South Sudan may be the world’s youngest country, but it has a long history of conflict and underdevelopment that predates its independence in 2011. The many causes of displacement make for complex dynamics that frequently overlap. Some of the main drivers are the civil war that began in 2013, inter-communal violence and recurrent natural hazards such as floods and droughts.
About 321,000 new displacements associated with the ongoing conflict were recorded in 2018. The two main parties to the conflict signed a peace deal in September 2018, and although there was a decrease in political violence associated with the signing of the deal, ethnic violence persists. By the end of the year, almost 1.9 million people continue to live in displacement. About 6,600 new displacements were also triggered by flooding last year.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
What causes displacement?
South Sudan seceded peacefully from Sudan in July 2011 after 25 years of civil war. Decades of turmoil meant the new country’s leadership inherited extremely low levels of development and a rural majority that relied on subsistence agriculture. Malnourishment was commonplace and more than half the population were living in absolute poverty.
A political crisis was sparked in December 2013 when the country’s president, Salva Kiir, accused the former vice-president Riek Machar of attempting a coup. Violence followed in the capital Juba between rival ethnic and political contingents of the armed forces, causing a rift within the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). This led Machar to form the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO). The conflict reopened unresolved political and ethnic grievances, the result in part of the Sudanese government’s counter-insurgency strategy during Sudan’s second civil war.
A peace agreement was signed in August 2015, but it failed to put an end to the fighting. In fact the conflict escalated in 2016 and spread beyond the Greater Upper Nile region. With the appointment of Taban Deng as first vice-president and the opposition’s representative in the transnational government of national unity, SPLM-IO split into two factions, one loyal to Machar and the other to Deng. Fighting intensified in the latter part of the year in areas previously relatively free of conflict, including the Greater Equatoria region. As of December 2017, one in three people in South Sudan had been forced to flee their homes since the outbreak of hostilities.
The Equatorias, Unity, Upper Nile and Wau have also witnessed significant violence between militias and community defence groups competing for territorial control, livestock and political representation. Two controversial presidential decrees establishing new administrative divisions have further fuelled inter-communal conflict in Unity and Upper Nile. Generalised insecurity is endemic, with looting and arson by unidentified armed men driving further displacement.
The fighting and indiscriminate violence against civilians has also led to widespread food insecurity, which in turn has triggered many displacements. The spread of the conflict to the Equatorias, which are known as South Sudan's breadbasket, has aggravated the situation further. Together with drought and flooding, the violent disruption of farming and the collapsing economy prevent people from accessing livelihoods.
Although famine status was lifted in June 2017, half of the country’s population was estimated to be facing acute food insecurity in January 2018. By February 2019, this number had risen by 13%, to include about 7 million people. With other livelihood opportunities undermined, livestock takes on added importance as a source of capital, which increases the likelihood of violent cattle raids.
This reliance on livestock and increasingly scarce resources in turn aggravate localised conflicts over water and pasture, an indication of the extent to which the causes of internal displacement in South Sudan are intertwined.
The warring parties signed a peace deal in September 2018, two years after the last accord collapsed. As of March 2019, the fragile truce was still holding. The first critical test of the peace deal comes in May 2019 with the deadline for forming a unity government. However, at the time of writing, other key interim benchmarks, such as unifying the army and drawing internal boundaries, were far behind schedule.
Where and how do people move?
Displacement in South Sudan is widespread, and all states have been affected by the current crisis, however, Greater Upper Nile has the largest numbers of IDPs, with about 60 per cent of all IDPs living there. Since 2015, Greater Upper Nile has been the centre of conflict and in 2018 conflict continues unabated there. Large-scale fighting in Central and Southern Unity and inter-communal clashes in Eastern Jonglei and South Eastern Upper Nile continue to force people to flee to less populated areas and away from basic services. By the end of 2018, there were about 1.9 million IDPs living across the country.
However, population movements are difficult to track, particularly as many IDPs hide in remote areas. The fluidity and pendular nature of displacement also makes it difficult for humanitarian agencies to determine the number of returning IDPs, and no reliable estimates existed for 2017 or 2018. Nor is there a system in place to monitor returns systematically. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) facilitated the relocation and return of IDPs staying in UN civilian protection (PoC) sites in late 2017 and early 2018, but their number was negligible compared with the overall displaced population in the sites.
