Displacement, violation and violence in South Sudan

Europe’s migrant crisis has been proclaimed 2015’s news story. But the reality of migrant experience is that it is a trajectory; until long after the displaced person becomes a citizen of a host nation or returns to their original habitus, their state of transition not only persists but also often goes overlooked. This is true of the crisis in the States of South Sudan (SS henceforth), a DFID high priority nation (2012). The etymology of displacement conferring a ‘removal from office’ dates back to the seventeenth century while human rights have a similarly established legacy, denoting those rights that are ‘inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion’ (UN, 1996). The Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) of SS will occupy the focus of this exploration offset against refugee patterns and associated settlement activity. Through this lens, one can consider a framework in which action is being, or should be, taken to re-establish this population’s rights. It is imperative to recall that the ‘participants’ of crisis are not solely the IDPs themselves, but also the governments and political personnel, the humanitarian aid effort, and the stories of those left behind. Indeed, the lexicon of ‘participant’ and ‘driver’ is perhaps inappropriate, suggesting an agency or performance of choice that does not actually function in this arena, and will be reinterpreted as ‘subjects’ and ‘factors’.

If you were to ask a young subject what prompted them to run away from a familiar situation, they would probably identify the intrusion of an alien party, an activity that manifests itself in the physiological flight response. This simple, but insupportable, vulnerability characterises SS’s IDPs, with conflict the primary factor in displacement. As catastrophe psychologist Dr Richard Sherry (2016) noted in a recent lecture delivered at University College London, it comes as little surprise that those who perceive their lives to be at risk are most susceptible to psychological vulnerability and escapism – it is a symptom of disasters. HART’s work in SS has identified that IDPs find themselves classified as such following experiences of economic or political disturbance. They exist within a conflict zone. Following the referendum of January 2011 with almost 99% voting to secede from the North, SS became an independent country and also the world’s youngest nation. But this newborn peace was soon fractured following conflict at a leadership level between the Blue Nile and South Kordofan States. Since then, the air offensive and ground assaults that characterise the violence in this region have been termed genocide with its associated erasure not only of people but also of entire cultural networks.Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 00.25.59

This triggered the ‘dis-‘ movement of civilians with some 50-100,000 killed, 1.5 million finding themselves IDPs and a further 546,000 escapees in bordering countries. Of the IDPs, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (2015) suggests that 10% are located in the nine UN Mission sites such as the Doro Refugee Camp but the overwhelming majority live in unidentified, typically remote and hard to access locales. But one must turn our attention to the circumstances that facilitated the renewed violence. The rise of globalisation has indirectly witnessed the increase in displacement and migration patterns. Indeed, Allen et al. (1999) note that ‘globalisation makes it easier to hide, with individuals switching identities and crossing old boundaries’. In the years following SS’s independence, the international community supported the nascent SS with ‘state-building’ while de-prioritising state-society interrelation afforded by ‘nation-building’ which saw an already fragile state fortified from an institutionalised government level rather than adopting a civilian first approach (IRC, 2014). So too, factors of displacement point towards an already vulnerable existence with UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards (2016) remarking that the upsurge in fighting ‘but also growing food insecurity’ were the main reasons for displacement. Indeed, food insecurity following extreme flooding cycles in SS and ensuing violence are the crux of much nation-specific conflict research and findings.

So too, findings identify recalcitrant global public opinion as a key barrier to securing human rights for these IDPs. A peer recently applied for a UK-based ITV (2016) news traineeship scheme and shared one of the application questions, listed as follows: ‘what graphic would you use to illustrate the numbers and origins of migrants recently settling in your patch?’.Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 00.26.13The gaping box and ring fencing of response to 50 words only exposes the imperative to effect change in this space of interpersonal attitudes towards refugees and IDPs. Otherwise, their respective human rights will go unmet. Indeed, as former WHO Director-General Dr. Brundtland (2003) remarked: ’at the root of the concern for equality and freedom from discrimination in human rights thinking and practice, lies the notion of human dignity’. This challenge of promoting compassion for one’s fellow man, particularly within SS, will not be resolved over the short-term. Instead, education and fairly representative media coverage such as Peter Biro’s photojournalism, must be employed to highlight how art and discourse can raise awareness and commemorate suffering. Demonstrably, political artist Ai Weiwei (2015) advocates ‘we can do a lot if we open our hearts and think philosophically what [sic] refugee is about’. Here referring to the European migrant crisis, his sentiment resonates with the SS conflict and underscores that we have all, at some point in our people’s histories, been migrants seeking humanity, love and safety from host peoples and places. Indeed, cultural eradication must be halted in light of the celebratory possibilities it represents.

