Tomorrow marks nine months since Sudan and South Sudan became the world’s newest independent nations, and the end of a ‘transition period’ that could see hundreds of thousands of people left in legal limbo and effectively stateless.
One of the many outstanding issues between the two countries since independence is that of the citizenship and rights to residency of the estimated 500,000 “southerners” still living in Sudan. The end of the nine-month transition period marks the deadline for them to adjust their legal status in the country, or “return” to South Sudan – both of which are proving easier said than done.
During Sudan’s long civil war, hundreds of thousands of people fled the south and set up homes on the edge of big northern cities such as Khartoum and Port Sudan. There they often faced discrimination and poverty, but at least managed to escape the bombing and attacks in the south. They got jobs, had families and built a new life. Now they have to decide whether to stay or leave.
For those who want to remain in Sudan, adjusting their legal status is fraught with challenges. To do so they need identity papers from the Government of South Sudan – but it has not yet opened an embassy in Sudan, so people are still waiting. Many others are confused by the whole process and unclear who can qualify for residency, such as those with mixed parentage. If you have a “northern” father you can become a Sudanese citizen, but if you have a “northern” mother… it’s unclear. Many southerners say they are already finding it harder to get jobs – especially in the public sector – and fear it will get even harder to survive without proper citizenship.
Many do want to go to South Sudan – whether to return home to help build the new nation, or for fear of hostility and discrimination against southerners remaining in Sudan after the deadline. But the “returnees” face numerous challenges. Many of them have lived in the north for years. Their children were born and raised there and have never even been to the South – they are “returning” to a home they don’t know.
Just getting to South Sudan is not easy. It’s an expensive, lengthy and often dangerous journey by bus and barge for two weeks or more. The worsening conflicts along the border between the two countries mean it’s increasingly risky – a convoy of 1,600 returnees was reportedly caught up in the recent military clashes, and several other convoys have been attacked and robbed by militia. People have gone missing on the way.
When they do arrive in South Sudan, people often end up in transit camps where conditions and services are very basic. Oxfam is providing water and sanitation in some of the camps – one of the team sent this photo story from Mina camp in Upper Nile, where 8,000 returnees currently stay:
Adapting to life in small towns and villages in South Sudan can be extremely difficult, as many of the 370,000 southerners who have already returned since late 2010 have found. Often returnees do not speak the local languages, and although many of them have skills and job experience, they are not always the skills needed in their new context. Few teenagers growing up in Khartoum learn much about farming or rearing cattle.
Returnees have found that in some locations in the South, cattle rather than cash is the main asset and source of wealth. They may have some money, but with no land or cattle their economic status is drastically altered overnight. Young men who have returned and do not own cattle sometimes find it difficult to marry in a culture where bride price is paid in cows.
Increasingly returnees are therefore moving to settle in towns and cities in the South, where their skills are better suited, rather than the rural areas their families originated from. But cities are becoming increasingly overcrowded and jobs are getting harder to find. Donors, the government and NGOs have often neglected the livelihoods of people in urban areas. Returnees with valuable skills find themselves unable to farm and unable to work, forcing them to sell their possessions to buy food.
Nobody seems entirely sure what will happen after the deadline – whether there will be a mass exodus of southerners from Sudan or not. At the moment returnees continue to trickle across the border – this week another 1,400 arrived in Mina camp.
There is still hope that this can be resolved in a way that gives southerners in Sudan – and northerners in South Sudan – the right to choose their future. In mid-March, Sudan and South Sudan signed a framework agreement known as the “4 Freedoms”. This was a positive step and recognises that nationals of one state but living in the other have the rights to enjoy residence, free movement, economic activity and to own and sell property. But agreements on paper do not always translate to facts on the ground, and hundreds of thousands of people are waiting to see whether and how it is actually implemented.