Conflict and Population Movement: Challenges to South Sudan’s Stability

South Sudan Refugees
Refugee camp at the St. Mary Help of Christians Cathedral of Wau town. Image from VOA News.

By Noe Hinck

Challenges to Stability in South Sudan

Pope Francis’ recent visit to South Sudan brought the global news spotlight back onto the world’s youngest democracy and highlighted the worsening needs of a population that is only slowly recovering from a protracted state of conflict. Although the civil war officially lasted from 2013 – two years after declaring its independence from Sudan – until the signing of a new peace agreement in September 2018, the warring parties delayed the implementation of the accord while fighting and communal clashes continued. The worst flooding in sixty years­ has further exacerbated insecurity within the country.

The 2023 Humanitarian Needs Overview estimates that over nine million people ­– about three quarters of the total population – will be in need of humanitarian assistance in 2023. Conflict and natural disaster have disrupted regular migration patterns and caused major population movements. This in turn has amplified intercommunal violence and the demand for humanitarian aid.

A Vicious Cycle of Conflict and Displacement

Traditionally, seasonal migration of pastoralist communities center around weather and crop conditions. Cattle are not only a crucial source of nutrition and income but also social status, serving as dowry payments and dispute settlements. Much of South Sudan’s local economy depends on bride wealth, which involves the commodification of women in exchange for cattle. Consequently, cattle raiding remains a prevalent form of violence by communities seeking to enrich themselves and decrease the power of other tribes. The salience of ethnic lines in the civil war pitted these communities against each other with the supply of arms elevating the violence and lethality of cattle raiding practices.

Flooding, drought and crop diseases devastated the main food sources for both people and cattle. These conditions have also intensified clashes between pastoralist and agriculturalist communities. Violence, destruction of resources, and mass displacement all strip communities of their assets and leave them in dire need of assistance just to survive.

Since the beginning of the civil war in 2013, the International Organization for Migration estimates that more than four million persons were forcibly displaced from their homes. Today, there are over two million internally displaced persons (IDPs) with an additional two million who seek refuge outside of South Sudan. Most IDPs find themselves displaced into settlements where a host community already lives.

A Protracted Conflict Leads to Prolonged Stays

The protracted nature of the conflict prolongs the stay of IDP populations in these settlements, straining the host community’s resources and laying the seeds for conflict between the population groups. Among host community populations alone, over five million persons are estimated to live in conditions of acute food insecurity, which is defined as an immediate danger to life from a lack of access to food. These settlements face concerns about intercommunal clashes that could spill over into larger conflicts and further displacement while food distributions and other humanitarian assistance struggle to keep pace with the deteriorating needs situation.

Establishment of PoC Sites

Yet another layer of complexity for the conflict landscape involves political actors who usurp the forced movement of populations to pursue their own agendas. About 75 km north of the capital city Juba, the Mundari and Bari groups have been fighting for authority over the fertile land of Mangalla. This is one of many examples where land and property issues persist. Recently, the displaced Dinka people moved into the area, so in September 2020 the government designated Mangalla as an IDP settlement. This further exacerbated tensions and perceptions of land grabbing.

About a quarter of IDPs seek refuge in displacement sites or camp-like settings. These sites act as hubs for access to humanitarian assistance. The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has been monitoring the security situation to gradually withdraw its peacekeepers from these locations. During the conflict, UNMISS opened Protection of Civilians (PoC) sites that served as sanctuaries and service points for IDPs, providing essential services such as shelter, health, water, sanitation, and food distribution. Since October 2020, it has redesignated seven of the eight major PoC sites into government-led camps. Yet, this transition has had little effect on the conditions within the camps.

The largest site in South Sudan, Bentiu IDP Camp, transitioned from its PoC status in 2021, yet it still hosts over 100,000 IDPs relying on its service provision. The former PoC site has long suffered from overcrowding, recording over 120,000 IDPs at its peak occupancy in 2017. A 2021 survey found over 80 percent of households depended on the camp’s humanitarian assistance to cover basic needs and half of all households were unable to access assistance at all in the three months prior to the interview. Overall, households reported a decrease in service provision despite persisting needs. New IDP arrivals due to flooding combined with deteriorating living conditions within Bentiu IDP camp has led to five new IDP sites to open in the adjacent town of Bentiu in August 2021.

A Path Towards Improvement?

At the same time, there are signs of improvement. A gradually increasing number of formerly displaced persons have returned to their areas of origin, signaling security and livelihood improvements in some areas of South Sudan. Since 2016, 1.9 million persons have returned to their area of habitual residence. Urban centers are also expanding, with persons from outside areas relocating or migrating for economic reasons.

Return, relocation, and urban migration patterns pose both challenges and opportunities. A key challenge for returnees and migrants is (re)integration into the present communities. The trauma of conflict, displacement, and separation from their traditional livelihood activities complicate the smooth integration into their original communities. This puts them in a vulnerable position. Assistance and support – whether from the humanitarian community or the government – must ensure a safe and dignified return of former IDPs into areas assessed as secure. Return and relocation poses an opportunity to create a more sustainable environment for both returnees and their original communities in which the population groups can productively engage with each other. Starting at the local level, aggregated reintegration efforts allow the country as a whole to become more resilient to future conflicts and pave the way towards stability and development.

However, without impartial support at the national level, these efforts will remain localized and short-term. The peace process must combine de-escalation and demilitarization with rehabilitation and support programs for the affected communities regardless of ethnic or population group. Only then can South Sudan begin to recover from the tumultuous legacy of the past decade.

About the Author

Noe Hinck is a first-year Ph.D. student at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs, studying foreign aid and development policy in international security. Prior to Princeton, she was the data analyst of the International Organization for Migration – UN Migration in South Sudan, specializing in humanitarian surveys, needs assessments, and population tracking. She holds a B.A. in History and in International Relations from Boston University and an M.Phil. in Politics from the University of Oxford.

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