REF and Samuel Hall publish major study on return and reintegration in South Sudan

‘Every time I see peace coming, I come back; every team I see war breaking out, I go back to a foreign country’

John*, South-Sudanese returnee

John’s story mirrors that of almost 3.8 million South Sudanese people who are estimated to have left their place of residence, including 1.87 million who are displaced internally.

South Sudan is the youngest country in the world – that continues to reel in challenges exacerbated by conflict and climate change. The UNHCR has a non-return advisory, stating that the context is not yet conducive to return. However, UNHCR figures also show that more than one million refugees have returned to their places of habitual residence between 2016 and 2019.

What drove so many people to return? What do they expect upon return? How can policies and programme adapt to their aspirations and needs?

Samuel Hall and the Research and Evidence Facility [REF] embarked on a study funded by the EU Trust Fund for Africa, to assess the individual, community and structural factors impacting displacement patterns, along with factors enhancing or hindering the prospects of sustainable return and reintegration within and to South Sudan.

Read the full report.

We spoke to over 1,000 South Sudanese refugees and returnees, between December 2021 and February 2022, in South Sudan and in refugee hosting areas in Ethiopia Kenya, and Uganda. The methodology employed various tools such as lifeline interviews, focus-group discussions, quantitative surveys and case studies.

Our research found that South Sudan is experiencing movements labelled as ‘return’, but that are, in fact, back-and-forth movements, which people rely on to minimise risks and access protection and services. Refugees frequently move across borders, but they’re careful not to lose their status or access to aid in the country or city of asylum. Return is, thus, not the end of the migration cycle, nor a return ‘home’, but one step in broader patterns of mobility that need to be protected.

Figure 1: Lifeline of one of our male respondents – a 42 year old man who has lived through four episodes of war, displacement and return, since his birth.

Source: REF Blog “Who are the returners in South Sudan”, Sep 2022.

Our study confirms that the conditions for voluntary, safe and dignified returns are not present in South Sudan. For example, local economies cannot provide the displaced and returnees with enough jobs: only 45 percent of households we surveyed had a current source of income from employment or self-employment.

Thus, many families searching for education and employment have had to make the hard choice of splitting, with both positive and negative impacts on childhood development, family relations, and mental well-being.

‘It is very hard to be separated from the family; the reason I made those decisions is that here there are so many challenges. We could provide food for everyone but we would not be able to pay for school fees here.’

Nhail*; Returnee with family in Kakuma, Kenya

Forty-four percent of our survey respondents reported that they had left some family members behind as they moved. Women are frequently left behind, and their opportunities for mobility are more constrained than men. Women risk being marginalised and cut off from family support if they do not abide by social norms.

Access to housing, land and property (HLP) also emerged as a barrier to reintegration. Many returning IDPs and refugees interviewed could not reclaim their land and property. Others returned to find their houses burned down or destroyed.

‘Even this year, we are being threatened to be evicted. If so, we will just go live on the streets!’

Joy*, Female IDP

The Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, 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 recovery. However, South Sudan is still confronted with localised conflicts and widespread violence, triggering new waves of displacement internally and across borders. The report acknowledges that national legislation and regional efforts can further address critical needs.

We recommend:

  • First, to uphold principles that returns should not take place until and unless they are voluntary, dignified and safe.
  • Second, to integrate provisions for cross-border mobility in regional plans for durable solutions to allow for safe circular mobility Investment in area-based, community-based, and locally-driven peace and development initiatives.
  • Third, to formulate and promote housing, land and property policies and programmes and those that support women and youth.
  • Fourth, to develop plans for implementing the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan and commit to a nexus approach linking humanitarian, development and peace-building needs.
  • Fifth, to facilitate the participation of women in education and empowerment programmes. We also call for developing programmes that address SGBV and shift discriminatory gender norms.
  • Sixth, we call for social infrastructure to support young people born in displacement, who need information, counselling and assistance to plan their future, and their potential return. They can join youth-led groups and civil society organisation, to bring them closer together, to build their leadership and their sense of belonging. Young South Sudanese require more information pre-departure on what awaits them after their return.

Our report highlights more recommendations and findings around return and reintegration in South Sudan – which have been validated by stakeholders. We aim to amplify the experiences of those navigating these decisions and their outcomes to policy makers, and ensure that the knowledge held by South Sudanese communities informs displacement and durable solutions policies.

Read some personal narratives of the South Sudanese people we interviewed for this study in ‘On the move in pursuit of peace’ and ‘On our own in the middle of Juba’.  

Read the full report

This blog was prepared by REF and Samuel Hall. Contributors from REF were Padmini Iyer, Louisa Brain, Oliver Bakewell, Lavender Mboya, Haben Abraha Hill and Laura Hammond. Samuel Hall contributors were Dr Nassim Majidi, Giulio Morello, Stefanie Barratt and Jonathan Buckley.

Image: Phototreat on iStock.

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