The Forgotten Millions: The Return To Juba, South Sudan

Thousands of internally displaced people will be returning to their homes in Juba, South Sudan in the coming weeks. Since the conflict that divided Sudan in December 2013, 2.1 million Sudanese people have been displaced and over 1.5 million have fled South Sudan. The Popular Committee for Peace-building urged the conflict-displaced people who are sheltering inside the United Nations (UN) camp to return back to their homes in Juba. The committee announced that it managed to vacate about 1,600 homes belonging to the conflict-displaced people that were occupied illegally. CEPO, a leading civil society organization in South Sudan, has called on the relevant authorities to provide full protection for this operation. There should also be a mechanism for protection involving the internally displaced people themselves when returning back to their homes in Juba.

With this large-scale displacement, South Sudan has experienced Africa’s largest refugee crisis and the world’s third after Syria and Afghanistan, with less attention and severe levels of under-funding. A political split between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy, Riek Machar, escalated into a military conflict in December 2013, leaving tens of thousands of people dead. A unity government was formed in April 2016, but fighting erupted again in July. The UN’s top human rights agency has previously blamed both sides for ethnically targeted violations, including extrajudicial executions and sexual violence incidences in August 2015.

Aid workers continue to face difficulty in accessing the newly arrived refugees and displaced people. There are significant security problems preventing the workers from reaching particular areas. For instance, there are several militia groups operating in the border areas. An aid worker claimed that, of the refugees he has seen, they looked “exhausted after days of marching through the forest, as they avoid roads because they know that they might be killed.” This is in addition to a recent report disclosing suffering within South Sudan, including threats of kidnappings, rape, armed attacks, and an acute food shortage. More than 60 percent of the displaced people are children, many arriving with alarming levels of malnutrition and suffering trauma.

However, threatening this peaceful and progressive transition is the emergence of new militia groups in the region. This could undermine the credibility and advancement of the peace deal that was implemented in August 2015. These new rebel groups did not exist prior to the signing of the peace deal, and there are great fears that this could spark renewed ethnic violence in the country. This peace deal outlined the parameters of a transitional government of national unity for South Sudan, a permanent ceasefire and security arrangements, and the humanitarian assistance and reconstruction. There are an estimated 13,500 UN peacekeeping forces in the country. However, in January, the government rejected an additional 4,000 troops by claiming that it undermined sovereignty. This could be problematic as there is a potential that it could hinder free and safe movement in the cities.

The returnees will face enormous challenges as they return to settle in the city, especially with some of their houses completely destroyed. Additionally, the basic societal infrastructure and institutions will need to be re-established. If done right, children will be able to attend schools again, there will be a steady flow of income into households, the economy will start to gather momentum, and it will largely create a sense of normality for these people.

Sarah Hesson