In Ethiopia’s Gambella region, refugee encampment policies meet a complex reality on the ground

Since the outbreak of civil war in December 2013, more than 600,000 South Sudanese have fled to neighbouring countries. More than 226,000 of them have made their way to Ethiopia, contributing to the country overtaking Kenya as the country hosting the most refugees in Africa. The western region of Gambella hosts more than 270,000 of the Ethiopia’s total 280,000 South Sudanese refugees (48,000 have been in Ethiopia before the outbreak of the civil war). The Ethiopian government is attempting to govern this population through a strict policy of encampment, but the weak infrastructure of the region and the ethnic affinity of the refugees with the local population are making that difficult. Meanwhile, the influx is having significant political consequences.

Gambella is a lowland region that borders South Sudan’s Upper Nile and Jonglei states to the west. Gambella town is at its northeastern tip and the Baro River, a tributary of the Nile, crosses Gambella from east to west before forming part of the border between Ethiopia and South Sudan. The river – navigable from Gambella town, through Nasir, to Malakal and Khartoum (in Sudan) – has allowed for trade between Ethiopia and northern Sudan for years. In May 1902, Emperor Menelik II gave the British permission to build a commercial station in the west of Ethiopia on the Baro River. Gambella town was chosen for the purpose, and remains the commercial and political centre of the region.

Gambella is an anomaly in Ethiopia not only geographically but also in terms of its population, as the two main ethnic groups in the region – the Anuak (also known as Anywaa) and the Nuer – are Nilotic. While the Anuak used to be the largest ethnic group in Gambella, this has dramatically changed in the last 30 years as a result of the (often forced) movement of Ethiopians from other parts of the country to Gambella, along with the arrival of large numbers of Nuer fleeing civil war in (South) Sudan. While exact numbers are unavailable, according to the government’s 2007 census, the Nuer constitute about half of Gambella’s population of about 307,000. Population movements into the region in the last decades have resulted in ongoing tensions over political power and land, and led to frequent incidents of ethnic violence and human rights violations.

The recent mass influx of predominantly Nuer refugees from South Sudan threatens to exacerbate pre-existing tensions instigating violence. The “Gambella Nilotes United Movement/Army” (GNUM/A), an opposition political organisation based in exile, for example, has already issued several statements accusing the Ethiopian government of supporting armed Nuer groups and allowing the establishment of refugee camps “in the Anuak land” in order to promote its own interests.

While the power dynamics and political tension within Gambella attract minimal international attention, they are not simply a local issue. The Ethiopian government is playing a central role in negotiations between the warring parties in South Sudan as chair of the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD), and wishes to present itself as a leading regional power and impartial mediator. The presence of a significant Nuer population – which is heavily associated with the South Sudanese rebel Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO) in Gambella presents a challenge in this respect, not least as any major disputes with the SPLM-IO, might trigger violence in Gambella.

This fragile balance is further complicated by Gambella’s proximity to the SPLM-IO’s strongholds and to some of South Sudan’s most war-torn states. This proximity makes Gambella a tempting base for attacks in South Sudan or in Gambella. While the civil war began in Juba, it quickly spread to other parts of the country, and much of the fighting has taken place in Greater Upper Nile Region, in the states of Jonglei, Unity, and Upper Nile. The SPLM-IO took form in Greater Upper Nile, with the most significant defections, predominantly of Nuer soldiers, from the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army (SPLA) taking place in this region. Riek Machar initially organised and commanded the SPLM-IO from Nasir, in Upper Nile. The three main SPLM-IO conferences that have taken place since the movement was established were held in Nasir (only a short journey away from Gambella) in April 2014 and in Pagak (on the Ethiopian-South Sudanese border) in December 2014 and April 2015. Nuer from Gambella have travelled back to South Sudan to attend these events, and to fight alongside the SPLM-IO and the White Army (a Nuer militia aligned with SPLM-IO).

It is in this context that Ethiopian authorities have to address the political, security and humanitarian implications of the mass influx of refugees from South Sudan. In Gambella, as in other parts of the country, Ethiopia enforces a policy of encampment for almost all refugees. National legislation allows the authorities to limit refugees, asylum seekers and their families to camps. In addition, Ethiopia maintains reservations to the 1951 Refugee Convention with regard to the right to engage in wage earning employment (Article 17) and the right to access elementary education (Article 22). The government’s urban policy only applies for a small number of vulnerable refugees with specific protection needs, and the Out of Camp Policy that allows some refugees to live out of camps, currently applies only to Eritreans.

Strict enforcement of the camp policy in Gambella, however, is practically impossible. Out of almost 270,000 South Sudanese refugees in the region, about 33,000 are estimated to be living within host communities (although, as demonstrated below, these numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt).

First of all, despite the government’s desire to “control” the refugee population, the region’s underdeveloped infrastructure renders this extremely challenging. Gambella is the size of Belgium, and has long been one of the most marginalised areas in Ethiopia. Growing investment and development in recent years has had minimal impact. The size of the refugee population, nearly matching that of the local population, presents similar challenges.

The inability to enforce the encampment policy is also the result of decades of cross-border movements of Nuer into the area, which have blurred the distinctions between refugees and nationals, locals and foreigners. For many Nuer, national identity and legal status are highly fluid, and are determined as much by pragmatic considerations as legal definitions. As Dereje Feyissa has argued, to the Nuer in the region “the border is not a constraint but a resource with which they renegotiated their marginality on both sides of the border”. (Dereje Feyissa, “Alternative Citizenship: The Nuer between Ethiopia and the Sudan,” in The Borderlands of South Sudan: Authority and Identity in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives, edited by Christopher Vaughan, Mareike Schomerus, Lotje de Vries, 2013, p. 109-132).

For example, a number of Nuer who lived in Gambella before the most recent civil war have registered as refugees, which required travelling to the border entry point, registering there, and then being transferred to a refugee camp. This allows access to aid that would otherwise be unavailable to Ethiopian Nuer. A similar phenomenon was common in Gambella during the 1980s, when southern Sudanese refugees were able to access education unavailable to Ethiopian Nuer. As a result, it can be assumed that some of those who are now registered as refugees – and are living in the camps – also have Ethiopian ID cards. Others live outside the camps and are visiting them only when rations are distributed.

On the other hand, some of those who fled South Sudan after the start of the current war in December 2013 chose not to register as refugees, unwilling to give up their freedom of movement in favour of humanitarian aid that is (technically) available only in camps. Instead, they have managed to access Ethiopian ID cards, which are relatively easy to obtain for those with relatives who already have them. Acquiring these IDs gives them legitimacy to stay outside the camps and move freely. Some have suggested that this facilitated access to Ethiopian ID cards is a result of a deliberate strategy of local Nuer elites. In Ethiopia’s ethnic federal system, the impact of these changing demographics is critical, as demographic dominance means access to political power.

Thus, on the ground the picture is far removed from the policy structure, and this will have far-reaching future consequences. Ethiopia’s encampment policy is predicated on the assumption that the refugees in Gambella will eventually return to South Sudan. Therefore, they are offered no formal avenues for local integration. In reality, the conflict in South Sudan is far from over, and even should peace return, many refugees may choose to stay in Gambella, in the same way that refugees in the region did after the previous north-south civil war in Sudan.

Regardless, there is little doubt that the political and social landscape in Gambella is being dramatically re-shaped by broader national and international conflicts in the region. As a result, reconciling these influences and maintaining stability in Ethiopia’s western tip will remain a challenge for many years to come.

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