Despite being the world’s youngest country, South Sudan has a long history of conflict and underdevelopment pre-dating its independence in 2011. The multiple causes of displacement in the country make for complex dynamics that frequently overlap. Some key drivers are the escalating armed conflict, inter-communal violence, and recurrent natural hazards such as floods and droughts, which are further complicated by a lack of inclusive governance and socio-economic marginalisation. Violence has intensified throughout South Sudan since the outbreak of civil war on 15 December 2013, and famine was declared in parts of the country in February 2017. While it is difficult to distinguish between the overlapping drivers and triggers of displacement, IDMC estimates that offensives and generalised violence generated at least 857,000 new displacements in 2017, including secondary movements. In addition, sudden-onset hazards, such as floods, caused some 75,000 new displacements.
After a 25-year civil war, South Sudan peacefully seceded from Sudan to become the world’s newest country on 9 July 2011. Following decades of turmoil, the country’s leadership inherited extremely low levels of development and a rural majority that relies on subsistence agriculture. Malnourishment was commonplace and more than half of the population lived in absolute poverty.
In December 2013, a political crisis developed when President Salva Kiir accused former Vice-President Riek Machar of attempting a coup. Violence followed in 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), with Machar forming the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO). The conflict reopened unresolved political and ethnic grievances, due in part to the counter-insurgency strategy employed by the Sudanese government during Sudan’s second civil war. Although a peace agreement was signed in August 2015, it failed to put an end to the fighting.
In 2016, the conflict deepened and spread beyond the Greater Upper Nile region, especially after intense fighting broke out in July 2016 in the capital city of Juba. With the subsequent appointment of Taban Deng as the First Vice President and representative of the opposition in the Transnational Government of National Unity, the opposition split into two parts, with those remaining loyal to Machar opposing Deng. In the fall of 2016, the fighting escalated in regions previously relatively spared from conflict, including the Greater Equatoria region. By December 2017, one in three people in South Sudan had been forced to flee their homes since the outbreak of hostilities in 2013.
The peace process was officially revitalised in June 2017, and in December 2017 the warring parties signed a ceasefire agreement. Despite this, early 2018 saw intense fighting in Upper Nile, Jonglei, Unity, and Central Equatoria, triggering new displacements. At the political level, Machar’s house arrest in South Africa continues to spark controversy. A potential release would change the political landscape in South Sudan and would likely have considerable implications on the conflict.
A major contributing factor to the continued violence in South Sudan is the fractionalisation of the conflict: while the official peace process is focused on the conflict between the SPLM and the SPLM-IO, the reality is that multiple conflicts are ongoing in the country. Defections are recurrent, and new rebel groups continue to emerge. Wau, the Equatorias, the Upper Nile, and Unity have also witnessed significant violence between militias and community defence groups competing for territorial control, cattle, and political representation. Two controversial presidential decrees establishing new administrative divisions have further fuelled inter-communal conflict in Unity and Upper Nile states. Meanwhile, generalised insecurity is endemic, with looting and the burning of homes by unidentified armed men driving further displacement.
Indiscriminate violence against civilians has also led to a high prevalence of conflict-induced food insecurity, generating many displacements. The spread of the conflict to the Equatorias, known as the “breadbasket” of South Sudan, has exacerbated food insecurity. Together with drought and flooding, the violent disruptions to farming and the collapsing economy prevent people from accessing livelihoods. In January 2018, nearly half the population was estimated to be facing acute food insecurity (IPC Phases 3: crisis and 4: emergency) . Although famine status was lifted in June 2017, the Famine Early Warning System Network predicts a continued risk of famine for the first half of 2018. In the face of limited livelihood opportunities, the importance of cattle as a source of capital is heightened, contributing to violent incidences of cattle raiding. Reliance on cattle and resource scarcity, in turn, further fuel localised conflict over water and pasture, indicating the degree to which the causes of internal displacement in South Sudan are intertwined.
