Geneva - Up to 1 000 refugees from war-torn South Sudan are fleeing to Ethiopia each day, many of them on the brink of death, the UN said Tuesday.
A massive 95 percent of the arrivals are also women and children, added the UN, citing witnesses saying that both boys and men have been forcibly recruited by armed men or killed along the way.
Since fighting erupted in December, refugees have been “arriving at a rate of 800-1,000 per day, and they are arriving on their last legs,” Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, told reporters in Geneva.
If they had not received immediate help, “these people would be dead. They were really, really in bad shape,” she said, following a recent visit to the region.
More than 95,000 South Sudanese refugees have crossed into Ethiopia since violence erupted in the world's youngest nation last December between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and fighters loosely allied to former vice president Riek Machar.
Nearly 200,000 more have sought refuge in Sudan, Uganda and Kenya, while more than 800,000 are displaced inside South Sudan, according to UN figures.
Some of those arriving in Ethiopia's Gambella region had walked up to three weeks to reach the border, Fleming said, adding that most were “very hungry, (with) up to 37 percent malnourished and needing emergency attention.”
More than 4 000 malnourished children were receiving nutrition supplements, as were some 3 500 lactating mothers, said Fleming.
Thousands of people have been killed in the violence that has also taken on an ethnic dimension, pitting Kiir's Dinka tribe against Machar's Nuer people.
Fleming on Tuesday also joined a chorus of aid workers voicing alarm over the low number of young men reaching the border.
“Generally in situations like these, we would see many more men arriving,” she said.
But women were reporting that their husbands and sons had been forcibly recruited by unidentified armed groups or killed along the way, she said.
“People are arriving very traumatised by this and obviously in a state of shock,” she said.
The UN and other organisations were scrambling to fly in new tents, build new camps and move refugees to higher ground as the rainy season approaches in Ethiopia, Fleming said.
Some 86 000 South Sudanese refugees are spread across four camps in Ethiopia, but nearly 10 000 people are also camped out at border crossing points.
In preparation for the rainy season, UNHCR has relocated refugees in low-lying water-prone areas in Kule camp and aid workers were due to begin a similar operation in the Leitchour camp Tuesday, Fleming said.
The agency is also working with Ethiopian authorities to prepare a new and high-lying camp near Kule that should be able to shelter 30 000 refugees from late April.
A new transit centre was also being built near the Pagak border point to accommodate up to 5 000 people, Fleming said.