South Sudan

Published October 9th, 2020 - written by: Simone Schlindwein

Far away from Europe

The South Sudanese civil war produces thousands of refugees every day, but it remains an inner-African refugee drama, with millions of displaced persons.

Hardly any other country in Africa’s recent history has produced more new refugees than Southern Sudan. At the beginning of December 2016, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) counted for the first time since independence in 2011 more than three million internally displaced persons and refugees. This with only a total population of around 12 million: 1.87 million within Southern Sudan, 1.15 million in neighbouring countries. Every day, several thousands of people crossed the country’s borders, mainly into Uganda. Around 1.7 million people urgently need humanitarian aid within the country.

In 2011, after more than 20 years of civil war and liberation struggles, millions of Southern Sudanese had still celebrated their independence from their northern neighbour Sudan. Millions had returned home from exile to rebuild the completely destroyed country. They brought one thing in particular with them from the USA, Canada and Europe: hope and knowledge, in the form of education. But the spirit of optimism did not last long: in December 2013, President Salva Kiir accused his archrival and Vice President, Riek Machar, of attempting a coup d’état. After a few days, the civil war broke out again. The political power struggle between two military heavyweights quickly developed into an ethnic conflict between the Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups, which led to expulsions and massacres.

Despite a peace treaty and ceasefire agreement between Kirr and Machar in September 2018, the situation has not yet stabilised to the extent that refugees are returning to their homes in large numbers. According to UNHCR, between 2017 and 2018, only about 11,000 Southern Sudanese returned from the refugee camps near the border in Uganda. Many of them came to sow seeds and replant their fields on a long-term basis in their home villages, but instead returned to Uganda after a short stay. Those who remained in Southern Sudan mostly became displaced within their own country due to destruction or insecurity. Most Southern Sudanese do not yet believe in peace: a similar agreement had been reached in 2015, but the fighting did not stop.

Millions of people on the move

In Uganda alone, there were around 850,000 Southern Sudanese refugees at the end of 2019, two thirds of whom are children. More than half of them migrated to Uganda within a few months during the summer of 2016. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, there are a further 850,000 refugees in Sudan, 312,000 in Ethiopia, 120,000 in Kenya, 100,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo and 5,000 in the Central African Republic.

In recent years, UN aid agencies have been facing increasing problems in providing aid to people in need in Southern Sudan. According to UNHCR figures, more than US$1.4 billion will be needed in 2019, but only 30% of this amount has been pledged by international donors. Even the UN Mission in Southern Sudan (UNAMISS), which offers refuge to some 200,000 people at its bases, is not always able to protect refugees from attacks. The conditions in most camps are considered catastrophic.

Southern Sudan is the site of a traditional refugee drama taking place far from Europe’s borders. More common than irregular flight towards Europe is orderly resettlement to European or North American countries, for example under US resettlement programmes. The extent of Southern Sudan’s misery is thus also a guarantee that Southern Sudan’s refugee crisis will not reach Europe: the number of Southern Sudanese seeking refuge in Europe, from independence in 2011 to July 2016, is merely 540.

Citizens without passport

Why this happens is also due to the fact that only a minority of the country’s estimated 10 million inhabitants have any South Sudanese papers at all. All adult Southern Sudanese were born as Sudanese citizens; Southern Sudan as an independent state has only existed as of July 9, 2011. Only in 2012, the new government started to issue passports and identity cards. With the outbreak of war in December 2013, this process has largely come to a standstill.

Those who do not have South Sudanese papers cannot prove their own origin abroad. Therefore, many Southern Sudanese abroad are registered as Sudanese citizens, and even that is a privilege. What is more, when the Republic of Sudan granted independence to the southern part of the country in 2011, it denaturalized people of Southern Sudanese origin who lived in the rest of Sudan, and who mostly grew up there as well. 

Up to 700,000 people of Southern Sudanese origin living on Sudanese territory were given a nine-month period by Sudan to either re-naturalize, apply for regular residence permits as foreigners, or return to their "home", which many of them did not even know. At the same time, Southern Sudan issued a ban on dual citizenship with Sudan for its own citizens.

By the deadline of 8 April 2012, several hundred thousand people were still stateless, and thus without rights and threatened with deportation. It can be assumed that many of them have instead set off for the north, as Sudanese refugees, but at the same time, they cannot be returned to Sudan or Southern Sudan. This is because Sudan no longer recognizes them as citizens, where Southern Sudan does not yet recognize them as citizens.

Due to the civil war situation in Southern Sudan, any return of refugees has turned impossible anyway. European cooperation with Southern Sudan, within the framework of the Khartoum Process, is therefore generalised. Support for data collection and the fight against human trafficking are the only country-specific Southern Sudan projects within the framework of "better migration management".

Paradoxically, in the long term the civil war facilitates the registration of Southern Sudanese nationals. What their own government failed to do is now being carried out by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and the International Organization for Migration (IOM): UNHCR documents the origin of internally displaced persons and IOM takes care of their biometric registration. Since the start of the IOM project in summer 2015, more than 405,000 Southern Sudanese inhabitants have been biometrically registered via this way.

A country dependent on aid money

According to 2019 figures, the EU has spent just under €50 million euros in aid money for Southern Sudan and in 2018 will provide a further €47 million euros for Southern Sudanese refugees in neighbouring countries. Since 2014, the EU has spent over €550 million on the crisis in Southern Sudan.

Following the peace agreement of September 2018, the international community is once again hoping for a future stabilisation of the country and the steady return of refugees from exile. To this end, UNHCR, together with international partners, has set up a Regional Refugee Response Plan for the period of 2019 to 2020, with which to close the funding gaps for the refugee situation. However, the plan only expects a slight reduction in the number of refugees in exile as well as low return rates. Rather, it focuses on the registration of babies in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, so that they can be granted Southern Sudanese citizenship in the future.

Following Southern independence from Sudan in 2011, the UN peacekeeping mission UNMISS for Southern Sudan was set up to support the stabilisation of the country in conflict. With around 12,500 blue helmets, it is the second largest UN mission on the continent. After the mandate was amended in 2014 in response to the renewed outbreak of fighting, it now includes the following tasks: protection of civilians, human rights monitoring and investigation, creating the conditions for the provision of humanitarian aid and supporting the implementation of the cessation of hostilities agreement.

The ceasefire and peace agreements between the conflicting parties in Southern Sudan were negotiated under the auspices of the regional organisation IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development, based in Djibouti). The organisation’s self-imposed objective is to establish food security, support peacekeeping and humanitarian operations, and reinforce economic development and integration in the region. IGAD already played a key role in the resolution of the Somalia conflict, for instance. The EU regards IGAD as the key partner organisation for stabilising the conflicts and migratory movements in the Horn of Africa. At the beginning of 2019, the EU pledged three billion euros for IGAD projects.

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