31 December 2013 |

South Sudan: Internal displacement in brief

As of December 2013


There were at least 383,000 people displaced by violence and human rights violations in South Sudan as of the end of 2013. More than half of them, 194,000, fled their homes in December alone, the other 189,000 were displaced throughout the rest of the year. The overall number of IDPs in the country is unknown, however, as there has been no tracking or assessment of earlier waves of displacement. 

Violence escalated dramatically in December, when President Salva Kiir accused the former vice-president, Riek Machar, of an attempted coup, triggering clashes in at least seven of South Sudan’s ten states. The violence spread quickly along ethnic lines as what started out as a political struggle between two leaders became a vehicle for people to express complex social and economic grievances. The targeting of civilians was widespread.

Displacement during the rest of the year was caused by a volatile mix of internal armed conflict, violence and human rights abuses committed by non-state armed groups and the armed forces, disputes over access to natural resources, border clashes with Sudan, attacks by Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army, tribal and ethnic tensions, and the failed return of people displaced during the Sudanese civil war. Both Sudan and South Sudan accused each other of supporting armed groups on their respective territories.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that large numbers of IDPs and returnees were living in vulnerable settings without services or infrastructure during the year, but there was little data to indicate the scale of the issue. The December crisis, made displacement more visible, with a sharp increase in IDPs around the country seeking shelter in overcrowded churches, mosques, hospitals and bases of the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS).

IDPs’ needs generally extend far beyond material considerations such as shelter, food, non-food items and water. They are closely linked to the limited application of legal frameworks and a lack of respect for human rights during all phases of displacement. IDPs and those returning from Sudan and other neighbouring countries also face significant challenges in obtaining civil documents and identity papers, leaving many at risk of statelessness as a result of South Sudan’s independence. Those living in the country’s many border communities are particularly affected.

There is little or no information available as to how many people internally displaced before the December crisis might have achieved a durable solution, and the same is true for those returning from Sudan. Figures from before the December crisis suggest that two million people had returned from Sudan since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005. The violence in December created a further obstacle to the return process, with some people being displaced again and possibly even going back to Sudan. Gaps in the current land policy in terms of demarcation, allocation and tenure security were already proving a significant impediment to return and reintegration. 

The crisis also brought major challenges for the international response. Insecurity meant that the already limited humanitarian access to vulnerable populations became more restricted still, particularly in Jonglei, Upper Nile, Unity and Central Equatoria states. The lack of infrastructure and logistic capacity complicated matters further, impeding the provision of assistance and protection to IDPs, including basic needs such as food, water and sanitation.

Aid agencies launched a crisis response plan for South Sudan in December with an appeal for $209 million, of which $43 million had already been pledged by the end of the year. Food, health care, shelter, protection, water and sanitation were the initial priorities.

South Sudan is party to the Great Lakes Pact. It has also signed the Kampala Convention, but is still to ratify it. The government has struggled to fulfil its responsibility to assist and protect IDPs, with its lack of capacity and complex decentralised structures hindering a comprehensive response. After his mission to the country in November, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of IDPs, Chaloka Beyani, reiterated that South Sudan’s internal displacement situation can only be properly addressed through a combination of humanitarian, development and peacebuilding work and an inclusive constitutional process.