All South Sudan has been affected by displacement during the current crisis, but population movements are difficult to track, with many vulnerable populations hiding in remote areas. The fluidity and pendular nature of displacement in South Sudan also makes it difficult for humanitarian agencies to determine the number of IDP returnees in the country and no reliable estimates exist for 2017. In late 2017 and early 2018, a number of relocations and returns of IDPs staying in UN protection sites were facilitated by UNHCR. Their numbers, however, remain negligible compared to the overall number of IDPs residing in the sites.
In addition, there is no system in place to systematically monitor returns. The combination of conflict, economic crisis and inadequate access to food and livelihoods has eroded vulnerable households’ ability to cope and added to the already complex drivers of population movements. This has left many IDPs in a situation of protracted displacement with little prospect of finding a durable solution. In parallel, the recurring nature of the main displacement triggers, and the way that conflict intensity tends to vary with the seasons, means that many people have been displaced multiple times. Porous borders and a lack of coordination between the countries concerned have also enabled circular cross-border displacement, with people moving back and forth between South Sudan and neighbouring countries when they are unable to find safety, food, or other basic necessities.
As of March 2018, almost 203,000 IDPs were living in UN Protection of Civilians (PoC) sites in five different locations. Many sites are overcrowded and congested. Access to safe water and sanitation facilities is inadequate, exposing populations to waterborne and communicable diseases. The most recent cholera outbreak was the longest in South Sudan’s history, lasting from 18 June 2016 to 18 December 2017. The risk of a renewed epidemic is high. The sites have also been subject to deadly attacks by armed groups, often in connection with ongoing disputes inside and outside the PoC sites, such as during the February 2016 violence in Malakal and in Juba in July 2016. Wildfires also spread quickly in the camps 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. In areas exposed to more violence, IDPs hide in swamplands or in the bush, where they are forced to survive on water lilies and wild fruit, heightening the risk of malnourishment.
Finally, seasonal flooding wipes out crops and livestock, decreasing the ability of thousands of households to provide for themselves. In 2017, torrential rain caused riverine flooding in Pibor and surrounding villages, displacing nearly 72,000 people between August and October. Comprehensive information on the length and patterns of flood-induced displacement is however not available. It is assumed that many people displaced by floods return to their homes or other previous residences shortly after the disaster, but the heightened vulnerability of the affected populations and the fact that new population movements are reported in the same areas each year point to repeated and protracted displacement.
The South Sudanese displacement situation is both a cause and effect of the protection crisis that extends beyond material needs for food, water, shelter, and essential non-food items. IDPs, the majority of whom are children, are vulnerable to killings and abuse. Young male IDPs are often particularly at risk of getting killed, as youths are expected to take part in community defence groups and hence looked upon as potential recruits of rival armed groups. Conversely, 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 partners have noted high levels of psychosocial stress among IDPs as a result of confinement in protection sites, family separation and the persistent threat of attack on their communities. The standard of living in overcrowded IDP settlements across the country remains low, leaving IDPs vulnerable to disease without reliable access to medical care. Hunger is an equally pressing concern, as food insecurity and acute malnutrition verging on famine have reached unprecedented levels. Negative and even irreversible coping measures, such as reducing meals, going without food, selling animals, household goods or assets to buy food, or consuming seed stock held for the next planting season, have been observed throughout the country.
|Displacement type||IDPs (Stock)||New Displacement (Flow)|
|Geographical disaggregation||Admin 2 or more||Admin 2 or more|
|Geographical coverage||Partial coverage||Partial coverage|
|Frequency of reporting||Every month||Other|
|Disaggregation on sex||No||No|
|Disaggregation on age||No||No|
|Data triangulation||No Triangulation||Some local triangulation|
|Data on settlement elsewhere||No||Partial|
|Data on returns||No||Partial|
|Data on local integration||No||No|
|Data on deaths||No||No|
|Data on births||No||No|
This figure corresponds to the end of year figure reported by OCHA, subtracting a caseload of 9,254 South Sudanese displaced in Abyei, which IDMC reports on separately