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A long road home: Challenges of returnee reintegration in Southern Sudan

Time (GMT +00) 17:00 18:30


Sara Pantuliano - Research Fellow, ODI

Paul Murphy - Head of Europe Programme, Saferworld

Margie Buchanan-Smith - Independent Consultant


Wendy Fenton - Independent Consultant


David Drew MP

David Drew MP (Chair)

  1. David Drew MP welcomed the audience, introduced the speakers and said that the Associate Parliamentary Group on Sudan was pleased to host the launch of such on important report. The format of the meeting would be as follows: the first three speakers would present their respective sections of the report, brief comments from the discussant would follow, and this would lead straight into an open question and answer session.

Margie Buchanan-Smith, Independent Consultant

  1. Ms. Buchanan-Smith said that she would briefly introduce the study before handing over to Sara Pantuliano and Paul Murphy who would talk about return and reintegration issues in relation to Juba and Jonglei State respectively. She began by reminding the audience of the political context in Sudan.

  1. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) ended more than two decades of war. It heralded a time of great opportunity, but also of tremendous uncertainty for the millions of people seeking to return and reintegrate. In Southern Sudan, the new government faces enormous challenges to establish itself and reverse years of underdevelopment. The huge transition it is overseeing would pose major challenges for even established governments, let alone one that is building institutions from scratch. In the Three Areas, and particularly in Southern Kordofan, there is a very uneasy power-sharing relationship between the SPLM and the National Congress Party. Here again, government institutions are struggling and finding it difficult to deal with some of the root causes of the conflict. The CPA remains therefore a very fragile agreement and the fact that it has held for three years must be regarded as a major achievement. The process of reintegration of returnees is central to whether the agreement continues to hold.

  1. In terms of the return and reintegration process itself, Sudan is said to have hosted the largest IPD population in the world (up to 4 million people during the north-south civil war). With the signing of the CPA, more than a million people have started to return to Southern Sudan and the Three Areas and this has resulted in huge social and economic impacts – particularly because of the impoverished post-war environment. It is also worth noting that in April 2008 there was a census carried out across Sudan which is critical in light of planned elections next year. For this reason there was a real political incentive to encourage return, particularly to the South.

  1. Ms Buchanan-Smith then went on to outline the study itself which was initiated by UNMIS to inform future strategic planning on how to support return and reintegration. The first phase (May 2007) focused on two states with high levels of return (Southern Kordofan and Northern Bahr El Ghazal), predominantly into rural areas. The second phase (Feb 2008) focused on 2 areas with particular issues: Juba town, which is experiencing massive urban reintegration, and Jonglei, which is experiencing different levels of conflict. Reintegration is still quite poorly understood as a concept and is defined in many different ways by various agencies. The study took at holistic approach using the livelihoods framework as a methodology for the analysis. This allowed the authors to look at reintegration from many different angles including social and economic factors, land issues, institutions and leadership.

  1. The push and pull factors which were effecting people’s decisions to return were captured in the study. Push factors included: poor infrastructure and unemployment (especially in Khartoum). In terms of pull factors, there was the desire to ‘be back home’ and to be part of the process of rebuilding what had now become a potentially peaceful part of Sudan. The pace of return increased dramatically in 2007 and 2008; the ‘organised’ return process kicked in at this time. This should not hide the fact that by far the majority of movement was actually ‘spontaneous’ – people making their own arrangements to go back home. Even though the organised return process was rather high profile, it actually only assisted about 2% of total returnees.

  1. The particular strategies of return were also examined and it was noted that in many cases families would split up – some staying in Khartoum or in neighbouring countries where education was better and some making their way to South Sudan.

  1. The pressure of the returns process was huge. Some villages more than doubled in size in a context of limited infrastructure and poor livelihoods opportunities. On the implications of assistance to return, one of interesting things picked up by the study was the way in which organised return had completely overshadowed support to spontaneous return , especially in terms of reintegration. What is more, the pressure of reintegration once returnees had ‘settled’ seemed to be a silent issue. Local communities would welcome back and absorb returnees but the pressures remained.

  1. Various assistance policies were put in place to support the return and reintegration process but different agencies focused on different things – some would emphasise protection, others would emphasise services. This was due to the lack of a strategic and holistic framework to facilitate support to returnees. Many agencies also found it difficult to move beyond the humanitarian paradigm which had driven their assistance for almost 20 years, to adopting a recovery or development focus. Different pooled funding mechanisms have been put in place to aid the returns process but they have been slow to deliver and have struggled with dilemma of whether to support the capacity of government or to deliver according to need.

