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Challenges and Opportunities of Post-CPA Return in 2005-2013

The political incentive to increase population numbers in time for the 2008 census, a key landmark in the transition process leading up to elections and part of the CPA, was one of the primary drivers of the initial emphasis on repatriation; so was the validation of the postindependence regime represented by high-profile return programs. Less attention was paid to the sustainability of return. Finally, few measures to integrate returnees were put in place in a context of the very limited absorption capacities.

Before October 2006, the joint Government-United Nations strategy was to support spontaneous return—one of the three main modalities of repatriation that, unlike organized return and assisted voluntary self-repatriation, involves people timing and organizing their return themselves without external assistance. Subsequently, a joint plan of the Government of National Unity, the Government of South Sudan (GoSS), and the United Nations was developed for an organized return process, marking “a fundamental shift in approach to planning for returns” to South Sudan (UNMIS 2008, 1). Organized returns began in February 2007, after delays in setting up way stations (i.e., temporary settlements or stopping places for returnees on the way to their final destination) and other necessary infrastructures. These early efforts notwithstanding, most returns occurred spontaneously (Pantuliano et al. 2008, 9).

Although the majority of adults and older teenage returnees reported being aware that they would likely face significant hardships in South Sudan, many also expressed a desire to be counted in the 2008 census. A pronounced increase in return migration rates (i.e., the “first wave of return”) took place between October 2010 and June 2011. This period witnessed the repatriation of more than 306,000 South Sudanese who returned in preparation for the Referendum of Self-Determination scheduled for January 9, 2011, and the anticipated celebration of Independence Day (IOM 2012).

For many, return was thus a deeply political undertaking, as well as a social process with profound implications for the viability of the new and fragile country. A subsequent “second wave of return” was described by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as “more rushed and less prepared than the first wave,” because of challenging postindependence circumstances (IOM 2012, 212). The number of returnees was also higher than originally anticipated. Overall, more than 2 million Southerners returned to South Sudan between 2005 and the end of 2013 when violence engulfed the country once again.

The South Sudanese context has presented considerable challenges for international agencies that have far more experience restoring displaced households to rural lives than implementing measures to satisfy the needs of refugees and IDPs, especially those originating from urban areas who are seeking to establish themselves in urban settings. Approximately 75 % of repatriated families initially settled in rural areas. Many returnees, however, chose to relocate subsequently to urban centers, either because they lacked the skills necessary to work as farmers after years of living in northern cities or refugee camps, or because they lacked any interest in returning to an agropastoralist lifestyle. In the case of children and youth who were born and raised in cities and towns, many had never actually lived in a rural setting.

Those repatriating from Egypt, Kenya, Uganda, or Khartoum arrived in South Sudan with relatively high educational standards and high expectations that local conditions in their newly formed country were unable to meet. They often expressed a hope that their academic credentials would help them to avoid a dependence on subsistence agri- culture—derogatorily referred to as “digging” in local parlance—and pastoralism. Those arriving from Arab-speaking areas faced additional challenges. Official government policy established English as the medium of instruction from P4 level—that is, the fourth year of primary education onward. This policy also affected the reintegration of returnee teachers, further contributing to the shortage of instructors and overcrowded classrooms. The lack of affordable secondary education discouraged the return of families with school-age children and left many youngsters in South Sudan without viable educational opportunities (Pantuliano et al. 2008, 22).

Most returnees expressed a belief that economic and educational opportunities would be superior in urban locations. A resulting pattern of secondary displacement characterized a number of larger towns in South Sudan. In Juba, South Sudan’s capital, the estimated population has doubled since the signing of the 2005 CPA, standing at more than half a million (Martin and Mosel 2011) before the latest round of violent conflict. Other rapidly urbanizing regional towns (e.g., Wau, Bor, Malakal, and Torit) similarly attracted displaced youngsters. Employment opportunities in South Sudan’s urban areas, however, remained insufficient to absorb the large influx of people.

Exceptionally high levels of poverty, limited infrastructure, lack of basic services, and livelihood opportunities characterized most already crowded cities. Tensions and conflict became common as returnees competed with the local urban poor for the limited resources and services available (Weiss Fagen 2011, 3). The humanitarian situation in South Sudan actually has become worse since 2008, with more people displaced in the South than in neighboring Darfur (IDMC 2010; Macdonald 2010, 4).

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