Rou Kon, a 25-year-old South Sudanese shop owner, thought he had reached safety after arriving in his country’s capital, Juba, earlier this month. He had escaped gunfights and air strikes in neighbouring Sudan, where he lived since 2005.
But Juba has not made for a happy homecoming. With no relatives in the city and no humanitarian assistance on hand, Kon has been sleeping rough on the streets. Whining mosquitoes and scorching heat have made it hard to get a moment’s rest.
“The conditions I find myself in here are terrible,” Kon told The New Humanitarian. “I can’t even find food to eat because I do not have money, and in Juba no one can help you because everyone is suffering.”
Around 70,000 civilians have fled to South Sudan since Sudan’s army and main paramilitary force started fighting last month. The majority are South Sudanese refugees, heading back to a country that has barely recovered from its own civil war.
Thousands are crossing the border every day after exhausting journeys. But there is sparse aid on arrival, limited options available for onward travel, and little support for people to kick-start their lives once their journeys are complete.
Humanitarian organisations and the government are providing some assistance – they have set up transit centres and are sending boats and planes to border areas – but both say they lack the resources to help everybody in need.
South Sudan was already facing extremely high levels of need before this new crisis. Three-quarters of the population currently requires aid – the result of climate shocks and high levels of violence that have persisted despite a 2018 peace agreement.
The situation could worsen as ceasefires in Sudan fail to hold and more civilians flee. Some aid agencies project that around a quarter of the 800,000 South Sudanese residing in Sudan will head back home in the coming weeks.
“We need to be rescued from the dire situation,” said Samira Khamis, a 38-year-old South Sudanese woman who fled Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, and recently arrived in Juba. “They should establish camps and provide shelter and education because our children need [it] for their future.”
Bottlenecks in border towns
The New Humanitarian spoke to nine returnees who had been living in Khartoum. Some had been there for over two decades, while others said they left South Sudan when the civil war broke out in 2013.
Most returnees have been walking to South Sudan on foot or paying for pricey buses. However, some have been aided by a crowdfunded evacuation initiative run by a South Sudanese organisation called the Citizens Call for Emergency Evacuations.
The head of the group, Akoc Akuei Manhiem, said their trucks continue to pick up people from Khartoum but that many remain trapped in the besieged city. “The people are really suffering. They have no food, no water," Manhiem said.
Returnees are mostly arriving in Renk, a border town in Upper Nile state which lies on the banks of the White Nile. A transit centre has been set up in the town by aid groups, but the government does not want permanent camps to be established.
“It is tricky because when you are providing transit, you don’t provide the support like [you do] to already established camps,” said William Ngabonziza, who leads the Humanitarian Development Consortium, a South Sudanese NGO.
Ngabonziza said the transit centre is only receiving the most vulnerable people and that thousands of others have been sleeping outside in the town. Many don’t have the money and ability to travel onwards and have been stranded for several weeks.
Meanwhile, food prices are soaring in the town, which was dependent on cross-border trade from Sudan, Ngabonziza said. “Goods are not coming because the borders are closed so there is a very big issue in Renk,” he added.
Bottlenecks have also formed in the nearby town of Paloch, which has an airport with a tarmac runway. Evacuation planes have been landing in the town and taking people to Juba and elsewhere, but demand is exceeding supply.
“The humanitarian response to the returnees who are escaping the deadly violence in Sudan is inadequate,” said Edmund Yakani, the executive director for the Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation, a local civil society group.
Sudanese fleeing the conflict are facing similar issues. Almost a million are now internally displaced, according to the UN, while hundreds of thousands have escaped to Central African Republic, Chad, and Egypt – all of which present daunting challenges.
‘Life has been so tough on me’
Santino Bol, the deputy chairman of South Sudan’s Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, told The New Humanitarian that the government had been planning for the return of refugees “long before” the Sudan conflict began.
In a telephone interview, Bol said “structures” have been set up in different states around the country to help people resettle and that assistance will be available to those who need it.
“If I am supported with seeds, I can plant crops and vegetables to get my own food for my family.”
According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, more than 600,000 refugee returnees have been recorded since the signing of the 2018 peace agreement, which halted a conflict that killed an estimated 400,000 people.
Yet the returnees who spoke to The New Humanitarian said they haven’t received any support after reaching their final destinations. And aid groups have warned that the returns could destabilise communities already struggling with interlocking crises.
“We need assistance to resettle,” said Agorong Garang, a 55-year-old who escaped Khartoum and has returned to the Northern Bahr el Ghazal state, which borders Sudan’s westernmost Darfur region.
“There are many things that we need, such as food, because we did not come with food or money,” Garang said. “If I am supported with seeds, I can plant crops and vegetables to get my own food for my family.”
Toma Achai, a 37-year-old returnee, said she had been sleeping at Juba’s international airport with her children, hoping to get assistance. Achai said she needs help to travel onwards to the northern state of Warrap, which is where she is originally from.
“We are requesting aid organisations help us and find for us a campsite,” Achai said. “We are living in the open, and if the rains start, it will be worse. Life has been so tough on me.”
Bol said the government doesn’t want to set up camps because it leaves people “dependent” on humanitarian aid. “It is not viable for anybody who is returning and has prospects for developing a viable livelihood,” he said.
Returnees in Juba said they were worried about finding employment, especially given South Sudan’s struggling economy. Some abandoned businesses in Khartoum, while others left behind manual labour jobs that helped them make ends meet.
“I just want to work in Juba, but I don’t yet know what work,” said Khamis, the 38-year-old who escaped Khartoum. She said she was staying with relatives in Juba but described living conditions as “very bad”.
Fears of population engineering
Political concerns could further complicate the humanitarian situation. With elections on the horizon, analysts say the government may worry about returnees altering the demographics in certain areas and could try to control where people return to.
Population engineering of this kind has a long history in the country. Military forces have often been accused of stopping people from returning to lands they escaped during conflict and replacing them with more sympathetic constituencies.
“Returnees have the right to choose where they want to be, where they feel secure, where they feel they are safe.”
Yakani, of the Community Empowerment for Progress Organisation, called for all initiatives involving returnees to be “based on the principle of a voluntary choice of return”.
“Returnees have the right to choose where they want to be, where they feel secure, where they feel they are safe,” Yakani said. “You should not restrict people’s movements. You should allow people to move as citizens.”
Despite the challenges, Isaac Arol, a 25-year-old who worked as a casual labourer in Khartoum, said he has no regrets about returning to South Sudan given the situation across the border.
“I am in hardship, though when I look back, it is far better than the Khartoum I left,” Arol told The New Humanitarian. “I feel the government must take responsibility for bringing our people home by all means.”
Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.