Week Eleven: South Sudan

In partnership with the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria


Dr. Jasmin Lilian Diab, Institute for Migration Studies, Lebanese American University
Abiy Ashenafi, Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria


Overview of the Conflict

In December 2013, following a political strife between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar that led to Machar’s removal as vice president, violence erupted between presidential guard soldiers from the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan. From the onset of armed conflict, armed groups targeted civilians based on their ethnic identity, committed rape and sexual violence, destroyed property and looted villages, and recruited child soldiers. Following successive efforts of negotiations supported by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Kiir signed a peace agreement with Machar in August 2015. Soon after however, violence broke out between government forces and opposition factions, once again displacing thousands of people inside and outside the country. Between 2017 and 2018, a series of cease-fires were negotiated and subsequently violated by the two sides and other factions.

Following close to five years of civil war, Kiir and Machar took part in peace negotiations mediated by Uganda and Sudan in mid-2018. Shortly after, Kiir and Machar signed the Khartoum Declaration of Agreement that included a cease-fire, a pledge to negotiate a power-sharing agreement, and an end to the war. This agreement was followed by a peace agreement intended to end the civil war, and signed by the government, Machar’s opposition party, and a number of other rebel groups. The agreement, titled the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, included a revamped power-sharing system, and subsequently reinstated Machar as vice president.

In October 2018, Human Rights Watch reported on the ongoing attacks and violence that jeopardized the peace agreement. Violent clashes in parts of the Unity and Upper Nile states of the country resulted in casualties, displacement, attacks against aid, and other abuses according to the report. Despite the fact that the true number of casualties is difficult to assert, a 2018 study conducted by the Health in Humanitarian Crises Center estimated that more than 380,000 people were killed during the five years of war, and an additional nearly four million were internally displaced or fled the country. Ongoing disputes between many of South Sudan’s rival factions have cast doubt on whether the government will be able to prevent violence in the long-term.

Displacement in Numbers

Amid ongoing and escalating armed conflict and deteriorating social, political and economic conditions, the situation in South Sudan has escalated to a full-blown humanitarian emergency according to UNHCR. The aforementioned resulted not only in violence and famine, but has also resulted in the forced migration of millions, both inside and outside the country’s borders. The total number of South Sudanese refugees has surpassed two million, and currently stands as the largest refugee crisis in Africa. After Syria and Afghanistan, it is the third largest refugee crisis in the world. According to UNHCR, 63% of South Sudanese refugees are under 18 years of age. These refugees are mainly present in Ethiopia, Sudan, and Uganda. Eighty percent (80%) of South Sudanese refugees are women and children, many of whom flee across the border alone. Women refugees are survivors of violent attacks, rape and sexual assault. According to UNICEF, a significant number of children traveling across the border are unaccompanied and separated minors.

Another two million people are displaced internally. Camps and shelters across the country are confronted with food shortages and disease. According to the WFP, more than 70% of South Sudan’s population face extreme hunger. Particularly at risk are tens of thousands of South Sudanese who are already severely hungry following successive and continuous shocks and could starve without food assistance.

Realities in Host Countries

By the end of June 2020, Ethiopia hosted 342,765 South Sudanese refugees of whom 319,130 were sheltered in seven camps in the Gambella Regional State. As of 2022, South Sudanese make up nearly half of the 920,000 refugees sheltering in Ethiopia. In the first five months of 2018, approximately 30,000 South Sudanese crossed the border into Ethiopia. In 2021, international organization Doctors without Borders reported that thousands of asylum seekers who fled South Sudan were stuck for months in appalling conditions in a reception center in Ethiopia’s Gambella region without meaningful access to essential services, especially food aid.

The security of refugee camps in Ethiopia has at times been compromised. In early 2022, as a result of fighting between armed groups and federal forces, refugee camps in Benishangul-Gumuz Regional State sustained attacks and looting, leaving South Sudanese and Sudanese refugees in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

Sudan is host to the second largest number of South Sudanese refugees. As of 30 April 2022, it hosted 803, 634 South Sudanese refugees. Close to one fourth of these refugees live in nine camps located in White Nile and two camps in East Darfur. Refugee camps in these locations are characterized by overcrowding. A considerable number of refugees, more precisely, 12,032 are refugees with disabilities. The majority of South Sudanese refugees live in settlements in Kordofan and Darfur states, and in Khartoum. More than 50 per cent of these refugees are children. 12,905 children are unaccompanied and separated, prone to ‘harassment, exploitation, neglect and abuse’.

In Uganda, despite border closures, South Sudanese refugees continued crossing into the country through unofficial entry points. By the end of 2021, there were some 950,000 South Sudanese refugees registered in Uganda, the largest South Sudanese refugee population in the region. According to UNHCR, despite Uganda’s largely favorable protection environment, refugees continue to face a multitude of protection challenges due to the magnitude of forced displacement and growing vulnerabilities. These challenges are compounded by diminishing resources and strained essential social services in refugee-hosting districts. Drastic food cuts and COVID-19 prevention measures have posed additional challenges for refugees in terms of their livelihoods and food security.

International Political, Legal and Humanitarian Efforts

In reaction to overwhelming violence against civilians in the civil war, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) established large-scale camps meant to protect civilians from ongoing violence. UNHCR appealed for USD 2.7 billion to address the life-saving humanitarian needs of South Sudanese refugees between 2019 and 2020. By 2018, UNHCR and its partners had received just 38% of the required USD 1.4 billion requested to support South Sudanese refugees. On a broader level, efforts to end the conflict remain untargeted, and political will at the international level remains unfocused on the conflict in South Sudan.

Under the Refugee Coordination Model, UNHCR has built partnerships with governmental, humanitarian, development and peacebuilding actors to provide multi-sectoral aid and support. This includes protection, education and livelihood support to refugees, IDPs, returnees and their hosting communities in seven states in South Sudan. Presently, UNHCR is the leading agency working towards development-focused solutions for refugees and returnees. According to Oxfam, South Sudan continues to be at the frontline of today’s climate crisis, and has been heavily impacted by flooding and food insecurity.

Although the refugee laws of Ethiopia and Uganda allow the non-encampment of refugees, the number of self-settled refugees in these countries is much lower than encamped refugees. Removing administrative and practical barriers to refugees’ self-settlement by the governments of these countries, and increasing the provision of humanitarian and development assistance to self-settled refugees and local communities by humanitarian and development partners can enhance out-of-camp settlement and local integration of refugees in these countries.

Existing efforts to ensure peace and stability should be strengthened in order to address the root causes of displacement. Safe and voluntary repatriation as a durable solution is out of sight for South Sudanese refugees because of the persistence of armed conflict and the violations of human rights in South Sudan.