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Hope for return in South Sudan

South Sudan suffers from long-term political, inter-ethnic and communal conflicts and weak rule of law. The situation in South Sudan remains the largest refugee crisis in Africa. According to the UN Secretary-General, humanitarian needs remain high due to conflict, displacement, weather shocks, COVID-19, a weakened economy, and limited basic services.

Barring brief and fragile lulls in peace, South Sudan has been mostly a battlefield or scene of cyclical hostilities for many years. In 2013, two years after South Sudan gained independence from Sudan, civil war broke out again. An estimated 383,000 South Sudanese lost their lives as a result of this civil war. In addition, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) announced that approximately 5.7 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance as of December 2018.

South Sudan is Africa's biggest humanitarian crisis, also affecting war-torn East African countries, which have taken in many of the refugees who have fled the country. In addition, there are over 1.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country, and South Sudan is home to almost 320,000 refugees from Sudan and other countries.

The two million refugees who fled South Sudan's civil war are mainly in Uganda and Sudan, with smaller populations in Ethiopia, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Now the South Sudanese government wants them to return home ahead of elections scheduled for 2023. But some humanitarian workers fear a return could be risky as violence continues to flare across the country despite the 2018 peace accords and subsequent formation of a national unity government. There are also fears that government officials intend to use the return to build demographic majorities for their constituencies while ensuring that opposition groups remain driven out.

Between September 2018 and March 2021, at least 241,390 South Sudanese spontaneously returned, mostly from Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. Surveys and assessments conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and partners with spontaneous returnees show that difficult humanitarian conditions and lack of access to social services and livelihoods in countries of asylum can contribute to refugees' decisions to return. Surveys of returnees also show that many want to stay in South Sudan permanently, feel safe in their current location and want to maintain good relationships with their host communities.

President Salva Kiir and main opposition leader Riek Machar signed two peace accords: the first on January 23, 2014 and the second on December 21, 2017. The 2017 cessation of hostilities agreement did help to reduce violence between Kiir and Machar loyalists . However, the United Nations reported several violations of the agreement in 2020 and 2021. In addition, the Parties continue to use violence against civilians, including for forced recruitment and forced labor.

The peace agreement introduced far-reaching reforms that are intended to lay the foundations for a modern state that is fit for the future. The transition is intended to be a process through which various reformulations and reforms of policies and laws will take place, as well as the restructuring of various state institutions and the introduction of a new constitution. In this sense, it represents an instrument for state reform and exemplifies a transition to democracy guided by elections to be held 60 days before the end of the transition period (originally around February 2022). The agreement includes accelerating the dignified return and reintegration of forcibly displaced members of South Sudanese society (both refugees and internally displaced persons) and restoring a competent and independent National Electoral Commission to conduct free, fair and credible elections before the end of the transition period.

At the same time UNHCR reports a bleak outlook and difficult existence for many returnees, at least 70% of whom have not been able to return to their previous homes. In addition, South Sudan experienced its worst economic downturn in 2020. The price of oil - the country's main source of income - collapsed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, depreciating the value of the South Sudanese pound and increasing inflation. South Sudan's oil production fell from about 250,000 barrels per day to about 170,000 barrels per day in March 2020 and had further decreased to 165,000 barrels per day by the end of October 2020.

Difficult humanitarian conditions further aggravate the country's financial difficulties. For example, about 700,000 people in 34 counties are affected by flooding. Escalating inter-communal violence related to cattle rustling and revenge attacks killed many civilians and forced thousands more to flee. There have also been attacks on humanitarian workers and an almost complete halt to the voluntary return of internally displaced persons and refugees. In addition, the region suffered from a locust invasion and it was predicted that 5.5 million South Sudanese would starve without humanitarian aid.

In January 2021, the United Nations estimated that 8.3 million people in South Sudan would be in need of humanitarian assistance during the year, representing more than 70% of the country's population (12.1 million people). For the mid-2021 hunger season, it was estimated that 7.2 million people (60% of the population) would face high levels of acute food insecurity. In June 2021, South Sudan faced the highest levels of food insecurity and malnutrition since independence. The proportion of people living below the international poverty line (US$1.90 per day) is estimated at 78.2 percent in 2021.

Children are the hardest hit by the humanitarian situation; the United Nations Children's Fund UNICEF estimates that 4.4 million children will need humanitarian assistance in 2021, while 1.4 million children will be suffering from acute malnutrition. In 2020, 2.8 million children were out of school (compared to 2.2 million in 2018), while another 4.2 million students were reportedly out of school due to COVID-related restrictions.

The civil war has massively changed the way South Sudanese inhabit their country, making it difficult to imagine a simple return model – where people simply return to their old rural homes. The war has accelerated urbanization as people become increasingly dependent on markets and wage labour, while problems with land occupation and general insecurity have made it difficult to sustain small-scale agriculture. Humanitarian aid organizations must therefore expect that people will not always return to a single place. Instead, families spread out across different areas to maximize access to resources under extremely difficult conditions.

A woman and her family wade through a flooded plain to reach their home in Thaker, South Sudan's Unity State. (WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua)

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