South-bound but stranded in Sudan

News Stories, 16 January 2012

After waiting for over a year to go to South Sudan, some southerners have set up home in abandoned train carriages at Khartoum's Shajara railway station.

KHARTOUM, Sudan, January 16 (UNHCR) At first glance it looks like a junkyard, strewn with piles of broken furniture, rusty metal beams and doors ripped off their hinges. Closer inspection reveals giant padlocked boxes, makeshift shelters and people hidden underneath the constant coat of dust that blows through the Sudanese capital.

This is the Shajara railway station in southern Khartoum. It is also one of 14 active "departure points" around the capital, and home to tonnes of luggage and hundreds of desperate people who have been waiting for up to a year to go back to their villages in South Sudan. The last train to leave here was in late October. Six more trains are scheduled in the coming months, and everyone is scrambling to get on the passenger list.

"We have been here for nine months now, we really want to go," said a woman who has made a home for herself in an abandoned train carriage. "My baby was born here three months ago. We call him Railway."

Blinking the dust from his eyes, Baby Railway has no idea what the fuss is about. His family was among the southerners who fled during more than 20 years of civil war between the north and south.

In the months leading up to South Sudan's independence last July, many of those who had sought refuge in Sudan over the years started to move to their ancestral villages, as well as people born and bred in Sudan but with strong ties to the south. After an enthusiastic start more than 350,000 people headed south between October 2010 and December 2011 the movement has stalled.

Part of the problem is financial: The South Sudanese government ran out of funds to organize movements, while many southerners in Sudan have lost their jobs since secession and are facing economic woes.

Then there are the logistical problems that caused the pile-up at Shajara station. Decades of neglect have left the rail service between Khartoum and Wau in the north-western part of South Sudan in shambles. A single train plies the more 1,000-kilometre-long single track between the two cities.

Breakdowns and derailments are common, such that the one-way journey takes at least two weeks, often longer. Come the rainy season from June to December, parts of the track will become impassable with overgrown grass.

Separately, some 9,000 southerners heading to the central and southern parts of South Sudan are stranded at the Kosti way station due to a shortage of barges to take them and their massive amounts of luggage down the River Nile.

Even for those people who can afford to move themselves on buses or trucks, the lack of security en route is a major obstacle. Fighting in border areas, especially in South Kordofan state, means that convoys are often robbed or attacked.

"We ask that UNHCR facilitates the transportation and ensures safety along the way," said Deng Bot, a representative of some 40,000 southerners living in Khartoum's Mayo Mandella settlement during a visit by UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres last week.

"We need to find a new way," said Guterres, acknowledging the many obstacles to people going south. "We need for the two governments to agree on a plan to move the most vulnerable people by plane, but with road travel as the main route. This is only possible with proper coordination and adequate security conditions."

In the meantime, 245 desperate families continue to wait in this departure point, an open space in Mayo Mandella with patchwork shelters made of plastic sheets, gunny sacks and bits of cloth. There is little shade from the harsh sun and dusty winds. Water is bought from donkey carts, and there are no latrines, and few health facilities or schools.

Asunta Matia gave up her rented home a year ago when she lost her income as a tea lady. "We were told we'll leave tomorrow, then tomorrow and tomorrow again. But it hasn't happened yet," she said. "When I go back to Wau, I can set up my tea shop again. I want to see my children go to university."

Her daughter Madalena, 26 and a mother of two, has applied to the University of Juba and hopes to study engineering. Her husband and brother have both moved to Wau in South Sudan, but make just enough to send money for food. Neither Asunta nor Madalena know how they will raise the money to go home, or when they will leave.

But Asunta is sure about one thing: "It's not working here. It's better that we leave and find something better in South Sudan."

There are an estimated 700,000 southerners living in Sudan. So far, some 110,000 in Khartoum have been registered to move in an exercise to determine the numbers and destinations, and to identify vulnerable people who may need special assistance.

The UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration co-chair the Returns sector, focusing on the registration of people who wish to go to South Sudan, in coordination with the Khartoum-based Commission of Voluntary and Humanitarian Work. The two agencies also provide life-saving assistance and protection monitoring at way stations, departure points and along the road.

As the April deadline approaches for southerners to acquire Sudanese residency permits, the Returns sector has also been encouraging the governments of Sudan and South Sudan to issue nationality and residency documentation for South Sudanese remaining in Sudan, and to implement fair procedures to determine nationality with safeguards to prevent statelessness.

By Vivian Tan, In Khartoum, Sudan




UNHCR country pages

Stateless People

Millions of stateless people are left in a legal limbo, with limited basic rights.

