Women with a flock of pigeons

South Sudan’s decades of displacement: Understanding return and questioning reintegration

REF and Samuel Hall Research

This study explores the experiences of displacement, return and reintegration among South Sudanese refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The overall objective of the research is to understand the factors influencing displacement within and from South Sudan, and return to South Sudan from refugee hosting areas. Over 1,000 respondents were interviewed for this study between December 2021 and February 2022. Research locations included Juba, Kajo Keji, Wau and Malakal in South Sudan; refugee hosting areas in Gambella and Benishangul Gumuz in Ethiopia; Kakuma and Kalobeyei in Kenya; and Bidi refugee settlement and Kampala in Uganda. The sample focused on urban areas and informal settlements in the outskirts of towns in South Sudan. Whether they are abroad in exile or at ‘home’ in urban areas, IDP and refugee camps or Protection of Civilian (PoC) sites have become the de facto homes for millions of South Sudanese.

In addition to directly informing policy discussions around return and peace-building processes in South Sudan, the study considers the ways that the country was affected by the 2020 ‘triple shock’ of intensified conflict and violence in several parts of the country, the COVID-19 pandemic and climate-related disasters for a second year in a row (OCHA, 2021, p.4), which led to one of the world’s worst food security emergencies (FEWS NET, 2020). The ongoing economic downturn puts further pressure on livelihoods, particularly for those in urban areas, where much service infrastructure has been destroyed, damaged or closed (according to an assessment by OCHA, 2021, p.4). Violence against women and girls is also an extreme risk.

Against this backdrop, and decades-long patterns of conflict, climate change and environmental degradation driving displacement, regional institutions and the international community have sought to prioritise the design of policies and programmes to find durable solutions to the protracted displacement and potential return of South Sudanese IDPs and refugees. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has played a pivotal role in setting up a regional response to South Sudanese displacement and in supporting the implementation of the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF). The Government of South Sudan has drafted a new Durable Solutions Strategy and Plan of Action to implement the commitments on return and reintegration included in the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS). Despite the existence of this Agreement, there continues to be intense and violent conflict in many areas, which prevents the achievement of durable solutions. Although conflict between major parties has formally ended, violence and violent clashes have at times intensified in some locations, with devastating effects on local livelihoods and protection. These policy processes aimed at promoting durable solutions need to therefore be further developed and solidified, with attention paid to solutions that mirror the needs, priorities and expectations of South Sudanese people in displacement and upon return.

Return and integration, the key themes of this study, involve high political stakes for the many actors involved, as they are crucial factors in successful peace building by various South Sudanese leaders (Logo, 2021, Moro et al, 2017). Any return should be voluntary, safe, dignified, informed and sustainable. However, the study concludes that

  • The conditions for voluntary, safe, dignified, informed return and sustainable reintegration are currently not present in many parts of South Sudan, as despite the revitalised peace agreement there continues to be quite intense and violent conflict in many local areas between and within different communities, and these prevent sustainable returns.
  • Any discussion and plans for organising returns must proceed at a pace that displaced people and areas of potential return can support.
  • The constant process of displacement, mobility and return blurs the lines between the categories normally adopted in programming and policy frameworks. By bringing to the fore the numerous and varied voices of people inside and outside South Sudan, the study shows the need to take greater account of people and communities in programming and advocacy efforts, and to fund area-based approaches.

Key findings

People’s experiences and practices of return and reintegration

  • South Sudan is experiencing movements that are labelled as ‘return’ but that are, in fact, pendular (back and forth), partial (household splitting across borders) and transitory, which people rely on to minimise risks, as well as to access rights and opportunities for protection. These movements are often the latest in a lifetime of similar movements, with multiple experiences of displacement, return and renewed displacement. Because of a lack of viable choices, financial and administrative barriers to mobility, misinformation concerning asylum policies and return programmes, it is often difficult to discern the degree of voluntariness underpinning ‘returns’, and the living conditions of South Sudanese migrants remain precarious throughout their migration journey.
  • Many of these movements are towards urban centres, presenting challenges in terms of pressure on infrastructure, availability of services, access to livelihood resources, and housing, land and property ownership.
  • Households are variously affected by displacement, yet decision-making powers overall rest with men. Female-headed households are more adversely affected when families are compelled to split further in search of safety and resources, leading to a worsened financial situation. In many cases, decisions about the when and where of a move are made by men, or by the extended family and community networks.
  • Displacement alters gender norms and produces empowering and disempowering effects on South Sudanese women and men. Women are frequently left behind, and their mobility space is significantly more constrained. This can have repercussions for their safety and ability to access income or essential household items. At the same time, living without adult male relatives can increase their decision-making power in day-to-day matters, especially in camp settings, where women can access gender- focused programmes and establish solidarity and support networks cutting across ethnic lines. For young men, the displacement experience is largely disempowering. Displacement hinders their traditional path to adulthood. Men nevertheless have more freedom to move within the country or abroad and to eventually return in search of purpose, belonging, and safety.
  • Return is not an aspiration for many young IDPs and refugees. South Sudan has one of the world’s youngest populations, mostly born in displacement, with no direct experience of living in their families’ areas of origin. Many do not aspire to return as they have never been to South Sudan. Upon return, many decide to move to urban areas that might be unfamiliar to them and find themselves in renewed patterns of displacement. The data reveals that 30 per cent of IDPs interviewed had returned from abroad.
  • Inadequate services in education and health, and limited opportunities in areas of return, are obstacles to reintegration. The education shortages reproduce inequalities between groups. The existing health and education infrastructure in South Sudan is significantly wanting and barriers to access these services have further increased as an impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The reported level of obstacles to education varies depending on the location of respondents. In addition, the South Sudanese education system apparently does not recognise certificates obtained outside the country (e.g. in refugee settlements across the border), necessitating further delays in students’ progress and thus influencing decisions around return. At the household level, education is often available to a very limited number of children due to financial barriers.
  • Food insecurity is an issue of widespread concern in South Sudan and is a primary barrier in return and reintegration. Most households are unable to meet their basic food needs on a regular basis. Food insecurity is at crisis level in many communities surveyed, as a result of the overall lack of income and constraints on livelihoods. In our sample, only 45 per cent of households reported having a source of income from employment or self-employment. Many of these work sources are informal and poorly paid, with most being vulnerable to an unstable income or a downturn in the market.

