South Sudan, Beset By Famine, Hikes Aid Worker Fees A Hundredfold

South Sudan Red Cross
People wait to be registered as displaced persons in a South Sudan Red Cross compound in Wau, South Sudan, July 1, 2016. The South Sudanese government has been accused of impeding humanitarian access to those most in need. CHARLES LOMODONG/AFP/Getty

South Sudan's government has increased the cost of permits for foreign aid workers in the country a hundredfold, despite the recent declaration of famine in some regions.

The country's labor ministry said permits for foreign workers would now increase from $100 to $10,000 for those working in a "professional" capacity, Reuters reported. Most of the foreign professionals working in South Sudan are involved in humanitarian relief or work for oil companies.

South Sudan's information minister Michael Makuei Lueth claimed the country had been losing out by charging some of the lowest fees in the region for work permits for foreigners. "The government of South Sudan was asleep and it has now woken up," he said, according to the Times.

The hike in fees has caused outrage among aid groups, who have accused the government of attempting to cash in on the humanitarian crisis in the country.

South Sudan has been wracked by civil war since December 2013, when conflict broke out between supporters of President Salva Kiir and then vice-president Riek Machar. The conflict has proceeded partially along ethnic lines—Kiir is from the majority Dinka, while Machar represents the minority Nuer—and the United Nations has warned of the risk of genocide in the country, which only gained independence from Sudan in 2011.

Government and U.N. agencies declared a famine in two counties, Leer and Mayendit, in South Sudan. Humanitarian agencies have blamed the impact of the conflict for creating the conditions for famine; more than 1.8 million people have been internally displaced in South Sudan, while some 1.5 million refugees have fled the country.

Fighting between government forces and rebels has halted much of the country's agriculture and devastated oil production, upon which South Sudan's economy is almost totally reliant.

"This [increase in fees] is linked to the famine declaration, which makes it more scandalous," said Julien Schopp, director for humanitarian practice at InterAction, a U.S.-based coalition of aid groups and NGOs, according to the Times.

The director of the Norwegian Refugee Council USA, Joel Charny, told NPR that the move was another "bureaucratic impediment" aimed at limiting humanitarian access to those most in need in South Sudan, and that the timing of it "could not be worse."

President Kiir signed a bill into law in February, mandating that 80 percent of staff employed by humanitarian agencies be South Sudanese. A spokesman for the president said that if foreign workers could not afford the new fees, aid agencies should hire local workers, according to the Times.

The cost of work permits will also increase to $2,000 for "blue collar" foreign workers and $1,000 for "casual workers," the labour ministry said.

A seven-month inquiry by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights concluded Tuesday that ethnic cleansing is being carried out in South Sudan, with most of the violations being carried out by government forces. Information minister Lueth told AP that ethnic cleansing and risk of genocide were "not an accurate report" and that the people of the country were "preparing for the national dialogue" proposed by President Kiir in 2016.