  1. Though the study is critical of many of the ways in which international assistance is being provided there are good practice examples – particularly at community level. Future assistance to reintegration should take the following into account:

  • Security issues have to be addressed as a matter of priority
  • Reintegration support must be part of an area-based recovery strategy in rural areas;
  • Addressing land issues should be a central component of assistance strategies
  • The role of local government is key to successful reintegration and demands rapid progress in establishing and/ or reforming local government structures
  • Adequate access to services is critical to successful reintegration
  • The ‘usual’ pooled funding structures post-peace agreement need to be reformed
  • Have we created overly complicated institutional structures?

Sara Pantuliano, Programme Leader and Research Fellow, Overseas Development Institute

  1. Dr. Pantuliano began her presentation by explaining that Juba was a garrison town for much of the war so it had a very different experience than other parts of southern Sudan. Today, Juba is a much larger town offering a number of economic and social opportunities and it is also a very important political centre. The systems and process to make the returns process a success are far from adequate however, especially since the population has more than doubled.

  1. She went on to talk specifically about social reintegration and said that in some areas it is more appropriate to talk in terms of integration since a lot of people who arrive in Juba have not previously lived there. The difference in ethnic background and varying language abilities of those who return (particularly non-Arabic speakers) has resulted in a difficult dynamic and a stratification or hierarchy among returnees which impacts on access to basic services. The youth have also returned with different behaviours and have more liberal attitudes. There are, of course, positives aspects of return including families being reunited and returnees bringing new skills learned in different areas.

  1. It should be noted that the burden of reintegration tends to fall on the host community. Some compounds host up to 30 distant relatives at one time which puts pressure on food and water. This is usually because of lack of access to land in Juba. The presence of a large number of soldiers in the area also makes Juba a place where high levels of violence and intimidation, which creates general insecurity.

  1. From an economic standpoint, one sees a rapidly growing economy but the market is saturated with unskilled workers and this has resulted in decreasing wages. Returnees with skills have also found it difficult to find work for a number of reason: the certificates which attest their education are often not recognised or they lack the required identification cards; there are real issues around nepotism and corruption; there is stringent criteria around accessing micro-credit which prevent access to credit for recently arrived returnees; vocational training opportunities are limited; opportunities for employment in the public sector are restricted by a number of different factors; and the prospects of working in the private sector are hampered by the prevalence of ‘cowboy capitalism’ – companies with very temporary set ups who do not seem to show any real sense of investment in the area – and competition by East African workers.

  1. The issue of services is particularly important in Juba and this is worth reiterating because of the assumption that the area is ‘okay’ compared to other parts of the Southern Sudan. The huge population expansion has led to a deterioration of many services, particularly health and education. Leadership is another significant issue because the tribal leadership in Juba town is generally not trusted by the Government of Southern Sudan. This has led to cleavages between different levels of leadership.

  1. Land in Juba, as well as in other areas, has proven to be the cornerstone of reintegration, since a shortage of land prevents meaningful reintegration. Issues around land can be split into 4 different categories:

  • Land and property disputes: which include IDP occupation of abandoned property; plots being forcibly occupied by military or the powerful; multiple issuing of leases for one plot; unauthorised building on plots; illegal sale of land; and long term occupancy without registration.
  • Town planning (and evictions): master plans have been developed by USAID and JICA but with little engagement with the local community, which has caused problems in terms of implementation of the plans for infrastructure development.
  • Dispute resolution: ahybrid system, with the role of chiefs often contested.
  • Legislative vacuum

  1. These challenges underlie how crucial the next few years will be for the stability of Juba. The issue is less about reintegration and more about how to support a rapid and organic process of urbanisation. The GoSS must start seeing urban growth as inevitable and focus on managing the process with the support of the international community. As the Head of UNMIS in Southern Sudan said: ‘there is a real opportunity to make a difference here, but it needs serious investment’.

