What we know about conflict and mobility in the Horn of Africa

Manut’s children leave a toy on the ground by his home.

Why is it important to consider conflict in relation to mobility in the Horn of Africa?

Mobility is part of the fabric of life in the Horn of Africa, like other places in the world. It often enhances people’s livelihoods. However, an estimated 14.5 million people in the region have been displaced from their homes, with conflict being a major cause.

Not only does conflict threaten lives, it also disrupts livelihoods, preventing people from accessing the resources they need to survive. It can compel people to leave their areas of origin and residence, but it can also prevent people from engaging in the kind of regular mobility that they depend upon to support themselves. Such Forced Immobility is an often-overlooked implication of conflict. 

Many of the conflicts in the Horn of Africa are protracted, lasting many years. Those who are displaced may experience a long-term or even permanent rupture in their lives. Return may not be possible or desirable for many years; new generations are born into displacement and living in conditions of displacement becomes a normal feature of their lives. In Somalia and South Sudanese refugee populations for instance, some refugees have been displaced for three generations. 

We need durable solutions to these challenges. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee on Durable solutions provides this definition: 

A durable solution is achieved when internally displaced persons no longer have any specific assistance and protection needs that are linked to their displacement and can enjoy their human rights without discrimination on account of their displacement.

Three ‘durable solutions’ are generally sought for displaced persons: voluntary repatriation (for refugees) or return (for internally displaced persons), local integration, and resettlement (to a third country for refugees or to a new location domestically for internally displaced persons). 

If refugees or internally displaced persons choose to return home, international refugee law and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement  both call for efforts to be made to ensure their physical, legal and material safety, with full restoration of national protection as the ultimate end. 

For there to be ‘durable solutions’ to displacement, there must be:

  1. The conditions for voluntary, safe, dignified, informed return and sustainable re-integration.
  2. A pace of returns that returnees – and the communities they might return to – can both support.
  3. New ways of thinking about development policy and programming which take into account cyclical processes of displacement, mobility and return.

Read more research from us on returns.

Which study is a good example of a different viewpoint on conflict and migration in the Horn of Africa?

South Sudan is the youngest country in the world, and it is reeling from the effects of conflict and climate change. The UNHCR has a non-return advisory, and considers that the context is not yet conducive to returns.

Displacement has affected the lives of generations of South Sudanese. Before the country gained independence, the second Sudanese civil war (1983–2005) drove up to 4.5 million South Sudanese to leave their homes and seek protection within their own country or abroad. Many refugees decided to return following the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005, and the process leading to the establishment of South Sudan as an independent state in 2011. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that 2 million people did so between 2011 and 2013. 

However, many had to flee again when conflict broke out in 2013, between President Salva Kiir’s government forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in Opposition (SPLA-IO), led by Riek Machar, as well as other armed groups. When the main parties to the conflict signed peace agreements in 2015 and 2018, many expected internally displaced persons and refugees to seek to return again. The search for durable solutions to the situation South Sudanese refugees and internally displaced persons face is a central element of the peace-building framework established in 2018 and it has been reaffirmed in subsequent national and regional initiatives.

However, the number of those returning permanently has remained relatively low. UNHCR and other organisations helped 18,890 internally displaced persons to return between the signing of the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) in September 2018 and July 2021. More people have returned on their own, despite ongoing insecurity and a chronic shortage of essential services.

Over 1 million internally displaced persons and 500,000 refugees have returned to South Sudan since 2018, according to UNHCR; many of these returns, however, have proved not to be sustainable, and people have been further displaced or returned to their countries of exile. 

Today, an estimated two million South Sudanese people are displaced within their own country and 2.2 million are registered as refugees in neighbouring countries. This means that roughly one-third of the South Sudanese population is currently displaced, either internally or across borders. 

Returns to and within South Sudan are often considered to be “spontaneous”: but, until now, relatively little has been known about people’s underlying motivations and outcomes for returning. 

In September 2021, the Research and Evidence Facility and Samuel Hall launched a study on displacement, return and reintegration in South Sudan. This study set out to establish how South Sudanese people and communities are experiencing displacement, return and reintegration, and what this means for practitioners and policy makers.

Hear more about this study:

Read more research on South Sudan.

What inspires us to look at this differently?

This study focussed on the lived experiences of South Sudanese people, and by doing so, aimed to identify the key factors that affect return, reintegration, and displacement. Over 1,000 respondents were interviewed for this study between December 2021 and February 2022. Research was conducted in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.

In South Sudan, it’s important to question the labels used to categorise people and communities affected by displacement. This is because the local context is complex, and it’s rapidly evolving. The labels also don’t always match local perceptions.

For instance, in many cases members of host communities have themselves been displaced, and they often face challenges to their security, livelihood, and education that resemble those faced by internally displaced persons and refugees. 

