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Internal Displacement of South Sudanese Civilians

Exploring key factors behind a growing refugee crisis


South Sudan gained independence from Sudan on July 2011 as the outcome of a 2005 agreement that ended Africa's longest-running civil war. This makes it the world's newest country.


A decade after independence South Sudan still faces internal conflict, political instability, food insecurity, inter-communal violence, and armed confrontations. Combined, those phenomena have led to massive displacement of civilians. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that 2.2 million South Sudanese have been displaced within the territory, with as many as another 2.3 million currently living as refugees in neighboring States. Certain groups of displaced civilians, including women, children, the elderly, and people with illnesses or disabilities, are particularly vulnerable. They are severely affected in such situations, as displacement often reduces access to relevant resources and assistance and exacerbates their risk of experiencing violence, discrimination, and marginalization. Displacement in South Sudan is predominantly prompted by armed conflict, inter-communal violence, and natural causes such as droughts or floods. This blog article examines the key variables that have forced internally displaced people (IDPs) to flee their homes and shelter within protected camps.

Floods in South Sudan ©MSF/Tetiana Gaviuk

Extreme weather conditions threaten the well-being of camp residents. In Bentiu, for example, erosion and heavy rainfall are slowly destroying the dikes protecting IDPs’ homes against flooded rivers, exposing thousands of vulnerable people to homelessness or destruction of property. IDPs camps in South Sudan are highly dependent on humanitarian aid and mostly funded by civil society organizations and United Nations (UN) specialized agencies.


However, resources are limited, and IDPs’ assistance needs could hardly be met in 2022, due to underfunding of the main humanitarian actors involved in South Sudan. Indeed, in a recent publication, the UNHCR highlighted that the current global economic and political context, including a rise in the number of forcibly displaced civilians caused by the Ukrainian crisis, had led to an explosion of the UNHCR “needs-based budget”, resulting in an important funding gap for other displaced communities across the world. With a funding gap of 134 million dollars for South Sudan, the UN agency warns that a restriction of its operations could have a dramatic impact on IDPs in the country. Indeed, many still depend on basic humanitarian aid, including core relief, protection, shelter, relocation, provision of medical services, education, and support for economic self-reliance.


Resurgence in armed violence and civilian casualties


Increasing inter-communal and inter-ethnic violence is another key driver of displacement for South Sudanese civilians. Fights regularly erupt between communities, with members taking up arms and attacking other tribes or ethnic groups. In December 2022, clashes between the Murle and Nuer communities killed more than 50 people in Jonglei State, and led to the subsequent mobilization of youth groups to engage in raids and retaliation. The alarming proliferation of armed clashes between different groups and communities since the ratification of the Revitalized Agreement in 2018 has evolved into a “mutant breed of traditional forms of raiding and extensions of political rivalries at the national level”.


Understanding the root causes of such conflicts is particularly challenging considering the decentralized nature of the disputes, which are generally “organized around ethnic or sub-ethnic lines” by different armed actors ranging from organized armed militias to youth voluntary groups. These disputes often develop in environments affected by tensions, power vacuums, food insecurity, or political instability.


Reports suggest that inter-communal disputes can be linked to the civil war and power struggles that have opposed the government to other armed forces for the last ten years. It is indeed alleged that “ethnicity has often been mobilized for offensive [...] purposes, or to disguise the true motivations of political and military elites”. Despite the largely irregular and unpredictable nature of these violent incidents, it seems that inter-communal violence has been fueled by elite stakeholders.


Cattle market. South Sudan © UNMISS

Incidents often take the form of lootings or cattle raiding, exacerbating animosity between communities and triggering further eruptions of violence, including revenge crimes, fights, destructions, and killings. UNMISS’s latest reports still attribute more than 30% of civilian casualties to civil-defense groups ​​and community-based militias, which are allegedly being “used as proxy armed elements by all parties to the conflict and by local actors”, thus further accelerating their militarization and the development of inter-communal violence. Other reasons for this eruption of violence amongst communities include famine, limited resources, and deprivations caused by natural disasters or conflicts, ultimately motivating physical destruction, fear, and insecurity.

The consequences of inter-communal violence therefore often force populations to escape. Armed soldiers and UN peacekeepers are attempting to protect IDPs in Protection of Civilian sites (PoCs) from external threats.


Most civilians, if they were to leave those camps, would face life-threatening risks, including in relation to attackers who targeted them in the past. However, some incidents have also been recorded in camps, as illustrated by the recent deadly armed confrontations between rival communities inside the Aburo IDPs camp in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State.


Increase in inter-communal and ethnic disputes


Increasing inter-communal and inter-ethnic violence is another key driver of displacement for South Sudanese civilians. Fights regularly erupt between communities, with members taking up arms and attacking other tribes or ethnic groups. In December 2022, clashes between the Murle and Nuer communities killed more than 50 people in Jonglei State, and led to the subsequent mobilization of youth groups to engage in raids and retaliation. The alarming proliferation of armed clashes between different groups and communities since the ratification of the Revitalized Agreement in 2018 has evolved into a “mutant breed of traditional forms of raiding and extensions of political rivalries at the national level”.


