As South Sudan celebrates the first anniversary of its separation from Sudan, the world’s newest nation faces multiple challenges including simmering tensions along the border, the influx of an estimated 165,500 refugees from ongoing conflict in Sudan, inter-communal conflicts, and an economy crippled by the closure of the border and shutdown of oil production. Perhaps most alarming, however, is the escalating food crisis threatening nearly half of the country’s 9.7 million inhabitants according to recent UN estimates.
As the government, UN, and NGOs struggle to respond, the country is anticipating the arrival of hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese who are among the last remaining in Sudan and now face an uncertain future back ‘home’. These returnees are triply vulnerable. The already difficult return and reintegration process ahead of them is exacerbated by the economic crisis in South Sudan, while the multiple and overlapping challenges facing the fledgling state means that returnees’ needs are being overshadowed by broader crises. Instead of a joyful homecoming, they face a future of uncertainty as the country marks the anniversary of its political independence with only the certainty that it will remain dependent on foreign assistance for the foreseeable future.
I recently traveled to South Sudan, where I had a chance to speak with some of the newly arriving returnees. They told me about their journey and about their friends and relatives still on the way. In Wau, I spoke to returnees unloading their possessions from a train that had just arrived from Sudan. They described the economic and political pressures to leave Sudan, including the loss of Sudanese citizenship, and the difficult, 18-day train journey ‘home’.
A tall Dinka woman wearing a brightly-colored Sudanese tobe and a black ski cap eloquently described her journey from a South Sudanese area of Khartoum all the way to Wau. She had never been to South Sudan and spoke Dinka with noticeable difficulty. Like many others I spoke with, she had little idea of what she would do in South Sudan. Her husband had returned many months earlier, but she had no means of finding him after her mobile phone, which contained his contact details, was stolen. A short while later, a shy 17 year old boy told me how he had come to South Sudan alone, and had no idea where to go and no way of finding friends or relatives. He was coming to the station whenever a new train of returnees arrived in the hopes of running into someone he knew who might be able to help him.
Such stories of people trying to establish a new life in an unfamiliar and challenging new environment were common throughout the years between the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) in 2005 and the referendum on the future of South Sudan in 2011. In that six year period, the return of Southern Sudanese was a political imperative for the Government of Southern Sudan and hundreds of thousands returned from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, the Republic of Sudan, Egypt, and further afield with significant attention and financial support from the government and the international community. Events since then, however, have created an environment where the needs of returnees have been overshadowed. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of South Sudanese continue to return. Once their journey is over, they join nearly a million recent returnees struggling to find their feet in a land that is technically at peace but still very much in crisis.
Despite South Sudan’s huge potential and abundant natural resources, half a century of marginalization and conflict has left the country severely impoverished, with extremely low literacy rates, high levels of displacement, and woefully inadequate infrastructure and public services. Although the seven years since the signing of the CPA enabled greater efforts to address these fundamental issues, investment has fallen short of needs. In the year since South Sudan gained its independence, however, the country risks backsliding in the face of an economic outlook and austerity measures that slashed budgets for almost all social services. At the same time, politicized tribal conflict, ongoing militia activity, and conflict along the border with Sudan threaten the physical safety of civilians across South Sudan. For returnees, this means returning to a volatile and potentially dangerous independent homeland with only minimal support.
Reintegration and absorption capacity within South Sudan is already extremely limited. The disproportionate focus on the physical return of displaced southerners over their reintegration which characterized the CPA period continues today, and as a result many thousands of returnees are still awaiting assistance and access to land.
Those reintegration efforts that do exist tend to be heavily focused on return to rural areas, with far too little attention on either the link between rural livelihoods and constraints on access to land, or on return to urban areas. Returnees who do not want to settle in rural areas—either because they are uncomfortable with a rural lifestyle, lack connections to those ‘areas of origin’, or because those areas lack basic services—regularly face difficulty in acquiring land in towns. This is for multiple reasons, including government policies which seek to avoid overcrowding of towns, particularly state capitals. The scarcity of job opportunities in urban areas and insufficient programming to target returnees seeking to live in towns, particularly in places like Kuajok and Aweil, have the potential to leave large numbers of recent returnees without any means of sustainably supporting themselves and their families. The Government of South Sudan has a policy that commits it to providing basic services and assistance to returnees. But its ability to deliver is now in question under the austerity budget. Therefore, the government must urgently revisit and outline its reintegration plan, with both humanitarian and development actors involved, to assess the ability to support new arrivals and provide resolution to outstanding issues, such as land distribution, for those returnees already in South Sudan.
More broadly, the oil shutdown in South Sudan brings into critical focus the need for South Sudan to diversify its economy, and particularly to develop its full agricultural potential for the benefit of all South Sudanese, including returnees. Ultimately, South Sudan must escape cyclical food insecurity and dependence on emergency food aid. It needs to support vibrant markets and a diverse economy, while building a social safety net. For this to become a reality, the international community must continue to pursue all channels to support negotiated solutions to the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan and the resolution of the outstanding CPA issues. Without real peace, there can be no full humanitarian access, durable solutions for Sudanese refugees, or the sustainable development solutions necessary to build a resilient and self-sufficient South Sudan.