23 June 2016

A generic view of the the Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Malakal, South Sudan. Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran/MSF

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has released a report into the peacekeeping and humanitarian response following the attack on the Malakal Protection of Civilians (PoC) site on 17-18 February.

The report finds that despite a strong military presence at the PoC site and a clear mandate to protect civilians, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) failed in its duty to safeguard people living at the site and could well have averted many deaths.

The report also shows how most humanitarian actors working in the site were unable to respond to the acute needs of internally displaced people (IDPs) during the crisis. UN security rules prevented their intervention during a short yet acute emergency gap when the need was greatest.

Displaced people collect water in a water point at the PoC site. Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran/MSF

When on 17 February fighting erupted inside the PoC, and later when a heavily armed external force attacked the PoC, UNMISS failed to take any immediate action. By the time hostilities ended a day later, varying reports state that between 25 and 65 civilians died, over 108 were wounded and more than 30,000 were displaced. Assessments conducted after the attack show that over 3,700 shelters, or one-third of the site, was burned down. The war-weary IDP population were left traumatised and had to rebuild their lives in the ashes of the camp.

When commenting on the report, Raquel Ayora, Director of Operations with MSF said: “Our investigation shows that UNMISS did not fulfil its mandate to protect civilians as set by the Security Council: prior to the attack, they failed to prevent the flow of weapons entering the camp; they chose not to intervene when initial fighting broke out, and when an attack came from outside the camp they were extremely slow to repel the assault.”

A child on the mud in the PoC site. Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran/MSF

The PoC sites are unique and tough setups for UNMISS to deal with and it is evident that its underlying objective is to close Malakal and relocate the displaced population away from the site. UNMISS is reluctant to improve the appalling living conditions in the site or to implement measures that would improve its safety.

The living space available per person is only a third of the internationally accepted minimum standards, food distribution is barely at subsistence level and the overall provision of water is often less than 15 litres per person per day (the minimum international Sphere standard). Sexual violence is also rampant in and around the site.

An MSF survey published alongside the  report shows that over 80 percent of the displaced people feel unsafe inside the PoC site and have lost their trust in UNMISS after the February attack. However, the survey also shows that all respondents mentioned that insecurity outside the camp was the main reason for not leaving the site. They truly are between a rock and a hard place.

A woman moves water away next to her shelter in the PoC site. Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran/MSF

Ayora adds that PoC sites continue to be the only partially efficient solution for the dire protection needs of the population. “Until there is a better or safer alternative, they cannot be dismantled and the protection and assistance gaps identified must be addressed," she says. "UNMISS and all humanitarian agencies should learn the lessons from this collective failure and take concrete steps to ensure that radically different decisions and actions would be taken in the event of a new attack or violence in the PoC site.”

MSF calls on the UN to publish findings of their investigations into events surrounding the attack on Malakal. Organisations working in the Malakal PoC site need to revise and adapt their contingency plans, while also adopting the lessons in other crisis situations which have acute protection and assistance needs.

Find out more about MSF's work in South Sudan

Read the report Voices of the people: "Security is the most important thing"