudan and took over running its own affairs.
Since then, nearly 2 million people have fled fighting that the United Nations has said amounts in some areas to ethnic cleansing. There has been a string of failed cease-fires and peace accords.
Across the world, the number of displaced people had risen by 300,000 by the end of 2016 from a year earlier - though the pace of the increase had eased from past years, the UNHCR report said.
Of the total 65.6 million displaced, just over 40 million had remained in their countries while 22.5 million were registered as refugees abroad. There were another 2.8 million asylum seekers, the report said.
Globally, Syrians still represent the largest forcibly displaced population with 12 million refugees or internally displaced – some 65 percent of the population – by the end of 2016. Turkey hosted the most refugees with 2.9 million people.
UNHCR also sounded an alarm over another rapidly escalating crisis in Democratic Republic of Congo, where over 1 million people have been displaced internally and over 30,000 terms have crossed into Angola since August.
In South Sudan, Grandi said the combination of violence, ethnic strife, lack of development, climatic factors and international neglect was unmatched anywhere in the world.
“There are dead ends all around ... I think we can still do something but we desperately need international pressure on the parties to go back to the table and be serious about peace,” he said.
Aid workers were struggling to raise funds, partly because of frustrations over the lack of progress in peace talks and partly because the scale of the problem was hidden, he said.
“They (South Sudan’s refugees) don’t arrive on the shores of Europe, or Australia or at the border between Mexico and the U.S. Those are the places where refugees become visible and their voices are heard,” he said.
While Grandi said ensuring people were safe was important, he warned against setting up “kingdoms of dependency” like the sprawling camps for Somali refugees in Dadaab in northern Kenya that have become permanent settlements.
Editing by George Obulutsa and Andrew Heavens