What’s more, South Sudanese people affected by conflict and disasters often move in circular, fragmented, or back-and-forth patterns. This splits households, further blurring the line between displacement and return.

Read Lisa’s story, as told to Samuel Hall’s Nassim Majidi.

For example, here is a lifeline of one of the male respondents to the study – a 42 year old man who has lived through four episodes of war, displacement and return, since his birth.

Read the article: Who are the ‘returnees’ in South Sudan?

How can this study help us think differently about mobility?

Because of persistent violent conflict, mobility has been a key part of South Sudanese lives. It has allowed people to flee from violence and insecurity, access essential services and maintain translocal networks. These patterns of mobility have fractured links between some people and also created new links. They have altered people’s relationship with their ancestral homes and led to new senses of belonging that often transcend international borders.

Read Reverend Jack’s story, as told to Nassim Majidi and Joseph Malish.

These movements are often transitory. They don’t lead to people’s permanent re-establishment in their ‘areas of origin’. For many people, mobility allows them to spreak their risks and maximise the opportunities of being in  two or more places at the same time. As a refugee who temporarily returned to Juba said:

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

For example, by moving temporarily out of hosting areas, many South Sudanese internally displaced persons and refugees continue to nurture the social and community ties that are important for their lives and livelihoods.

By moving back and forth, encamped communities can get information about the situation in their places of origin, which is important when they have limited trust in official sources and rumours circulate widely.

This information-gathering helps them reduce the risks of finding themselves without safety and access to services. These ‘pendular’ movements signal that internally displaced persons prefer to remain within the relative stability of camps and urban areas, while assessing conditions in their 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. For this reason, they are present in the camps during verification exercises and avoid informing camp authorities and South Sudanese authorities 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 solutions programmes, does not adequately account for a history of displacement, migration, intermarriage, urbanisation and exile that stretches across generations.

Those who returned in the past did not usually choose to live in areas of habitual residence. Instead, they often rented 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 internally displaced persons and refugees have spent a large part of their lives.

This is especially the case for young people who were born while their families were displaced 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.

Read the full report.

How can this study help us think differently about development?

South Sudanese people move in ways that are labelled as ‘return’ but are, in fact, pendular (back and forth), partial (with families splitting across borders) and transitory. These patterns allow people to minimise risks, as well as to access rights and opportunities for protection.

This suggests that we need to move beyond narrow understandings of return as a ‘durable solution’. Instead, we should acknowledge that returns are part of a range of mobility strategies South Sudanese use to survive and thrive in an innovative way, and under extremely challenging conditions.

This research acknowledges that addressing long-term displacement is an integral component of the broader peace-building process in South Sudan. The R-ARCSS treaty, signed in 2018, established a framework linking transitional security arrangements with humanitarian assistance and reconstruction efforts, and it included the safe and dignified return of internally displaced persons and refugees.

Building on this framework, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in 2020 launched the Solutions Initiative for protracted displacement in Sudan and South Sudan. Meanwhile, the national Durable Solutions Strategy and Plan of Action reaffirmed these commitments.

But the country is unprepared for (re-)integration at structural, community and individual levels. While we see policy commitments being made, these have not yet resulted in tangible outcomes for most South Sudanese. People’s decisions about whether, when and where to return are highly constrained by limited means, insufficient access to information, weak trust in formal authorities and push factors in hosting sites. 

The conditions leading to displacement and the profiles of ‘returnees’ has important implications for policy and programmes. On-the-ground realities challenge how feasible policy approaches can be if they see returns as homecoming and a return to the status quo.

On the other hand, ‘spontaneous’ returns of South Sudanese refugees and internally displaced persons can’t be equated with a vote of confidence in solutions to displacement 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 R-ARCSS and by the IGAD support platform.

What did this study teach us about researching mobility in a development context, and in the Horn of Africa?

Studies like this are valuable in showing how the lived experience of conflict-related displacement impacts people’s mobility, and how these changes in mobility ultimately affect their well-being.

We come to see that ‘development’ in such contexts is highly dependent upon people’s ability to move safely and with choice, and that very often the assistance and protection policies and frameworks we use to support displaced populations may in fact prevent people from using their own strategies to protect their physical and livelihood security. 

We also see through such studies that for host countries, policies and services that support displaced populations need to be linked to national development plans and policies rather than treated in isolation as humanitarian or migration/displacement-specific strategies. Displacement affects not only those who are on the move but the communities who live with them, and as such their development futures depend on holistic approaches that include the displaced and local communities together. 

What impact did (or could) this study have, and what’s next?

This study has been presented to the European Commission, its country delegations, UNHCR, nongovernmental organisations and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) which is the major regional governmental bloc leading on the development of a regional strategy for durable solutions of displaced South Sudanese people. It is hoped that the report will be helpful in the design, implementation and monitoring of durable solutions programming in this context.

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