Akoi, a father of three, recently returned to Juba from Khartoum. Since arriving he has struggled to find work and barely makes ends meet by running errands in the local market. ‘When I was in Khartoum I had a small business [repairing farming equipment]. In Juba I make little money. Often my children go to bed hungry.’
Akoi is one of over 2 million people who have returned to South Sudan since the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in 2005 ending five decades of conflict. Sadly, his situation is typical of many of those returning to urban areas in South Sudan. The rate of return increased dramatically following South Sudan’s independence on 9 July 2011, returning to one of the poorest and most vulnerable countries on earth. While many have returned voluntarily, those returning from Khartoum were given little choice by the Government of Sudan. This raises the question of how well South Sudan can support the returnees and those communities to which they return to prosper.
While the South Sudanese Development Plan is predicated on returnees finding their way back to their rural ancestral lands, a significant minority have chosen to resettle in urban areas. Many grew up in urban centres in Khartoum, Nairobi and Kampala and have no affinity with a rural life or the necessary farming skills. Many were not even born when their families fled their homelands in rural South Sudan.
For those returnees who choose to live in urban areas, there are serious questions about their ability to access livelihoods. Given the Government of South Sudan’s limited resources and capacity, the international community, which has assisted the immediate relief effort and transported hundreds of thousands to South Sudan, needs to do more to ensure that returnees successfully rebuild their lives in the country.
Of course, the context in which return is taking place is one of enormous challenges. There are limited services across South Sudan, even in urban areas. The country has some of the worst recorded health statistics in Africa. Less than 2 per cent of the population have had the opportunity to complete primary school education. Similarly, access to potable water and sanitation is challenging.
Unemployment is rampant in Juba. Evidence suggests that this has been exacerbated by recent influxes of returnees. In addition to the challenge of finding employment, there is a lack of access to credit which could support entrepreneurship and business development for returnees.
It is all the more important, therefore, that the return of refugees be handled with sufficient resources. Evidence suggests that the massive influx of returnees with little support has exacerbated inter-community clashes and fostered a strong anti-immigration mood in the cities. There are also concerns about increased crime and social breakdown in the cities.
And yet, beyond limited pilot initiatives there are few ,if any, social protection programmes running in the cities to provide basic support. Studies indicate that donors are reluctant to establish such programmes for fear of developing a “handout mentality.” But such fears should not result in inaction: they should result in the establishment of programmes that support planned economic growth in cities – programmes that work with the Government to provide basic services, that provide employment opportunities and provide micro loans to assist those who wish to start their own business, that are based on proper consultation with the communities and that respect their rights. All South Sudanese have a right to a livelihood, to health and education. After five decades of war, South Sudan cannot afford to waste the talents and skills of another generation. The Government of South Sudan and the international community have so far successfully managed one of the most significant movements of people in human history. Now more needs to be done to ensure that, like Akoi ,those who have returned have a realistic opportunity of successfully rebuilding their lives.
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