Migration policy in South Sudan: Far from Europe

The South Sudanese civil war turns thousands into refugees every day, but this story, with millions of displaced persons, still remains an internal African refugee tragedy.

Displaced people next to a razor wire fence at the United Nations base in the capital Juba Foto: ap

No African country currently creates more new refugees than South Sudan. At the end of 2016, the humanitarian UN coordination office OCHA counted over 3 million internally displaced persons and refugees: 1.87 million within the country and 1.15 million in neighbouring countries. Each day, several thousands flee across the borders, mostly to Uganda.

In early December 2016, 600,000 South Sudanese refugees, two-thirds of them children, were living in Uganda alone; over half of them had arrived since July 2016. By the accounting of the UN World Food Programme, another 320,000 were located in Ethiopia, 250,000 in Sudan, 90,000 in Kenya, 60,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo and 5,000 in the Central African Republic – making a total of 1.34 million. The discrepancy in these figures alone shows how confusing the situation is.

For the current year, aid organisations have received only a quarter of the funds required to provide for South Sudanese in desperate need. And the UN mission in South Sudan, which offers shelter to about 200,000 people on its bases, is not always in a position to protect those fleeing from attack. The conditions in most shelters are regarded as catastrophic.

The extent of South Sudan's misery also guarantees that its refugee crisis will not reach Europe. Since the start of the state's independence in 2011 through July 2016, the number of South Sudanese seeking refuge in Europe comes to a mere 540. South Sudan is an old-fashioned refugee drama, playing out far beyond the borders of Europe. Irregular flight to Europe is less common than regulated resettlement abroad in European or North American countries, through US resettlement programmes, for instance.

Citizens without passports

The low rate of migration to Europe is also due to the fact that only a minority of the country's estimated ten million inhabitants have any kind of South Sudanese ID papers. All adult South Sudanese were born as citizens of Sudan. South Sudan has existed as an independent state only since 9 July 2011. The new government first began issuing its own passports and papers in 2012. After civil war broke out in December 2013, that process largely came to a halt.

Persons lacking South Sudanese papers in foreign countries now have no proof of their South Sudanese citizenship. Many South Sudanese abroad are presently traveling as Sudanese citizens, and even that is a privilege. When the Republic of Sudan released the southern part of its country to independence, it revoked the Sudanese citizenship of people of South Sudanese origin who were then living in all other regions of Sudan – where they usually had grown up as well.

Up to 700,000 persons of South Sudanese descent in the Sudan region were given a nine-month limit to either become citizens of Sudan, acquire standard residence permits as foreign citizens, or return to a “homeland“ that many of them had never known. Simultaneously, for its own citizens, South Sudan issued a ban on dual citizenship with Sudan.

When the time limit expired on 8 April 2012, several hundred thousand of those affected were still stateless, and therefore without legal rights and under threat of deportation. It can be assumed that, faced with this risk, many of them made their way northward instead – as Sudanese refugees, who, in any case, could neither be expelled to Sudan, where their citizenship was no longer valid, nor to South Sudan, where their citizenship was not yet recognised.

One way or the other, with South Sudan in a state of civil war, returning refugees to that state is out of the question. European co-operation with South Sudan in the framework of the Khartoum Process is correspondingly general. Supporting data collection and combating human trafficking are the only country-specific proposals for South Sudan in the context of “better migration management“.

Paradoxically, over the long term, the situation of civil war is making South Sudanese citizenship registration easier. What the government itself had not accomplished is now being carried out by the UN refugee aid agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM): UNHCR documents the origins of the internally displaced, while IOM takes care of their biometric registration. Since the start of the IOM project in the summer of 2015, biometric data for 405,000 South Sudanese have been recorded.

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