The government of South Sudan has reportedly banned foreigners, including aid workers, from employment in the war-ravaged country, according to an order issued in local papers and sent directly to non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Humanitarian organizations and the UN responded with alarm to the notice, citing the threat of famine facing the country after a grinding and brutal nine-month civil war that has cut off food supplies and prevented farmers from planting their crops.
"All Non-Governmental Organizations, Private Companies in General, Banks, Insurance Companies, Telecommunication Companies, Petroleum Companies, Hotels and Lodges working in South Sudan are directed to notify all the Aliens working with them in all the positions to cease working as from 15th October, 2014 forthwith," said the decree, which was signed by Minister of Labor Ngor Kolong August 21 — though the document itself is confusingly dated September 12, weeks later.
Kolong ordered NGOs and private firms to advertise locally for positions such as executive director, personnel manager, and procurement officer, and to contact the director general of labor, noting that "these posts have to be filled by competent South Sudanese nationals."
"The purpose of this circular is to induce and protect the rights and interests of the people of South Sudan," Kolong's message said.
A spokesperson for the UN Mission in South Sudan, known as UNMISS, said it wasn't the first time the government in Juba has lashed out at foreigners in the country — many of whom are responsible for providing basic services to millions. In June, the Labor Ministry issued a similar order telling employers to fire employees from Sudan.
The UN also said it understood that the government was trying to generally encourage affirmative action in an economy marked by the presence of foreigners — from Chinese workers manning oil fields to Europeans and Americans building wells and infrastructure and distributing food. That interpretation was in line with a statement given by South Sudan labor ministry undersecretary Helen Achiro Lotara to the BBC. Lotara explained that the intent was to have locals fill four out of five managerial positions at NGOs and other firms. That was not explained in the order, however, which appeared to call for completely expelling all foreigner workers.
VICE News spoke with other human rights workers who expressed skepticism that the order could or would be implemented. Adding to the confusion, a spokesperson for South Sudan's UN delegation told VICE News that the office didn't "have clarification on what it really means, so we are waiting on clarification from Juba."
The timing, in the middle of a civil war, was also questionable.
But Tariq Riebl, South Sudan country director at Oxfam International, told VICE News that a copy of the same decree published in the media was delivered to his office in the capital Juba this afternoon.
"We are hoping there is a possibility to reverse this," said Riebl. "If that doesn't happen, it would have a big impact in terms of our operations in South Sudan."
The UN estimates at least 1.7 million people have been displaced since fighting broke out on September 15 between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former Vice President Riek Machar. Conflict has split largely along ethnic lines, pitting Dinkas (Kiir is one by birth) against Nuers, the ethnic group of Machar.
A series of ceasefires this year have been all but ignored, and the UN and human rights groups say that war crimes have been committed by both sides. Only the current rainy season, which is expected to end in a few weeks, seems to have dampened the fighting. It is widely expected that clashes will continue on a larger scale once water-logged roads become passable. If that happens, famine is not only a risk but anticipated for millions.
"We do expect famine to hit by next year, somewhere between March and June," Reibl said. "What is so tragic is this is a man-made catastrophe. Something like this could not be possible without the conflict."
NGOs and the UN's humanitarian arm are currently only able to serve about half of the 4.8 million South Sudanese in need of direct assistance, according to Oxfam.
"They are already not meeting all the needs of the people on the ground in need of assistance," Riebl said, noting that the vast majority of Oxfam employees in South Sudan are local residents. "The bill goes completely against the reality of things."
UNMISS, which works closely with NGOs, is currently housing around 100,000 displaced people that have sought shelter at nine of its camps in the country.
"NGOs constitute the backbone of the humanitarian operation in South Sudan, through the services of both South Sudanese and foreign aid workers," Amanda Pitt, spokesperson at the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told VICE News. "Any restrictions on organizations' freedom to recruit and deploy staff could have devastating consequences for the millions of people who currently need assistance in the country, and who count on humanitarian organizations to assist them."
The government's decision comes amid increasingly difficult circumstances for aid workers attempting to distribute supplies — due to sporadic fighting and inclement weather, but also obstructionism from Kiir's administration.
Aid workers said that World Food Program flights were temporarily stopped two weeks ago after authorities announced an impromptu $700 tax. Similarly unexpected impositions targeting customs clearance and tax exemptions have also been reported.
On August 26, a UN helicopter carrying four Russian contractors was shot down near Bentiu, killing three members of its crew and severely wounding another. The UN reported that rebel commander Peter Gadet had a week earlier threatened to shoot down UNMISS aircraft, as he believed they were carrying government soldiers.
The NGO community and their Western benefactors, as well as the UN, have been cited by critics for propping up a corrupt government and turning a blind eye to an administration riven with divisions prior to December.
It's unclear how the ban would extend to oil workers from China, South Sudan's largest economic partner. Prior to the outbreak of conflict, oil sales provided the central government with 99 percent of its revenue. Despite a cut in production and tentative foreign lenders, the government in Juba has spent roughly $1 billion on arms since fighting began.
Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford
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