South Sudan is experiencing different types of movements that are often labelled as ‘return’. Despite ongoing insecurity and a chronic shortage of essential services, it has been estimated that 505,511 refugees[1] and 1,183,666 IDPs have returned to their areas of origin within the country since 2018.[2] At the same time, with an estimated 2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 2.2 million refugees registered in hosting countries, South Sudan remains Africa’s largest displacement crisis and one of the most underfunded globally.[3]

A forthcoming study on Displacement, Return and Reintegration in South Sudan, commissioned by the EUTF’s Research and Evidence Facility and carried out by Samuel Hall with Windle Trust International in South Sudan and a network of researchers in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, sought to understand the different motivations underpinning these ‘return’ movements.

Findings from our fieldwork indicate that ‘returns’ to and within South Sudan include circular movements between locations. These movements are dictated by several factors such as climate, conflict, access to basic services in hosting areas. Our research also noted household mobility strategies – including split families– to seek access to safety, essential services, community networks and livelihood opportunities.

These movements are often transitory. They do not lead to people’s permanent re-establishment in their ‘areas of origin’. These movements are better understood as one step in people’s complex and evolving mobility trajectories. By moving temporarily out of hosting areas, many South Sudanese IDPs and refugees continue to nurture the social and community ties that are important for their lives and livelihoods. These back and forth movements are also an effective vehicle for encamped communities to acquire information about the situation in their places of origin, especially when trust in official sources is low and rumours circulate widely. Through this pendular approach people can effectively be in two places at the same time. This helps them reduce the risks of finding themselves without safety and access to services. As stated by a refugee who temporarily returned to Juba:

“We keep one leg in Uganda and another in South Sudan”

The movements are also pendular – back-and-forth not one-way movements. he pendular movements of IDPs from hosting sites to nearby towns and places of origin make it difficult to distinguish between IDPs and members of the communities in which they live. These movements signal a preference for remaining within the relative stability of camps and urban areas while proceeding in a stepwise fashion to assess conditions in areas of origin.

These temporary ‘returns’ require careful planning. Refugees who frequently move across borders take great care to ensure that their pendular mobility does not entail a loss of status and access to aid in the country of asylum. They do so by being present in the camps during verification exercises and avoiding informing camp authorities and those in South Sudan of their intentions to move.

When this strategy fails, the ability to move back and forth across borders is compromised and consequences can be harmful. A former refugee who returned to Juba explained the effects of the loss of registration on his ability to maintain meaningful contact with his family:

“My child was born in 2018 [in Uganda] and I’ve never seen him. I’ve only seen photos because now my ration card is dormant. The UN carried out headcounts several times and I was not present”

In South Sudan, the notion of ‘returning home’, inherent in most durable solution programmes, does not adequately account for a generations-long history of displacement, migration, intermarriage, urbanisation and exile. Those who returned in the past did not usually choose to live in areas of habitual residence. Instead, they often rented their accommodation in the outskirts of towns, where they had better access to community support, services and opportunities. In some cases, ‘home’ is the camps where IDPs and refugees have spent a large part of their lives. This is especially the case for youth who were born in displacement and have no direct experience of their families’ areas of origin. For many of them, the camp is the only place to return to when the prospects to move elsewhere fail.

These movement patterns result in complex mobility trajectories, as depicted in the lifeline below – showing the displacement and return history of a male research participant interviewed in Juba.

The complexity of the South Sudanese displacement context and the diversity of the profiles of ‘returnees’ has important implications for policy and programme. On the one hand, realities observed on the ground challenge the feasibility of policy approaches positing returns as ‘homecoming’ to an idealised status quo. On the other, ‘spontaneous returns’ of South Sudanese refugees and IDPs ‘home’ cannot be equated with a vote of confidence for the possibilities of solutions in South Sudan, but rather the lack of any solution for them elsewhere. Unpacking ‘returns’ to South Sudan is therefore essential to inform current durable solutions initiatives underpinned by the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS) and by the IGAD support platform.

[1] UNHCR. (2021). South Sudan: Overview of spontaneous refugee returns-Dec 2021. UNHCR.

[2] IOM (2022). South Sudan Mobility Tracking Round 11.

[3] UNHCR (2022). UNHCR and partners seek US$1.2 billion to address Africa’s largest refugee crisis.

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