Understanding the root causes of such conflicts is particularly challenging considering the decentralized nature of the disputes, which are generally “organized around ethnic or sub-ethnic lines” by different armed actors ranging from organized armed militias to youth voluntary groups. These disputes often develop in environments affected by tensions, power vacuums, food insecurity, or political instability.


Reports suggest that inter-communal disputes can be linked to the civil war and power struggles that have opposed the government to other armed forces for the last ten years. It is indeed alleged that “ethnicity has often been mobilized for offensive [...] purposes, or to disguise the true motivations of political and military elites”. Despite the largely irregular and unpredictable nature of these violent incidents, it seems that inter-communal violence has been fueled by elite stakeholders.


Incidents often take the form of lootings or cattle raiding, exacerbating animosity between communities and triggering further eruptions of violence, including revenge crimes, fights, destructions, and killings. UNMISS’s latest reports still attribute more than 30% of civilian casualties to civil-defense groups ​​and community-based militias, which are allegedly being “used as proxy armed elements by all parties to the conflict and by local actors”, thus further accelerating their militarization and the development of inter-communal violence. Other reasons for this eruption of violence amongst communities include famine, limited resources, and deprivations caused by natural disasters or conflicts, ultimately motivating physical destruction, fear, and insecurity.

The consequences of inter-communal violence therefore often force populations to escape. Armed soldiers and UN peacekeepers are attempting to protect IDPs in Protection of Civilian sites (PoCs) from external threats.


Most civilians, if they were to leave those camps, would face life-threatening risks, including in relation to attackers who targeted them in the past. However, some incidents have also been recorded in camps, as illustrated by the recent deadly armed confrontations between rival communities inside the Aburo IDPs camp in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State.


Natural disasters and impact on communities

Natural phenomena and extreme weather conditions, most commonly seasonal floods or droughts, are another cause for displacement in South Sudan. Since 2019, the country’s floods have contributed to “diminishing its most vulnerable people’s resilience.” At the source of such natural disasters are climate change, exploitation of topsoil, and deforestation. In October 2022, the International Crisis Group recorded severe flooding in the regions of Jonglei, Northern Bahr el Ghazal, Unity, Upper Nile, Warrap, and Western Equatoria, accounting for an increase in the number of States affected in comparison to previous years.


Based on recent assessments, inundations have affected over 1,000,000 people in the country, with entire villages, health facilities, homes, hectares of agricultural areas, and roads being submerged or damaged by a “combination of heavy rains and massive floods."


Additionally, people affected by floods are not only deprived of their means of subsistence and resources, but are also directly exposed to contaminated water, which is at the origin of widespread diseases such as malaria, cholera, or measles. These diseases are particularly deadly for children. Floods also cause important challenges to accessibility. For example, in Maban (Upper Nile State), trucks transporting necessities could not reach their destinations as roads were flooded. Ultimately, the rations were left behind to rot for weeks, further discouraging efforts to alleviate the situation due to the high transport costs.


Sustainable efforts and peace-building initiatives

The increasingly complex refugee situation in the country underlines the need to secure the provision of emergency relief for IDPs and to allow aid and

humanitarian actors to access the camps. It also underscores the necessity to develop long-term and sustainable projects towards peace-building,

accountability and reconciliation, to build safer environments for civilians, and to put a halt to ongoing violations.


Considering weather conditions become increasingly extreme and natural disasters are likely to intensify in the near future, South Sudan (with the support of international or external stakeholders) must urgently take action to build infrastructures and develop strategies to alleviate the impact of floods on its population. Inaction in this regard could lead to additional fatalities, exacerbate the refugee crisis in the country, and promote violence between communities, as disputes for farmland arise between herders and persons who

migrated to new areas.


So far, short-term initiatives have been set, often by IDPs themselves, to protect residential areas from flood, including by using sandbags and pipes to build dikes and irrigation systems. However, as most dikes are unstable and cannot efficiently drain water out of living areas, the country requires sustainable, long-term solutions to respond to such natural disasters. Operations aiming to create infrastructures to contain the damage caused by flooding are often challenged by insecurity, political instability, access difficulties, conflicting interests, limited

connection between national and local government actors, and a lack of funding or logistics.


Resolving the country’s issues in relation to conflict and inter-communal violence will require all actors involved to engage in disarmament, hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes, and support the reconciliation and peace-building process to restore social cohesion in the country. Recently, initiatives to appease inter-communal disputes have come from local actors themselves. In

February 2022, two local communities from South Sudan’s Lakes State that had been fighting for decades over a “riverbank ownership” decided to sign a peace agreement to put an end to disputes and cattle raiding incidents. According to a local youth leader, there “is an atmosphere of peace and more importantly, there is complete trust in one another.”


Alongside local efforts, it is crucial for the transitional government to take proactive steps in implementing the R-ARCSS. Without peace and security in South Sudan, IDPs will remain trapped in protected camps, where living

conditions are extremely precarious, without a chance to be reunited with their families, to go back to their communities, and to retrieve their livelihoods. To build a long-lasting and sustainable peace, South Sudan must move towards accountability and reconciliation, as a milestone to resolve the refugee crisis in the country.

Community stabilization project. © Peter Kuol/UNMISS




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