South Sudan: One refugee, one vote
It is two days before election day. Residents in blocks seven and eight in Ajoung Thok refugee camp in South Sudan’s northern Unity State are gathering in a thatched hut which serves as a community centre. They have come to listen to candidates who are running for the position as neighbourhood representatives. Salma Musa Matr, a woman in her forties, is the first candidate to speak. “I want to help the community in my block,” she explains. “But regardless of whether or not I win, I expect all the candidates to be serious if they are elected, and to work to help people.”
Ajoung Thok, which opened in March 2013, is divided into 14 blocks, each with between 200 and 250 residents. It was opened to ease decongestion in the Yida refugee settlement around 70 km away, which is home to 70,000 refugees. They are among the almost 222,000 refugees living in South Sudan, most of whom have fled conflict in Sudan’s Blue Nile and South Kordofan since June 2011.
Getting into the electoral mood
The elections underway in Ajoung Thok are to choose one man and one woman from each block to represent their fellow refugees in discussions with the Government of South Sudan and the aid organizations working in the camp. All refugees over 15 years of age are allowed to vote, and anyone over 18 is eligible to be a candidate. In each block, voters can choose from three male and three female candidates.
Aid agencies in the camp have worked closely with the Government’s Commission on Refugee Affairs to organize the elections. A series of community meetings have been held to explain the process, along with rallies for the candidates to appeal for votes. “It has been great to see people in Ajoung Thok getting into the electoral mood,” says Alfonso Masso, Associate Community Services Officer with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) who helped organize the elections. “We have had really good participation so far from candidates and community members, both men and women.”
Towards a more sustainable response
The elections in Ajoung Thok are part of a broader shift of the refugee response in South Sudan towards more sustainable solutions to meeting refugees’ needs. In the new camp, aid agencies offer longer-term assistance than in Yida, including primary and secondary education, larger plots of land, and more durable shelter. So far, 3,000 refugees have made the move. Strong refugee representation is key to improving camp management; facilitating dialogue with aid agencies and meeting refugees’ humanitarian needs as effectively as possible.
Back at the rally, more community members have gathered, including children and an elderly couple. Tuta Faruq Harama, one of the male candidates takes the floor. “A community is nothing without a leader,” he says, to explain why he is running. “I will work for all of you, and make sure that there is peace and harmony, and no problems for women and children.” He sits down to a big round of applause from the audience.