Q&A: Displacement scenarios surrounding South Sudan secession

News Stories, 11 July 2011

© UNHCR/A.Coseac
Southern Sudanese returning to Unity state in the newly-independent South Sudan.

GENEVA, July 11 (UNHCR) As South Sudan became an independent country last weekend, the UN refugee agency joined the international community in welcoming this historic event. However, there are a number of ongoing displacement situations affecting the country. Dominik Bartsch, UNHCR Operations Manager for Chad and Sudan, recently spoke to Geneva-based journalists on the issue.

Excerpts from his opening statement:

I will briefly touch upon three current displacement scenarios in Sudan. The first one involves the ongoing return of Southerners from the north. The second one is the ongoing new displacements from the protocol areas, notably Abyei and Southern Kordofan. And thirdly, a brief reflection on South Sudan itself and the internal displacement that is occurring there.

Starting with the return of the Southerners, more than 1 million Southerners are still residing in the north. Some 300,000 have returned since late October back to the South. We have currently a situation where significant numbers of Southerners are stranded en route because of capacity constraints along the way.

There's a group of some 17,000 Southerners who are still waiting in Khartoum to return. They have sold their houses and belongings, and are sitting with their property on street corners waiting for transport to arrive. We are now engaging with partners to try to decongest the situation and help those Southerners move on.

In the South, we want to highlight that the region itself currently has a number of conflict hot spots. There are areas in which inter-communal violence is taking place, we have ethnic clashes and we have a number of active military insurgencies in the South. So there are concerns how these hot spots could generate internal displacement and indeed, in a worst-case scenario, how they may also prompt refugees to move across borders.

Excerpts from the interview:

It seems the citizenship issue has been resolved, with South Sudanese in the north being asked to either move to South Sudan and give up their citizenship, or remain in the north and continue being citizens there. Is there a deadline for them to decide?

What has happened with respect to citizenship laws is that South Sudan has passed a new law which in fact is fairly generous and allows for recognition of citizenship for all Southerners. However, in the north, a similar law has not been amended and there is quite some ambiguity around this issue as well as political rhetoric as to which rights will be granted to Southerners including citizenship. So right now there is no clear line. The fact that Southerners would be encouraged by the north to move in order to redress their citizenship status doesn't really do justice to the problem they encounter, because many of them were born and bred in Khartoum. They have built their lives there. For them to uproot and go to the South, the place where their parents were born and to which they otherwise may have no affiliation, is a very tall order.

...with respect to citizenship laws ... South Sudan has passed a new law which in fact is fairly generous...

Dominik Bartsch
UNHCR Operations Manager for Chad and Sudan

If there are refugees from the South because of communal violence, will they head to the north or are they more likely go to areas bordering the South?

Currently, we have contingency plans in all nine countries neighbouring Sudan. However, in the context of the situation in the South itself, the more likely destinations are indeed the countries neighbouring South Sudan and that is Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and then further to the west, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

If this ambiguity continues in the north regarding citizenship for South Sudanese, will they eventually fall under UNHCR's mandate? Will they be stateless?

This is a complicated question; those Southerners who have been living in the north will not automatically become refugees because they would have to establish that they have the claim of persecution back in the South, which is not the case, so they will have to be treated on the premise of individual circumstances. Our concern for this group is indeed that they are at risk of becoming stateless. The fact that there is now an international border as of July 9 separating Sudan from South Sudan, means there will be a number of other internally displaced people (IDPs) who find themselves in a refugee-like situation. This concerns, for instance, IDPs from Darfur who have crossed into South Sudan. With the independence of the South, they will likely be considered as refugees.

What is happening in the Blue Nile area?

For the time being, we know that the area is very tense. The context is similar to the other areas, related to the discontinuation of the joint integrated units comprising military personnel from both the north and South. In addition, there's a lot of political tension and ethnic friction related to secession. So, it is in a way a similar situation to what prevailed earlier in Southern Kordofan and the UN is undertaking contingency planning to prepare for possible displacements.