Iguacu Blog

Love thy neighbor: how Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia have responded to South Sudan’s refugee crisis

Jul 19, 2017
Love thy neighbor: how Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia have responded to South Sudan’s refugee crisis
Blandine Sixdenier
Lead Researcher, Central Africa, Due Diligence Coordinator

Blandine holds a Masters in Conflict Studies from the LSE and a BA in Political Science from Université Laval. She formerly worked at the French Ministry of Defense and at Advention Business Partners. She speaks French and English.

South Sudan’s civil war has caused the largest refugee crisis in Africa since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Almost 2 million people were forced to flee their homes, more than half being children, to find refuge in neighboring countries.

Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia, have been the most common destinations for refugees, but each country has responded very differently to the influx of South Sudanese.


Uganda currently hosts almost a million refugees from South Sudan. Over 270,000 live in the Bidi Bidi camp in the north, the largest refugee camp in the world.

A South Sudanese refugee prepares dinner outside her hut in Bidi Bidi refugee camp in northern Uganda | Photo Credit: Trocaire

Uganda is known for its generous refugee policy. Refugees can utilize a plot of land to farm or start a business, have access education and receive healthcare. In exchange, local communities benefit from a stimulated economy and infrastructure constructed by non-profits and international organizations.

The ever increasing number of refugees to Uganda is threatening its open borders stance. Tensions are rising between refugees and locals, who compete over access to services and the availability of resources such as land and water. And violence has started to spread across the border, with armed men conducting raids to seize refugees and steal cattle in Uganda.

In late March this year, the Ugandan government along the UN Refugee Agency urged the international community to support Uganda, stating that the country was at a breaking point, and lacked the capabilities to deal with the massive influx of refugees.


South Sudan fought Africa’s longest continuous civil war, lasting 22 years, to gain independence from Sudan in 2011. 6 years later, over 400,000 South Sudanese have returned to Sudan.

Photo Credit: UNHCR

Sudan’s government has maintained an open door policy to South Sudanese refugees. Reports found that refugees have been able to move relatively freely and access some basic services.

Prior to 2016, South Sudanese in the country were not granted refugee status. The Sudanese government viewed them as citizens, which created confusion among the humanitarian community. Though this status allowed registered South Sudanese to enjoy similar rights to the general population, it also meant that non-registered South Sudanese, and communities hosting them, could not benefit from the humanitarian aid provided to refugees.

Sudan reviewed its policy for the treatment of South Sudanese in 2016. This was part of a general effort to improve the country’s international image, in an attempt to have US sanctions lifted. In September 2016, Sudan and the UN Refugee Agency signed a Memorandum of Understanding recognizing South Sudanese as refugees. This allowed UN agencies to provide them with adequate aid and funding.


Ethiopia used to welcome the highest number of refugees in Africa, and currently hosts over 370,000 South Sudanese, predominantly in the Gambella area.

South Sudanese refugees in Western Ethiopia | Photo Credit: EU/ECHO Martin Karimi

The government’s Administration for Refugee and Returnee Affairs (ARRA) works jointly with the UN Refugee Agency to register and relocate refugees in camps, and to provide basic services.

Though Ethiopians have been praised for their hospitality, the mass entry of refugees in the west of the country has created animosity with locals. Gambella is an underdeveloped region, and local people do not have access to some services provided in camps. In addition, it has compounded local ethnic tensions. Clashes between local Anuyak and Nuer intensified in 2016 with the arrival of South Sudanese Nuer.

With existing refugee camps in Gambella operating at maximum capacity, new arrivals are transferred to other camps in the north, moving refugees further away from their home.


While neighboring countries continue to welcome South Sudanese refugees, the increasing number of arrivals is putting a strain on their abilities to cope with the crisis. Refugees are left to survive in overcrowded camps, many in dire conditions and in an ever worsening situation.

In May, the United Nations Refugee Agency urged the international community to support countries dealing with the crisis. It estimated that US$ 1.4 billion was needed to provide life-saving aid to South Sudanese refugees. To date, the plan is only 20% funded.

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