Juba (AFP) - The government in war-torn South Sudan said Wednesday it will not be expelling any foreign workers, reversing a policy announcement made the previous day that caused a storm of protests from aid agencies and neighbouring countries.
According to the United Nations, 1.3 million people have been displaced internally, and many of them are dependent on free food, shelter and healthcare delivered by a network of international aid groups.
Overturning an earlier order, Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin stressed the government "is not expelling any foreign worker in South Sudan."
On Tuesday the government published a decree ordering NGOs, private companies, hotels, banks, insurance, telecommunications and petroleum companies "to notify all aliens working with them in all positions to cease working" within a month.
It said the resulting vacancies, ranging from receptionists to company directors, should be filled by government-vetted South Sudanese nationals.
But on Wednesday, Minister of Labour Ngor Kolong Ngor backpeddled to clarify the ministry’s circular, saying they were only "targeting low-level positions".
South Sudan has been gripped by civil war for the past nine months, with aid agencies warning that the world's youngest nation is on the brink of a man-made famine.
"I can assure the fellow Kenyans in this country, not only Kenyans alone but Ugandans, Eritreans, Ethiopians and all the other neighbouring countries who are here, they are all very much welcome to this country," Benjamin added.
- UN famine warnings -
The minister, however, appeared to suggest that the decree had been released prematurely, saying that the country's labour ministry was still in the process of working on employment regulations.
He said laws on which jobs could go to foreigners and which positions should be held by nationals "will be discussed later".
Tens of thousands of skilled workers from regional neighbours including Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Sudan and Uganda are in the country, and together they run South Sudan's mobile telephone network, banking sector, upstream oil activities, hotels and other key infrastructure.
South Sudan itself suffers from a major shortage of skilled workers, with only around a quarter of the population able to read and write.
UN aid chief in South Sudan Toby Lanzer repeated warnings Wednesday of risk of famine.
"Let me be absolutely clear: we are facing the very strong chance that famine would be declared by the end of this year or early 2015," Lanzer said, stressing that only an end to the war and an increase in aid efforts could avert it.
"You need to have all hands on deck, we need all the help we can get," he added.
But, Lanzer said, aid workers also needed official support to be able to engage with multiple humanitarian crises.
"There has to be a welcoming and enabling environment, that is really important," he said.
Fighting broke out in the oil-rich country, also the world's youngest nation, in December 2013 following a clash between troops loyal to President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar.
The war spread rapidly across the country and has been marked by widespread human rights abuses and atrocities by both sides.