In many cases, it has been reported that SS’s IDPs have received neither humanitarian aid nor political commitment. As HART’s Baroness Cox (2014) identifies, to move forward there must be more efficient collaboration between aid and advocacy. Specifically, a coordinated approach is required between the implementing (such as government agencies; Commissioner for Refugee Affairs) and operational partners (MSF, UN-Habitat, UNDP) and HART. But it is not merely a question of political apathy, but also a matter of social security: six humanitarian workers were killed in a refugee-hosting area of Maban County in August 2014 (UNHCR, 2015). In light of this threat to aid, approaches must also seek out those IDPs who are least accessible, so demanding cohesive protection methods and monitoring of the most vulnerable groups as well as the general civilian body. Indeed, according to the IRC (2014), the ‘humanitarian response has had a disproportionate focus on IDPs sheltering in protection-of-civilian sites and camps, who are easier to reach’. However, the immediate priority is to improve emergency structures in all camps and standards of sanitation, education and health. This will require sustainable and continued work with local partners so as to cause minimal disruption or unfeasible input in terms of the local economy and infrastructure.

Thereafter, for SS to be considered by the world’s development community as a nation capable of ensuring the safety, wellbeing and rightful existence of their citizens, they will need to commit and implement a sustainable political solution to end fighting. SS must evidence that it can provide for all people, even those most likely to be hidden, and rely less on the support of the aid effort which must, in itself, be augmented. Camp settlement is not a long-term human rights based solution. Resettlement and fair coverage is.



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Brundtland, Gro Harlem. 2003. Statement to the 59th Commission on Human Rights: WHO. [online]. Available at: <http://www.who.int/dg/speeches/2003/commissionhumanrights/en/&gt; [Accessed 1 February 2016].

Burki, S. and Perry, G. (1998). Beyond the Washington Consensus: Institutions Matter. Washington, D.C.: World Bank.

DFID (Department for International Development), 2012. Operational Plan 2011-2015: DFID South Sudan. [online]. Available at: <https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/67348/south-sudan-2011.pdf&gt; [Accessed January 29 2016].

Edwards, Adrian. 2016. Growing insecurity triggers new displacement in and from South Sudan: briefing notes. [online]. Available at: <http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/search?page=search&docid=568f9f9d6&query=adrian%20edwards%20growing%20food%20insecurity&gt; [Accessed 12 February 2016].

HART, 2014. Annual report for the year ended 31 December 2014. [online] Available at: <http://www.hart-uk.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/HART-2014-Annual-Report-low-resolution.pdf&gt; [Accessed 9 February 2016]. With reference to Baroness Cox.

IRC (International Rescue Committee), 2014. Uprooted by Conflict: South Sudan’s Displacement Crisis. [online]. Available at: <http://www.rescue.org/sites/default/files/resource-file/20141110_IRC_SouthSudan_Report.pdf&gt; [Accessed 12 February 2016].

ITV, 2016. News Traineeship Recruitment for 2016/17. [online]. Available at: <https://itv.taleo.net/careersection/2/jobdetail.ftl?job=1600012T&lang=en&gt; [Accessed 9 February 2016].

Sherry, Richard. 2016. The Psychology of Disasters, UCL Conflict Series. University College London, unpublished.

UN, 1996. Your Human Rights. [online] Available at: <http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Pages/WhatareHumanRights.aspx&gt; [Accessed 12 February 2016].

UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), 2015. 2015 UNHCR Global Appeal 2015 Update. [online] Available at: <http://www.unhcr.org/ga15/index.xml&gt; [Accessed 9 February 2016].

Weiwei, Ai. 2015. Amish Kapoor and Ai Weiwei walk in solidarity with world refugees, London. [online]. Available at: <http://londonartreviews.com/2015/09/21/anish-kapoor-and-ai-weiwei-walk-in-solidarity-with-world-refugees-london/&gt; [Accessed 1 February 2016].

Image Credit: CDC Global, Flickr

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