More than 3 years of violent conflict has forced some 1.6 million South Sudanese to flee their homes and become displaced within their own country. There also hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been forced to flee the state altogether. Many of the internally displaced (IDPs) have found shelter among host communities and more than 200,000 others have settled in what are called the Protection of Civilians sites (PoCs).
The displaced people of South Sudan have minimal access to the basic necessities to life — clean water, food and shelter — and are often faced with life threatening situations. On top of this physical hardship the accompanying psychological trauma is equally trying. The vast majority of those displaced have lost a vital sense of belonging and identity; family ties, homes, livelihoods and communities.
A shaky peace deal was reached in August 2015 but new challenges are mounting in South Sudan. While the fragile balance reached last summer is challenged by periodic outbursts of violence, the paramount questions of rebuilding the country and reintegrating those who have been displaced still need to be addressed.
As part of the ongoing efforts, the international community and the UN are involved in discussions to facilitate the relocation and reintegration of the residents at the PoCs. The conventional wisdom regarding the return policies has often been based on the impression that a viable future for returnees is guaranteed by restoring them to their prior lives at home while ensuring their physical security.
However, it is possible to unpack a more nuanced account of what displaced people and refugees want, thanks to the REACH Assessments in 10 PoC sites on the IDP intentions and preferences*. Which political, economic, psychosocial and physical factors influence a person’s decision to return home, remain at their current location, or move elsewhere? It is crucial, if sustainable solutions are to be found, that these ongoing efforts to relocate and reintegrate the South Sudanese take into consideration the multifaceted preferences of IDPs.
TO STAY, TO RETURN, OR TO MOVE: NOT JUST A SECURITY CONCERN
First and foremost, research has shown that in most of the conflict-affected states many IDPs typically want to go back to a normal life in their own home. However, home might not necessarily mean the one they left during the war.
While this refusal to go back to the same home is often attributed to the lack of security in home areas, the new findings refute its exclusive influence on the decisions of IDPs. The most vivid example comes from the UN House PoC survey results. Despite the fact that over 50 percent of the IDPs had their pre-crisis homes in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, only 26 percent of the respondents indicated their willingness to return to a place that is now much safer.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, IDPs often prefer to stay, or move to new homes, for reasons falling outside the security nexus, especially those who have been displaced for a prolonged period of time. These include: better employment prospects; quality of health; provision of basic services and social protection; availability of educational facilities; changes in ethnic relations at their former home locations; living conditions and the newly developed income-generating opportunities — all of which play a significant role in the decisions and preferences of IDPs.
FACTORS AFFECTING IDP PREFERENCES
1. Security and peace
The formal end of the war does not always mean the end of all armed conflict and violent outbursts are likely to continue. The lack of security undoubtedly affects the IDP’s preferences of movement.
The conflict, which characterized South Sudan for the past 3 years, did not end with the final ceasefire in August 2015. In fact, hard-line leaders often continue their armed campaigns to consolidate regional control and spark sporadic fighting that ravages some parts of the country. While the situation has somewhat improved since August 2015, the shaky patches of stability are not enough to convince people to return to home.
Given that the majority of IDPs have fled their homes as a direct result of the conflict, either in anticipation of violence, or having seen their homes and possessions destroyed, perhaps it is not surprising that the vast majority of IDPs see the lack of security as one of their major concerns.
Indeed, across almost all displacement sites, the majority of respondents (79%) confirm they’d wish to return home if peace and security came to South Sudan.
On the other hand, even with peace, between 9–36% of the respondents across the assessed sites have also preferred the idea of staying at their current site, moving somewhere else in South Sudan, or leaving the country. Furthermore, when asked whether they’d return home if the current site became insecure, a large part of IDPs in 4 sites (Malakal 45%, Juba 38%, Bentiu 34%, and Delthoma II 47%) reported they’d still remain. Thus, while lasting peace and security are major factors for many IDPs who want to move home, often times they are insufficient.
2. Humanitarian aid
Security considerations often take the central focus in the relocation debate. However, the presence of humanitarian aid, including food, water and shelter, has been equally identified among the commonly reported reasons for choosing to move to a displacement site or choosing other relocation options.
South Sudan suffers from high levels of food insecurity and lacks other basic necessities. Access to resources therefore often becomes an important determinant for IDP movement. If lack of food, or other basic goods at home threaten IDPs’ survival, they are very unlikely to want to return.
