Returning to South Sudan: Is the international community failing returnees?

Matt Corrigan is a human rights lawyer currently working on projects in South Sudan

In May 2012, United Nations agencies flew thousands of South Sudanese from Kosti in (North) Sudan to Juba in South Sudan. Their transfer was forced by the authorities of Kosti who demanded that they be resettled in the South. They form part of over two million people who have returned to South Sudan since the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005. The movement of people from Sudan to South Sudan represents one of the most significant movements of people in modern history.

But how is the international community responding to the huge challenges that have been created by such wide-scale return?

For sure, the post conflict setting in South Sudan has posed particular challenges for development partners and NGOs. Increasingly, in the context of ongoing conflict and government austerity measures, agencies have focused on immediate humanitarian relief at the expense of supporting the South to develop its economy and nascent institutions following five decades of neglect.

Yet, even though development partners have moved away from supporting long term development in South Sudan, they nevertheless continue to support large transfers of people from Sudan to South Sudan. Yes, those partners have been given little alternative by an unyielding Sudan which has ordered all Southerners to leave. And yes, those who have repatriated have technically ‘volunteered’ to be returned. But in reality, they had little choice. As a result, they are particularly vulnerable.

In practice, development partners are moving people from a poor country to one of the poorest countries on earth.  In this context, how does the international community match up the need to respond to the immediate demands for survival of a vulnerable population – not only returnees, but also those who survived the war and have had their livelihoods decimated – with the need to ensure longer-term development?

Essentially, UN agencies, supported by NGOs, manage the logistics of transfer and provide immediate relief through food and NFI packages. This initial assistance, whilst critical, can also give the false impression of ongoing support. That support in practice ends with the provision of three months’ worth of dry food.

Beyond this assistance, there are few programmes providing longer term assistance. The policy challenge of successful reintegration is broader than ensuring safe passage from Sudan to South Sudan and initial emergency food relief.  Reintegration requires that both receiving communities and returnees are supported so that those returnees become productive and accepted members of the community where they are settling.

While mindful of the difficult task being undertaken, it seems that the international community is failing to manage longer term reintegration successfully. Evidence suggests that the massive influx of returnees with little support has exacerbated inter-communal clashes and fostered a strong anti-immigration mood in the cities. There are also concerns about increased crime and social breakdown in the cities.

Pasquina Augustina, a mother of two, was one of those transported from Kosti to Juba in May. Today, her home is a refugee camp on the outskirts of Juba, awaiting resettlement by the Government of South Sudan (GOSS). ‘I don’t know where I am going. How [will] I survive when I leave here? Will I be safe? Will my son have a job? Will my daughter get a job when she leaves school?’ These are all questions the international community and the GOSS need to be focusing on. It is not enough for development partners to focus on immediate or emergency relief. A short term focus, without long term development support risks perpetuating poverty (if not exacerbating it) and potentially risks inciting conflict when the peace was so hard won.

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