Legal and policy hurdles to (re)integration

  • Sustainable reintegration efforts from the Government of South Sudan are currently lacking, despite the lessons learned from past reintegration efforts, and despite the fact that the search for durable solutions is first and foremost a matter of national responsibility. The weak rule of law and a lack of investment in essential services and infrastructure have plagued reintegration programmes pre- and post-independence and have not been addressed in current policies and programmes. Informants spoke openly about the many instances of failed reintegration of South Sudanese refugees because of the narrow focus on individual reintegration instead of community-based reintegration, the lack of community rehabilitation, land and housing, or simply as a result of corruption that diverted aid away from communities of return and return households.
  • Multiple crises – COVID-19, flooding and other climate-related disasters, and insecurity – and an overall lack of trust in the wider peace process are significant impediments to return and sometimes result in renewed displacement. Limited or no access to basic services, distrust of security providers and the lack of opportunities or viable conditions to ensure food security significantly hinder returns. Moreover, many returnees have found themselves unable to reach their areas of origin, whether physically as a result of flooding, or socially because of prevailing norms that prevent, for instance, women from returning to their parents after having been married away.

Key recommendations

Returnees, IDPs and host communities in South Sudan face similar challenges in terms of securing access to basic services and physical, material and legal safety. This study identifies severe gaps in service delivery, lack of access to justice and an overall mistrust in peace and reconciliation processes. Continuing political conflict and climate-related crises only exacerbate the fundamentally weak systems in South Sudan. Access to education, healthcare, livelihoods and HLP continue to dominate discussions on return and reintegration among the communities we interviewed.

Efforts to address these needs and barriers in the politically, ecologically and economically fragile context of South Sudan are a long-term process. There is a need to overcome the narrow understanding of return as ‘a durable solution’ and acknowledge that returns are part of a range of mobility strategies South Sudanese communities innovatively use to survive and thrive under extremely challenging conditions. Although moving within South Sudan and across international borders is employed as a coping strategy, any effort to support movements should be carefully and contextually considered by aid actors, given the lack of services, the risk of secondary displacement, the uncertainty in peace and political processes and local patterns of conflict. Central to the recommendations that follow is the place that must be given to both the displaced and to the communities where they live, adopting a needs-based, medium and long-term assistance approach to supporting sustainable reintegration.

The study proposes the following key recommendations:

