Study launch: displacement, return and reintegration in South Sudan

In September 2021, the Research and Evidence Facility and Samuel Hall launched a study on displacement, return and reintegration in South Sudan. There are an estimated 2.4 million South Sudanese refugees in the Horn of Africa region as of October 2021, including 1.4 million internally displaced. Between 2016 and 2019, statistics on returns have also estimated over one million refugees and 680,000 IDPs who have reportedly returned to their places of habitual residence. While these figures give some idea of the magnitude of displacement, they should be taken as rough estimates given the difficulties of verification and the rapidly changing context. In addition, little is known about the decision-making processes of the displaced and of those who return, or of the outcome of their returns.

Women leaders at the POC site in Malakal, Upper Nile State, South Sudan. UN Photo/JC McIlwaine. Malakal, South Sudan

The overall objective of this research project is to understand the different types of factors influencing return and reintegration to and within South Sudan, as well as the impact of displacement and return on the wider communities in the countries of origin and asylum.

With this study, we aim to assess the individual, community and structural factors influencing displacement patterns, as well as factors enhancing or hindering the prospects of sustainable return and reintegration within and to South Sudan. The Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS), signed in 2018, brought together representatives from opposing factions and signalled an important step towards peace and stability. In 2020, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) launched the Regional Solutions Initiative to advance comprehensive solutions for the forcibly displaced and mobilise the international community for early recovery and longer term peacebuilding and resilience. However, South Sudan is still confronted with several localised and politicised conflicts, triggering new waves of displacement both internally and across borders. The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the devastating impact of natural disasters such as flood, further exacerbate the vulnerabilities of local communities.

By centring the study’s objectives and questions on the lived experiences of South Sudanese people, we aim to identify the key factors that affect return, reintegration, and displacement and how these can best be addressed through policy and programming. Concepts of host community, displacement, and returns are often blurred in South Sudan. In many cases, host community members have previously been displaced and they often face security, livelihood, and education challenges similar to those of IDPs and refugees. Moreover, the movements of South Sudanese people affected by conflict and disasters often follow circular, fragmented or back-and-forth patterns, resulting in ‘split’ households, thus further blurring the line between displacement and return. It is therefore key to interrogate how the standard labels normally used to categorise displacement-affected persons and communities may not always be appropriate for describing the complexity of the rapidly evolving local context and local perceptions.

For this study, we will focus on the lived experiences of displaced communities in South Sudan and across its borders, in the context of emerging legal and policy frameworks designed to address displacement, return and reintegration in South Sudan and in countries hosting South Sudanese refuges. Working with local experts and researchers from displaced communities, we will collect data in South Sudan, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia. The diverse tools we will use – ranging from quantitative surveys to qualitative interviews, focus group discussions, and case studies – will be key to drawing nuanced insights on the main factors influencing return and reintegration. The choices that refugees and internally displaced persons make around mobility reflect contextual, socio-economic and community-level factors, as well as personal preferences. Through this study, we aim to amplify the experiences of those navigating these decisions and ensure that the knowledge held by South Sudanese communities informs displacement and durable solutions policies.

This research is an opportunity to bring together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working on the implications of return and reintegration, and planning for durable solutions in South Sudan and surrounding countries (focusing on Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya).

Image: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0). Women leaders at the Protection of Civilians (POC) site in Malakal, Upper Nile State, South Sudan.

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