South Sudan may be the world’s youngest country, but it has a long history of conflict that predates its independence since 2011. The causes of displacement frequently overlap and the main drivers are the civil war that began in 2013, inter-communal violence and recurrent natural hazards such as floods and drought.
271,000 new conflict displacements were recorded in 2020. The two main parties to the conflict signed a peace deal in September 2018 and political violence has since decreased, but intercommunal violence persists. About 1.4 million people were living in displacement as a result of conflict and violence at the end of the year. Record floods triggered about 443,000 new displacements in 2020, and 106,000 people remained displaced as of the end of the year.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
South Sudan seceded from Sudan in July 2011 after over two decades of civil war. A political crisis erupted in December 2013 between the country’s president, Salva Kiir, vice-president Riek Machar. Violence followed in the capital Juba between rival ethnic components of the armed forces. This also caused a rift within the ruling party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), prompting Riek Machar to form the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO). The conflict reopened unresolved political and ethnic grievances, which fuel the conflict until today.
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, 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. The Equatorias, Unity, Upper Nile and Wau regions have also witnessed significant violence between militias and community defence groups competing for territorial control, livestock and political representation. Two presidential decrees establishing new administrative divisions have further fuelled inter-communal conflict in Unity and Upper Nile. As of December 2017, one in three people in South Sudan had been forced to flee their homes since the outbreak of hostilities.
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.
The signing of a revitalised peace agreement between the government and a number of non-state armed groups in September 2018 has led to a reduction in political violence, and despite its slow implementation, the formation of a unity government in February 2020 has rekindled hopes of lasting peace.
Displacement in South Sudan is widespread, and all states have been affected by the current crisis. Most IDPs are currently staying in Central Equatoria, Unity, Upper Nile and Jonglei states. 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.
After assessing that security risks decreased in 2020, four out of five Protection of Civilians sites (PoC) sheltering 187,000 IDPs were transitioned into IDP camps without the immediate protection from the UN peacekeeping forces. The transition of the last one is being planned. The majority of IDPs in South Sudan (872,000), however, live in spontaneous sites and informal settlements with host communities. Many live alongside the former 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.
The recurring nature of the main displacement triggers and the fact 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 neighbouring countries 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.
South Sudan experienced the worst floods in decades in 2020, and the river Nile reached record levels in September. The floods destroyed homes, damaged roads and impeded people’s access to health services and humanitarian aid. The country was still recovering from floods in 2019. Waters had still not fully receded when the 2020 rains began, and the reconstruction of homes, villages and infrastructure had not been completed. 443,000 new displacements were recorded as a result of these events, and 106,000 people remained displaced as of the end of the year.
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 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 are also vulnerable to killings and abuse. 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 PoCs.
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 throughout the country.