  • Continue to develop plans for the implementation of R-ARCSS and commit to a nexus approach linking humanitarian, development and peace-building needs
  • Continue peace-building efforts, maintain the civilian character of former PoC sites while planning for a longer transition period that may (but need not necessarily) involve large-scale assisted voluntary returns.
  • Work towards the full implementation of R-ARCSS to create more stable and conducive conditions for return. This should include the full implementation of Chapter II of R-ARCSS (Permanent Ceasefire and Temporary Security Arrangements).
  • Uphold the principle of voluntary, safe, informed and dignified returns set out in international instruments and in the South Sudan Durable Solutions Strategy and Action Plan
  • Return initiatives should be decoupled from the political process and not be linked to the viability of upcoming elections.
  • Those supporting displaced and return communities should improve their awareness of the return context and of local dynamics, to ensure that activities supporting these communities are based on the systematic engagement of affected communities.
  • Reintegration outcomes and post-return experiences should be closely monitored by governmental and non-governmental actors (including UN agencies, NGOs, CSOs and other local actors) managing returns and providing reintegration assistance to the returnees.
  • Donors should maintain an adequate level of funding in displacement hosting areas, both within South Sudan (notably in PoC and IDP areas) and in neighbouring countries (in camp settings and out of camps), so that people’s decisions to return are not dictated by a sudden decrease of assistance or emerging tensions with hosting communities.
  • South Sudanese IDPs and refugees should not be unduly pressured to return, since current conditions are not yet conducive to large-scale returns. The possibility for solutions based on local integration in host countries and in host communities in South Sudan should be explored.
  • The government of South Sudan, with the support of donors, agencies, and humanitarian and development actors should address the deteriorating security and safety conditions that act as a barrier to reintegration.
  • The government of South Sudan will need to address the specific challenges in the former PoC sites, which have been transitioned from UN Protection sites to conventional displacement camps without a sustainable transition plan.
  • The government of South Sudan will need to enact and domesticate the Kampala Convention, as a legal framework to support the implementation of the Durable Solutions Strategy and Plan of Action.
  • Integrate provisions for cross-border mobility in regional plans for durable solutions to allow for safe circular mobility
  • IGAD should, with support from member states and donors, support the adoption and implementation of frameworks for the free movement of community citizens. In the long run, such frameworks should also establish concrete avenues to fulfil the right to work.
  • The EU’s multi-annual identification process should be used to plan for financing that can support multi-annual, multi-sectoral and regional interventions to support the protection and resilience of the South Sudanese and invest in regional exchanges on solutions.
  • In the short term, refugees should be able to move back and forth between host countries and South Sudan for a period of not less than two years, so that they may gradually explore the possibilities for sustainable return without having to sacrifice the security of their refugee status within hosting countries.
  • Donors should fund programmes with an integrated cross-border coordination and programming approach that reinforces cross-border livelihoods and cross-border trade links, as well as enabling people to gather and share information on areas of potential return.
  • The Government of South Sudan should invest in mobile healthcare service provision. Where access to health services in the country is not possible, cross- border mobility to access healthcare systems should be facilitated.
  • Targeted humanitarian aid support for voluntary small-scale movements should be provided on the basis of needs rather than status, alongside medium and long-term assistance for areas of return.
  • Invest in area-based, community-based and locally driven peace and development initiatives
  • The Government of South Sudan should adopt area-based and community-led approaches to durable solutions that target the whole population, regardless of their categorisation based on migratory status, ensuring that the entire community engages in dialogue, including local service providers, local authorities and other relevant stakeholders.
  • The Government of South Sudan, with support from donors and humanitarian and development actors, should map, identify and support the capacity of local and civil society actors, including local faith actors, to build on local resilience and initiatives and promote solutions locally, strengthening social cohesion in rural and urban areas.
  • They should also build on community networks to safeguard and improve access to protection mechanisms.
  • In areas where people are returning voluntarily (and often initially without support), the government, with support from donors and humanitarian and development actors, should ensure that adequate levels of assistance are provided to support the absorptive capacity of the local community and facilitate social cohesion between returnees and host communities.
  • Support for local communities should include investment in roads and infrastructure that connect rural and urban communities, as well as providing support for disaster- resilient agricultural practices.
  • Promote HLP policies and programmes

In South Sudan

  • The Government of South Sudan, together with donor support, should pursue the development and operationalisation of the formal legal framework on HLP.
  • Returnees and IDPs should have full access to the court system and other dispute- resolution mechanisms, such as providing information on processes to claim rights, and providing legal services for the displaced; supporting community-based conflict transformation and social cohesion mechanisms and institutions; and addressing women’s access to HLP through targeted support by tackling legal and practical obstacles.
  • More research is needed on HLP to learn from existing practice and assess constraints, issues and outline the type of interventions that can work and be scaled.

In refugee hosting countries

  • Where possible, encourage better access to land that is adequate for the self- reliance of refugee populations, and invest further in schemes promoting agriculture and farming for self-reliance (including for female-headed households).
  • Provide safe shelter for refugees and address the tensions over accessing land and materials within communities.
  • Increase investment in durable solutions discussions in host countries – to link the access to land, to the right to work, to movement, to access healthcare etc. – and build on existing legal frameworks in Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya, to expand the discussion on durable solutions for South Sudanese refugees alongside other refugee groups.
  • Develop gender- and youth-sensitive programming and policy responses
  • Implement gender- and youth-specific responses based on in-depth analyses in refugee hosting, displacement and return settings.
  • Develop more inclusive gender-programming sensitive to the migration experiences of both men and women.
  • Engage the community in activities aimed at deconstructing traditional gender norms that limit women’s agency and place ‘masculine’ expectations on men.
  • Develop programming that addresses sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) and shifting discriminatory gender norms by including perpetrators as well as survivors in programmes.
  • Support female-headed households through a package of HLP, education and cash- based support.
  • Support young people born in displacement with information, counselling and assistance to plan ahead of their return and join youth-led groups and civil society organisations to bring youth closer together, reinforcing the role of youth-led leadership structures.
  • Align education and training opportunities offered, with the demands of the local labour market to enhance positive social interactions and the local inclusion of youth.
  • Strengthen the education system in South Sudan
  • Increase the capacity of local actors (e.g. faith-based organisations) to deliver educational, livelihood and food security training in partnership with humanitarian and development actors.
  • Strengthen cross border efforts to harmonise educational systems in South Sudan and host countries and support a reform of the education system to recognise academic certificates obtained abroad.
  • Provide information to young South Sudanese pre-departure on the educational and vocational opportunities available in the country after their return.

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