Almost 203,000 IDPs were living in PoC sites in five different locations as of March 2018. Many are overcrowded and access to safe water and sanitation facilities is inadequate, increasing the likelihood of waterborne and communicable diseases. Armed groups have also launched deadly attacks on some PoC sites, often in connection with ongoing disputes inside and outside them. This happened during violence in Malakal in February 2016 and in Juba four months later. Wildfires also spread quickly through the sites and frequently leave IDPs homeless.
The majority of IDPs in South Sudan, however, live outside camps. Many live alongside the PoC sites, or in churches or small villages isolated from the fighting. IDPs in areas more exposed to violence often hide in swampland or the bush, where they are forced to survive on water lilies and wild fruit, heightening the risk of malnourishment.
The combination of conflict, economic crisis and inadequate access to food and livelihoods has eroded vulnerable households’ ability to cope, leaving many IDPs living in protracted displacement with little prospect of achieving durable solutions. The recurring nature of the main displacement triggers and the fact way that the intensity of conflict tends to vary with the seasons also means that many people have been displaced a number of times.
Porous borders and a lack of coordination between the countries concerned have also enabled circular cross-border displacement, in which people move back and forth between South Sudan and neighbouring countries when they are unable to find safety, food or other basic necessities.
Seasonal flooding also wipes out crops and livestock, reducing the ability of thousands of households to provide for themselves. Devastating flooding occurred in 2017, when torrential rain caused riverine flooding in Pibor and surrounding villages, triggering nearly 72,000 displacements between August and October. In comparison, flooding in 2018 caused far fewer displacements. Main events included a series of floods in Jonglei, Northern Bahr el Ghazal and Warrap states which led to almost 6,000 new displacements combined. Although comprehensive information on displacement associated with flooding is not available, it is assumed that those affected tend to return shortly after the floodwaters have receded. That said, people’s heightened vulnerability and the fact that new population movements are reported in the same areas each year point to some repeated and protracted displacement.
What is life like for IDPs and communities hosting them?
The displacement situation in South Sudan is both a cause and effect of a protection crisis that extends beyond the material need for shelter, water, food and other essential items. IDPs, the majority of whom are children, are also vulnerable to killings and abuse. The number of children associated to armed groups is estimated to be 19,000. Displaced boys and young men are particularly at risk of being killed, because they are expected to take part in community defence groups, flagging them up as potential recruits or targets for rival militias. Displaced women and girls are highly exposed to sexual violence, including when they pass checkpoints or leave collective shelters to gather food or firewood.
Humanitarian organisations have noted high levels of psychosocial stress among IDPs as a result of their traumatic experiences, confinement in protection sites, family separation and the persistent threat of attack. There was an increase in suicide rates among youth males living in protection sites. Despite this, there continues to be a severe lack of qualified mental health professionals in the country.
Hunger is an equally pressing concern. Food insecurity and acute malnutrition verging on famine have reached unprecedented levels. Negative and in some cases irreversible coping measures such as reducing meals, going without food, selling assets to buy food and consuming seed stock meant for the next planting season have been observed have been observed throughout the country.
Where does data on displacement come from and what are the main challenges?
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates the number of IDPs in South Sudan on a monthly basis. Its figures are based on data collected by OCHA field offices and a number of other agencies including the International Organisation for Migration (IOM)’s displacement tracking matrix, the REACH Initiative, the protection cluster, UNHCR and the government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission. Methodologies include key informant interviews, household surveys, biometric registration, headcounts, focus group discussions and the use of housing destruction as a proxy for displacement.
OCHA’s figures are based on countrywide data, but the scale of displacement and the fact that it takes place over such large areas make it challenging for a relatively small number of agencies to verify the accuracy of all estimates. Humanitarian access restrictions are also an issue. The fluidity of displacement and the fact that many people are displaced more than once also makes it highly difficult to produce comprehensive new displacement estimates.
We calculate our new displacement figures based on event monitoring and numbers reported by a wide range of sources, including OCHA, REACH, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), UNHCR, the camp coordination and camp management cluster, the protection cluster and local media.
IDMC’s estimate of the total number of IDPs in South Sudan is based on data published by OCHA, which compiles figures from partners in the country. The partners’ methodologies vary, and data some caseloads is out of date.
IDMC’s estimates of the number of new displacements and unverified solutions in 2018 are derived from event-based monitoring which relied on information and data obtained from OCHA, IOM DTM, REACH, UNHCR, the protection cluster, Relief and Rehabilitation Commissions, UNMISS and the local media. Both figures are likely to be significant underestimates given the limited geographical coverage and lack of systematic data collection in the field on this issue.