Should humanitarians support returns in a country still reeling from war?

A truck carries the belongings of South Sudanese returnees in the Udhaba-Apada area near Aweil. Photo by: Paul Banks / U.N. / CC BY-NC-ND

JUBA, South Sudan — Humanitarian groups have assisted more than 3,500 internally displaced people in South Sudan return to their homes since April. The moves have sparked debate among aid workers about what constitutes safe and dignified returns in a country still reeling from five years of fighting.

Between April and June, more than 200 internally displaced people traveled by road and plane from two United Nations protected sites to two towns in the country’s northeast, according to The UN Refugee Agency, the lead agency on returns and protection. Additionally, roughly 3,300 people from an internally displaced person’s site in Melut were taken to Baliet County in the north of the country.

The transports occurred despite UNHCR’s decision that “sustainable conditions are not in place for the safe and dignified return of refugees and IDPs in South Sudan,” according to its April position paper on returns in the country.

Almost 400,000 people have been killed in South Sudan’s civil war. Nearly 2 million are internally displaced and 180,000 still shelter in six U.N. protected sites, according to the U.N. Mission in South Sudan. A fragile peace deal signed in September has instilled some confidence in people feeling comfortable to go home. Since January, more than 2,800 people from five internally displaced person’s sites in Juba have registered to voluntarily return home, according to a UNHCR spokesperson. 

At the U.N. Security Council meeting at the end of June in New York, Special Representative and head of the U.N. Mission in South Sudan David Shearer noted that since the peace deal was signed, 76,000 people — including internally displaced people and refugees in neighboring countries — are choosing to go home each month compared with roughly 18,000 prior to the agreement.

Despite the uptick, the level of involvement of aid agencies in supporting returns is prompting questions within South Sudan’s humanitarian community.

“The fact that violence continues in a number of places in the country, that the peace agreement remains largely unimplemented, and disturbing reports of ongoing recruitment of fighters all mean that the security situation remains fragile in many of the areas identified for returns,” said Jeremy Taylor, regional advocacy adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Agencies should only be actively engaging in returns processes when they are confident that return offers a genuine, durable solution for displaced people, he said.

In Uror and Akobo, where people recently returned, communities are facing extreme hunger as per the latest food security analysis by the government and the U.N. Taylor warns that populations enduring already harsh conditions will find it hard to absorb more people, placing further strain on aid agencies to respond to those needs.

An April interagency assessment, seen by Devex, conducted in one area in Uror County showed that the area had no access to services including schools or markets and no humanitarian assistance. People had to travel between two and nine hours to buy basic goods. Women and children are especially at risk of sexual assault including rape, abduction, armed robbery, and killing, said the report. Devex was unable to confirm if people taken to Uror County returned specifically to the area documented in the report.

‘The situation is forcing me to leave’

For South Sudanese inside the country, decisions about going home remain mixed.

Devex spoke with three people from Juba’s U.N. protected site who were scheduled to fly home to Akobo with the U.N last month. One father, 58-year-old Gatwech Kok, was eager to leave and raise his young twins in a place surrounded by family and friends. Two other fathers, however, said they didn’t want to go but felt they had no other choice.

“The situation is forcing me to leave,” Thomas Nyak Riek told Devex.

Due to UNHCR’s adherence to the principles of family unity, an element of international law where the integrity of the family is the humanitarian goal, U.N. staff told Riek that either his whole family had to leave or they all had to stay, he said. Each family typically shares one ration card, which gives them access to food and shelter. This means that if one person leaves, the remaining family members would be left without access to services if they choose to stay, he said. The couple’s two children live in Akobo and his wife wants to see them, but Riek doesn’t feel confident that the area is safe.

“If return tickets, transport and return packages (money, or seeds) are offered, in these cases we have to watch that there is no shortcut on security and other important considerations.”

— Jan Hendrik van Thiel, German ambassador to South Sudan

Another camp resident, Khor Chat Churo, is recovering from a recent appendix operation and told Devex he’s concerned there won’t be adequate medical care in Akobo to continue his treatment.

“I’m not feeling OK. I’d rather be here for a few months to get better,” said the 60-year-old. Four of his six children live in Akobo and his wife is pressuring him to return, he said. When he asked U.N. staff to stay behind, he said they refused.

A UNCHR spokesperson re-affirmed its position to Devex that sustainable conditions for large-scale returns still don’t exist in South Sudan. However, if people request support to return or relocate, UNHCR can support on a case by case basis.