Ending Statelessness

Governments resolve and prevent statelessness by taking practical steps as set out in the Global Action Plan.

UN Conventions on Statelessness

The two UN statelessness conventions are the key legal instruments in the protection of stateless people around the world.

State Action on Statelessness

Action taken by states, including follow-up on pledges made at UNHCR's 2011 ministerial meeting in Geneva.


Sign and share our Open Letter to End Statelessness by 2024.

Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention of Asylum-Seekers, Refugees, Migrants and Stateless Persons

Summary Conclusions of the first Global Roundtable on Alternatives to Detention, held in May 2011 in Geneva

Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons; Its History and Interpretation

A Commentary by Nehemiah Robinson of the Institute of Jewish Affairs at the 1955 World Jewish Congress, re-printed by UNHCR's Division of International Protection in 1997

South Sudan Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Donate now and help to provide emergency aid to tens of thousands of people fleeing South Sudan to escape violence.

Donate to this crisis

Statelessness Around the World

At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

These images are available for use only to illustrate articles related to UNHCR statelessness campaign. They are not available for archiving, resale, redistribution, syndication or third party licensing, but only for one-time print/online usage. All images must be properly credited UNHCR/photographer's name

Statelessness Around the World

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thousands of people in former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan are still facing problems with citizenship. UNHCR has identified more than 20,000 stateless people in the Central Asian nation. These people are not considered as nationals under the laws of any country. While many in principle fall under the Kyrgyz citizenship law, they have not been confirmed as nationals under the existing procedures.

Most of the stateless people in Kyrgyzstan have lived there for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, these folk are often unable to do the things that most people take for granted, including registering a marriage or the birth of a child, travelling within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, receiving pensions or social allowances or owning property. The stateless are more vulnerable to economic hardship, prone to higher unemployment and do not enjoy full access to education and medical services.

Since independence in 1991, Kyrgyzstan has taken many positive steps to reduce and prevent statelessness. And UNHCR, under its statelessness mandate, has been assisting the country by providing advice on legislation and practices as well as giving technical assistance to those charged with solving citizenship problems. The refugee agency's NGO partners provide legal counselling to stateless people and assist them in their applications for citizenship.

However, statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is complex and thousands of people, mainly women and children, still face legal, administrative and financial hurdles when seeking to confirm or acquire citizenship. In 2009, with the encouragement of UNHCR, the government adopted a national action plan to prevent and reduce statelessness. In 2011, the refugee agency will help revise the plan and take concrete steps to implement it. A concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed so that statelessness does not become a lingering problem for future generations.

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

In the Dominican Republic, UNHCR runs programmes that benefit refugees and asylum-seekers from Haiti as well as migrants and members of their family born in the country, some of whom could be stateless or at risk of becoming stateless. Many live in bateyes, which are destitute communities on once thriving sugar cane plantations. The inhabitants have been crossing over from Haiti for decades to work in the sugar trade.

Among these initiatives, UNHCR provides legal aid, academic remedial courses and vocational training for refugees and asylum-seekers. They also support entrepreneurial initiatives and access to micro credit.

UNHCR also has an increased presence in border communities in order to promote peaceful coexistence between Dominican and Haitian populations. The UN refugee agency has found that strengthening the agricultural production capacities of both groups promotes integration and mitigates tension.

Many Haitians and Dominicans living in the dilapidated bateyes are at risk of statelessness. Stateless people are not considered as nationals by any country. This can result in them having trouble accessing and exercising basic rights, including education and medical care as well as employment, travel and housing. UNHCR aims to combat statelessness by facilitating the issuance of birth certificates for people living in the bateyes.

Statelessness in the Dominican Republic

South Sudan: A Long Walk in Search of Safety Play video

South Sudan: A Long Walk in Search of Safety

Years of fighting between Sudan and rebel forces have sent more than 240,000 people fleeing to neighbouring South Sudan, a country embroiled in its own conflict. After weeks on foot, Amal Bakith and her five children are settling in at Ajoung Thok refugee camp where they receive food, shelter, access to education and land.
Displaced: Root CausesPlay video

Displaced: Root Causes

The High Commissioner's Dialogue, a two day conference will consider the root causes, war, natural hazards, persecution, statelessness, for the unprecedented number of displaced people around the world.
South Sudan: Four Years On from IndependencePlay video

South Sudan: Four Years On from Independence

In 2011 the people of South Sudan celebrated their independence. Four years later, the world's newest nation is one of the world's worst humanitarian situations. In December 2013, conflict erupted displacing 2 million people including more than 600,000 refugees. South Sudanese has fled to Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan. The crisis has especially impacted the next generation of South Sudanese, 70% of those displaced are children.