This is confirmed by the preferences of IDPs in Wau Shilluk. Assessments in the displacement site report the lack of food to be the primary reason for moving from home. Other sites have also frequently listed these factors among the top reasons for moving away from home and choosing a displacement location. Therefore, the failure to account for the significance of humanitarian aid and the availability of basic necessities is likely to miss important opportunities to fostering sustainable, longer-term solutions.
On the other hand, humanitarian aid, like security, is not a sufficient push factor on its own. According to REACH data, a significant proportion of IDPs across the displacement sites report they’d likely stay at their current location even if the humanitarian aid stopped.
3. Livelihoods, assets and conditions of living
Changed socio-economic conditions also greatly influence the decisions of IDPs. The security, property and land allocation in the places that they have fled have often been reshaped, and economic viability will have worsened as well. In the aftermath of intense conflict and destruction, IDPs usually return to eroded or inexistent markets, changed social dynamics, weakened institutions and loss of property.
The loss of property, assets and livelihoods often causes families to rely on the hospitality of relatives, on remittances from family members who have become refugees or labour migrants, or on humanitarian assistance. Yet these sources of income and subsistence are often unsustainable and for many IDPs the decision to return home is tied to whether or not they consider it possible to survive economically over the long term. This is further strengthened by the fact that over 80% of the South Sudanese derive their livelihood from subsistence agriculture and livestock. While at IDP camps, their labour experience has less worth, losing land can entail high economic costs, thereby increasing the opportunity-cost of not returning.
Given that the displacement sites are close to their homes, many IDPs travel outside the displacement sites during the day to inspect their homes and land or to work even if they do not feel safe to leave the site permanently. Those, who found their land and property intact have reported wishes to return home. Conversely, those whose properties has been destroyed, taken or rendered inaccessible due to land mines, or those who are unable to verify the status of their assets, are reported to be less likely to return home.
Failure to recognize this multilayered aspect of displacement can lead to responses that at best miss important opportunities to provide viable long-term solutions and at worst feed into existing problems and completion of resources.
4. Social services
One of the less visible factors influencing IDP preferences is related to the provision of social services. If peace and the existence of opportunities for sustainable livelihoods represent the pre-conditions for the IDP returns, the provision of basic services is also drawing significant influence in IDP preferences, especially when it comes to permanent stay.
Among the reasons most often heard for IDPs rejecting the option to return to their places of origin is that families do not lose the access to education and health care they had as IDPs and which many have come to consider as important income generating opportunities.
Returnees to remote areas find very limited opportunities to school their children, and while building schools, health clinics and instilling public works may be on the government’s future agenda, their lack in the present sharply deters return, especially for households with children.
5. Ethnic homogeneity and tribal harmony
Conflict in South Sudan has also left behind pockets of intentionally, or unintentionally, created and ethnically monolithic communities. A proportion of IDPs also list their reluctance to come home if they felt they would become a minority in their home area upon their return and this threatened their livelihoods. This is perhaps not surprising given the ethnic dimension of South Sudan’s conflict and the animosities it has created among South Sudanese communities.
6. Family ties
Finally, family ties play a role in determining the preferences of relocation. A significant proportion of IDPs mention family members at the places of origin as a pulling factor to come home. Conversely, the absence of family ties can equally work as a deterrent against wishes to relocate to the home area and instead, to prefer other locations.
SMART RELOCATION FOSTERS VIABLE SOLUTIONS
These findings are relevant in informing global responses to forced migration as well as understanding the local experiences and perceptions of IDPs in conflict-ridden societies.
While security remains the major factor for the preferences of IDPs, it is but one among many decisive aspects. More efforts should be devoted towards recognizing the catalysts of return.
In addition, this nuanced understanding of the local experiences and perceptions of IDPs in conflict-ridden societies shows that a proportion of the displaced population may not necessarily want to return to their places of origin. Notably, this choice to postpone or reject returning home should by no means indicate a failure of humanitarian policy. To the contrary, recognizing the causes that shape the diverging preferences of IDPs can create valuable opportunities for war-affected civilians to escape poverty and discrimination and open doors to new forms of economic, political and social participation. Perhaps most significantly, this understanding offers us greater flexibility in finding viable, long-term solutions to displacement.
The 10 POCs and informal settlements that were covered for the research are the UNMISS Juba PoC1, UNMISS Juba PoC3, Mingkaman, Bentiu PoC, Bor, Wau PoC, Melut, Malakal PoC, Delthoma I, and Delthoma II.