“People are entitled to exercise their freedom of movement as in the exercise of all other fundamental rights. What gives us the right to decide which freedoms people can exercise or not? … The important question is how we can support people to rebuild their lives,” said Eujin Byun, spokesperson for UNHCR in South Sudan.

Before agreeing to assist people in going home, UNHCR together with other agencies conducts assessments in the area in question and engages with local communities and authorities to ensure that legal, physical, and material safety is in place to ensure returns are dignified, safe, and voluntary.

With the case of Uror, while it’s experiencing emergency levels of hunger, it’s also one of the places receiving significant humanitarian food assistance, according to UNHCR and indicated in the recent food security report. That same level of assistance isn’t mentioned in the report for Akobo, although humanitarians already present in the area confirmed to UNHCR “their readiness to absorb returnees to their programs,” Byun said.

In South Sudan, differing aid mandates lead to ethical standoff

Gender-based violence organizations in South Sudan worry that fact-finding missions come at the expense of sexual assault survivors.

The organization attributed some of the “stronger language” in its position paper to ensure that refugees are protected from being forcefully returned from other countries, Eujin said. More than 2 million South Sudanese refugees currently shelter in neighboring states. They “should neither be forced to return to their country of origin nor be prevented from doing so,” Eujin said.

Dismantling camps

As part of the U.N. peacekeeping mission’s renewed mandate in March, the Security Council requested a report within six months on the future planning for U.N. protected sites within South Sudan.

The U.N. is eager to close the camps, and on September 2018, it shared an internal draft with aid agencies, seen by Devex, that wanted “all services to be permanently relocated outside” Juba’s two U.N. sites by the end of January 2019, according to the document. But humanitarians pushed back, and the plans were never implemented.

Even though the U.N. is pushing for their closure, the decision for people to return to their homes is for them to make themselves, the U.N.’s Shearer told Devex via email. The U.N. has conducted “go-and-see” operations, taking a few people to the areas they want to return to and then back to the camps so they can share their findings with others wanting to move.

In the meantime, humanitarian groups must ensure they are providing current information about the situation and services where people are planning to go, several aid workers told Devex.

“We must be thorough and consistent in our application of these principles, otherwise we risk reinforcing a cycle of displacement, hunger, and poverty and for the women and girls, a cycle of being exposed to sexual and gender-based violence as they move from one place to another," Nicolo Di Marzo, Oxfam deputy country director, told Devex.

Aid workers also caution against conflating people who are returning to South Sudan yet still displaced with those who are actually going home, which might not accurately reflect realities on the ground.

According to recent data from REACH, a humanitarian research initiative, more than half of people recorded as coming back from Sudan through Renk in Upper Nile went to live in the U.N. protected site in Malakal. Among those who left on the recent transport to Akobo several of them planned to go directly across the border to the refugee camp in Ethiopia, according to a camp resident in Juba who spoke with them.

Jan Hendrik van Thiel, German ambassador to South Sudan, warned organizations not to pressure people to return early and to be conscious of whether “active incentivizing” is truly providing for voluntary and dignified returns: “I am against any return that does not materially correspond to the criteria. If return tickets, transport and return packages (money, or seeds) are offered, in these cases we have to watch that there is no shortcut on security and other important considerations. People should not be bought to go back into non-conducive environments,” he said.

According to an internal document discussing the returns to Akobo and seen by Devex, people were slated to be given packages including kitchen sets, mosquito nets, blankets, sleeping mats, soap, and plastic sheets.

Camp residents told Devex that after people leave, their houses are quickly demolished. Emails exchanged among aid groups in May and June, and seen by Devex, discussed the need to “mark the vacated shelters” in order to make it easier to “dismantle” them.

The practice — which isn’t new but has become more widespread since June — is causing unease for some civilians who still aren’t ready to leave the camps for fear of their safety.

“Very many places are destroyed,” said one resident who lives in a camp in Juba and wished to remain anonymous. “This is totally wrong, now we feel like we are being forced to leave the camps and the general security of South Sudan is not OK.”

About the author

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    Sam Mednick

    Sam is a Devex Contributor based in South Sudan. Over the past 12 years she’s reported on conflict, post-conflict, and development stories from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, South America, and Europe. Her work has appeared in Devex, the Associated Press, VICE, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and The New Humanitarian, among others. Sam also produces and hosts the Happiness at Work Podcast, interviewing authors, speakers and thought leaders about what it takes to live productive and fulfilling lives.