Why the return of refugees and internally displaced people is such a thorny issue in South Sudan

Why the return of refugees and internally displaced people is such a thorny issue in South Sudan


South Sudan’s government wants millions of people who fled the country’s devastating civil war to return home ahead of national elections tentatively scheduled for 2023.

But some humanitarians worry that returns could be risky as violence continues to flare around the country despite a 2018 peace agreement and the subsequent formation of a unity government.

There are also fears that government officials might use returns to build up demographic majorities for their constituencies with a view to a future election, while ensuring that other groups – more likely to vote against them – remain displaced.

Despite these fears, last November, the UN’s top official in South Sudan, Nicholas Haysom, optimistically claimed the nation was on the “cusp of a breakthrough” – set, he said, to become “a peaceful, stable, and prosperous country for the first time since its independence”.

Some UN agencies appear to agree with that assessment and are hoping to support the government in its efforts to help return the 2.3 million refugees and two million internally displaced people who have fled the civil war, which began in December 2013, and more recent heavy flooding.

“The government is very positive about returns,” Sophia Glazunova, *senior protection cluster coordinator in South Sudan for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, said. “We need to help people come back and integrate.”

The two million refugees who fled the civil war are largely in Uganda and Sudan, with smaller populations in Ethiopia, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The internally displaced are widely scattered throughout South Sudan, with heavy displacement caused by continued conflict in the regions of Equatoria and Greater Upper Nile, as well as by heavy flooding in much of the country.

Although UNHCR’s official position is that conditions aren’t right in South Sudan to facilitate returns now, the agency has said it is willing to support spontaneous refugee returns that have already taken place and to facilitate the return of internally displaced people (IDPs). Since the signing of the peace agreement in 2018, UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies have facilitated the return of 18,690 IDPs.

Some humanitarians are concerned, however, about returning displaced people while land occupation issues remain unresolved and families lack the savings that would enable them to reconstruct lives in regions razed by war.

Returns could also prove dangerous as conflict continues around much of the country, implementation of crucial security arrangements related to the peace agreement are stalled, and heavy flooding has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

New political tensions are also expected to emerge in the run-up to the 2023 polls – the country’s first since independence – with census-taking and the voter registration process anticipated to be especially contentious.

“Looking back historically, it is not just election day itself that could present protection concerns, but everything leading up to it,” said Alicia Luedke, a conflict analyst in South Sudan for the International Organization for Migration, the UN’s migration agency.

Population engineering, if it were to occur, would reflect a long history of displacement being used as a tool of war in South Sudan. Military forces in the country have often prevented people from returning to the lands from which they fled, and then brought in more pliable populations in their place.

For example, after a 2017 military campaign pushed the Shilluk of Upper Nile state out of Malakal town, the government moved in some 2,000 displaced Padang Dinka – a rival group to the Shilluk, and dominant in the state government – from elsewhere in the country.

“[Both the government and the opposition] have ethnically displaced supposedly hostile groups, and enabled returns only for sympathetic constituencies,” said Ferenc Dávid Markó, a researcher on South Sudan with the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey.

Facilitating returns presents a dilemma for humanitarian agencies operating in the country: Even if such movements are politically engineered, the people being transferred are often in a bad way and need support.

Yet if UN agencies and NGOs blindly assist such populations, they risk aggravating tensions and creating a situation in which only some groups can return home and gain access to humanitarian services.

Saadia Aleem, a former protection officer in South Sudan with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), said the way returns are being approached suggests the humanitarian sector is already falling into this trap.

“There is insufficient focus on the lack of progress in the peace agreement, little meaningful conflict sensitivity or protection analysis, and no support for the preparatory work needed for a cohesive and accurate census or election,” Aleem said.

Some 387,000 refugees have come back to South Sudan since the signing of the peace agreement, though many did so because of deteriorating situations in neighbouring nations rather than improvements at home.

Many of those still displaced, both refugees and IDPs, will struggle to return to their villages and towns because of damage sustained during a war in which one of the government’s objectives was to render restive rural regions uninhabitable.

From 2014 to 2018, ethnic and political violence displaced people from vast swathes of Upper Nile and Unity states, as government forces razed villages and burned cattle byres, partly to ensure that people couldn’t return to their homes.

For Jama Gatpan, a resident of a displacement camp in Bentiu, the capital of Unity state, there is no going back to where she fled in 2014. “There is no development there,” she said in a September 2021 phone interview.

Land and property issues created by the conflict also remain a hurdle for prospective returnees like Stanislaus Obuc, an elder from the Shilluk group that was forcibly expelled from parts of Upper Nile during the war.

Speaking to The New Humanitarian from a displacement camp last year, Obuc said he has not been able to return to his hometown of Malakal since 2018 because his house is occupied by somebody from the Padang Dinka group.

Enabling Obuc’s return is not only a question of resolving entrenched property disputes: Both the Padang Dinka and the Shilluk claim Malakal as their own and want administrative control of the state capital.

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