GENEVA — A daily exodus of villagers fleeing armed conflict, hunger and sexual violence in South Sudan has pushed the number of refugees sheltering in Uganda to over one million, the United Nations refugee agency said on Thursday, urging international action to deal with what it called one of Africa’s biggest humanitarian crises.
International relief agencies say that one-third of the South Sudanese population of 13 million people has now been displaced and that half of the population is suffering from severe hunger and is in need of food aid.
“We’re looking at Africa’s biggest displacement crisis,” Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the agency, said in an interview. “It points to the dramatic worsening of the situation inside the country.”
About 1,800 people have fled across the border to Uganda every day for the past year, 85 percent of them women and children, the refugee agency said. As many as 85 percent of those reaching Uganda recount horrific tales of seeing armed groups burning villagers alive in their houses, shooting people in front of their families, raping women and girls, and seizing boys to serve as conscripts, the United Nations reported.
The villagers often travel for days through the bush to avoid indiscriminate killings by the marauding armed groups, which have set up checkpoints on the roads.
Hundreds have escaped to South Sudan’s other neighbors — notably Sudanand Ethiopia — where, the refugee agency said, an additional million have sought shelter. Two million more have been driven from their homes for other reasons, the agency said.
South Sudan became the world’s newest nation in 2011, when it declared its independence after five decades of guerrilla warfare and the loss of two million lives. Civil war erupted four years ago, after President Salva Kiir sacked his deputy, Riek Machar. The move set off bloody confrontations between their supporters and rival ethnic groups. The bloodshed has escalated and intensified in the last year, with a sharp rise in ethnically targeted killings and sexual violence.
The United Nations started deploying 4,000 troops to South Sudan this month to bolster a peacekeeping force of 13,000, but as violence has spread to new provinces, the agency has not been able to do much to protect civilians outside its bases or to prevent attacks on relief agency staff members trying to deliver humanitarian aid.
Relief agencies say the impact of the fighting — which has forced farmers to flee, disrupting the planting of crops — and the looting of livestock has deepened economic hardship in one of Africa’s poorest countries.
In June, the United Nations food agency described conditions in South Sudan as catastrophic, and warned that the situation there was deteriorating, with more than six million people facing acute hunger.
“The number of hungry and displaced South Sudanese is overwhelming,” Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said in a statement on Thursday as he began a visit to the country. The staggering scale of suffering was evidence of “a style of fighting that appears calibrated to maximize misery,” he added.
Hospitals supported by the Red Cross had grappled with a significant rise in the number of war-wounded this year because of the increased fighting, Mr. Maurer said, while conflict was hampering the delivery of medical care.
The United Nations said weak international financial support was forcing cuts in lifesaving assistance to those fleeing the conflict. The refugee agency said it had received only one-fifth of the $664 million it had sought this year to support refugees in Uganda, and in June the World Food Program had cut in half the food rations it provided them.