The Plight of IDPs In South Sudan

"Victims of today often are perpetrators of tomorrow. Ensuring justice and accountability is thus a basic element to preventing further conflict and ending impunity enjoyed by perpetrators."

 Priscilla Nyagoah*

(Peace and Justice, No. 1 November 2014)

 “I came here on 16 December. I lived in Thuuk  Jebel… The home I was living in is destroyed.  They took all my property. The chairs are gone, the tables... everything. I am living here alone. My children were in Nasir and have now gone to Ethiopia. I have nothing here... I only live on what UN gives me…”

- Gatkuoth, Resident of UN PoC site in Juba

Like many others who have been displaced by the mid-December 2013 conflict, Gatkuoth** has been sheltering in a UN protection of civilian (PoC) site for close to a year now. In addition to those in UN PoC sites, there are also hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who are being hosted by local communities and many more that are inaccessible and invisible in the bush.

UN OCHA (2014) estimates that 1.7 million people have been displaced by the conflict, including close to 500,000 that have fled to neighboring countries for refuge. Camps all over the country are congested and the conditions are bleak, depressing and undignified.

According to the Analytical Report of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons (1992), IDPs are, “persons who have been forced to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border.”

The current conflict has contributed to a sharp rise in the number of IDPs, but this is not the first time that South Sudan has been confronted with this issue. The period between 2011 and 2013 also saw a surge in IDPs, owing to tribal conflicts, rebellions, counter-insurgencies, natural disasters, evictions from development projects and returnees from Sudan and other neighboring countries who did not have places to stay.

As noted by the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of IDPs, it is difficult to identify who an IDP is in South Sudan (2013). Some conditions of displacement have been recurrent resulting in long-term and protracted displacement. There is therefore need for a profiling exercise and an assessment of IDPs on a needs-rights basis.

Repatriation Packages: A Necessary Tool for Reconstruction Returning IDPs to their homes can be a long and complicated process that relies heavily on interim arrangements. These arrangements should however be durable and effective and should form part of the transitional agenda.  IDPs should not be pressured or induced to return to their homes. They should be allowed to return home voluntarily when they perceive that the factors causing their displacement have diminished. Security arrangements will be critical to the success of the repatriation process. Already there are allegations that persons who returned to their homes have been killed or suffered other forms of violence.

Incidents such as these do not inspire confidence. In addition, returnees have to be provided with a return package that meets their basic needs and helps them to reconstruct their livelihoods.

This package has to be determined through a proper assessment of what is sufficient by consulting IDPs and relevant experts. Following the 2007-08 post-election violence in Kenya, for example, returnees were offered about $300, which proved grossly insufficient.

In South Sudan, past government policy towards returnees required them to be repatriated to their home areas where they were to be given land. This was impractical and unfair, especially in areas where major towns are the epicenters of trade and economy. The current conflict has collapsed the state fabric, caused massive looting and destruction of property, and has pitted ethnic groups against each other. Any repatriation efforts have to take this into consideration.

Priority needs to be given to women, children,  the wounded, elderly and the sick. Special consideration and care has to be afforded to survivors of conflict related sexual violence. This process has to be administered transparently, equally and without discrimination. The provision of a repatriation package should not bar persons from accessing courts for compensation and other forms of redress.

Though the primary responsibility to protect and assist IDPs lies with the state, where possible, a bottom-up approach in which local communities are involved would provide more effective intervention. This detaches humanitarian intervention from the politics and state bureaucracy and also generates trust from IDPs communities.

Insecurity, Trauma and Fear: Obstacles to a Durable Solution for IDPs Within the IDP populace, dwells the majority of victims and witnesses of gross human rights abuse.

Nyanbol**, a returnee from Khartoum, was living in Jebel when the conflict broke out. She witnessed the death of her two brothers and son in law and is currently living in a UN base:

“They made them lie face down and shot them right in front of my eyes… It is South Sudanese themselves who were killing each other. When you see the faces of the young men here you see trauma and fear. Why should they not fear when they are being hunted for nothing?”

Adau**, another IDP living in Juba echoed this sentiment: “Even I am traumatized and stressed because of this crisis. I feel I am not in a safe place. This war has traumatized me, traumatized the children, women and the elderly ones. For me, it looks like all South Sudanese are traumatized, because when you see people in this situation, they are ready to fight.”

Victims of today often are perpetrators of tomorrow. Ensuring justice and accountability is thus a basic element to preventing further conflict and ending impunity enjoyed by perpetrators.

In order to address the IDP problem, the warring parties must admit the harms that they have caused to innocent citizens and commit themselves to protecting and supporting people in their efforts to return home. The state has to gather sufficient resources to ensure reparations of IDPs and victims of this current conflict. It is not about who benefits on an individual level, but how this would contribute to ensuring society heals collectively and is able to move forward. To this aim, both individual and collective reparations are essential.

In conclusion, civil society has a great role to play in ensuring that the IDP agenda is not neglected at the negotiating table in Addis and in the transitional period. These actors bridge the gap in the situation where there is lack of trust towards the warring parties. It is also important to include IDPs populations and key humanitarian partners in formulating a state IDP policy and law to help address this issue.

* Priscilla Nyagoah is South Sudanese lawyer and activist.

** Name changed to protect identity. References Analytical Report of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, U.N. Doc. E/CN.4/1992/23 (14 Feb. 1992).

Report of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Chaloka

Beyani, on his mission to South Sudan on 6-15 November 2013, U.N. Doc. A-HRC-26-33-

Add3_en.United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), South Sudan

Crisis: Humanitarian Snapshot, 26 Aug. 2014, available at

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