Paul Murphy, Head of Europe Programme, Saferworld

  1. Mr. Murphy spoke specifically about the issues in Jonglei State. He reminded the meeting that Jonglei, situated in South-Eastern Sudan, is of comparable size to England. The state is home to a large number of ethnic groups. It was the starting point for Sudan’s second civil war in 1983, and was subsequently the locus of the fiercest South-South fighting (particularly between Dinka and Nuer). Communications, linkages, and infrastructure are poor which, when combined with its large size, makes it an almost impossible area to govern effectively.

  1. He stressed the complexity of movements that took place when people were displaced - to areas within Sudan and to neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, and underscored that the return process to date was similarly complex.

  1. Mr. Murphy said that he would focus on three key themes that returnees and resident populations identified as areas of paramount concern: 1) physical security (of particular relevance to Jonglei State and a reason for its inclusion in this study); 2) inadequate quality or quantity of basic social services; and 3) livelihoods. He argued that the current context presents an exceptional challenge to regional government and international assistance and that to date the response has been inadequate.   

  1. Social factors governing the integration process have often been overlooked despite their significant influence. In Jonglei, these have been defined by the coming together of different mentalities and experiences (urban–rural); age and gender profiles; and other factors such as language, dress, courtship and worship. Social mixing can be positive for the return process but it often creates tensions at a time when people are already under stress. Less spoken about but no less important are the underlying legacies of war. There is a recognition that a process of healing and reconciliation around these issues needs to take place if the foundations for the reintegration process are to be firm. 

  1. Security remains the first fundamental challenge to successful integration. The security situation has improved since the signing of the CPA but not to a point conducive to returns. Information about insecurity is fed back to families outside of Jonglei State and affects the decision to return. The causes of insecurity are many and complex and establishing the rule of law will take time. There was a high degree of consensus that two issues were of particular importance: 1) the control of small arms at community level and 2) reconciliation and regulation between specific inter-ethnic relationships.

  1. Access to services is the second major concern affecting the return and reintegration process and is seen by returnees as a benchmark for peace and confidence in the future. Although efforts to improve the situation are being made, the following points apply:

  • The modest increase in services is outstripped by the returning population (who often have higher expectations than residents).
  • Returnee profiles are very young (IOM say 60% between 5-17) which places particular stress on child services leading to further movements, as women move their children to different environments in search of services.
  • There is a huge tension between investing in the institutions to deliver the services and service delivery itself, yet both are needed at the same time to develop capacity and create sense of stability and progress.  

  1. Livelihood issues make up the third major concern. In Jonglei State there are some small market settlements but the vast majority of people are engaging in rural livelihoods. Mr. Murphy outlined a couple of key factors affecting the returns experience to rural areas: 1) although land is available, it takes significant investments of time and inputs to create a productive plot; 2) The variation in skills exhibited by returnees is large with some lacking any knowledge of farming techniques. In urban environments, such as Bor market, there had been a major transformation of markets and entrepreneurs are active. However, unregulated markets and incomplete social integration has led to inequalities and tensions between residents and returnees and huge efforts are required to ensure that the transformations taking place lead to cooperation and integration.

  1. In conclusion Mr. Murphy pointed out that 2 million returns is impressive but that behind the statistic there are both positive stories of integration and homecoming and extremely painful stories that raise great concern for the future. Underlying trends in the return process can be seen to expose persistent and developing cleavages that could lead to post-CPA crises, especially in the context of weak institutions.

Wendy Fenton, Independent Consultant

  1. Ms. Fenton began by urging all present to read the full report which she said contains a wealth of valuable information and analysis, and stressed that she would be brief in her comments to allow more time for discussion.

  1. The authorities in Sudan and the international community have been distracted by a focus on numbers and have therefore overlooked important factors affecting integration. Numbers are important as they give an idea of magnitude but they overlook social facts and livelihood strategies that mean returnees are likely to continue to move within Sudan for some time to come. A key challenge is therefore to look at the reality on the ground and ask what can be done to support the reintegration process.

  1. The political and development tradeoffs have been mismanaged despite the clear political push and pull factors from which no stakeholder is immune. An imperative to promote returns has been the dominant paradigm, overshadowing the fact that the South may not always be ready to receive them. Temporal expectations need to be recalculated.

  1. Insecurity, the strengthening of rural and urban livelihoods, basic services, land, as well as other issues brought to the fore in this report all need to play important roles in the reorientation of strategy around returns to South Sudan and the Three Areas.

Question and Answers

Baroness Cox

  1. Baroness Cox remarked that her charity the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART) has found similar issues in the areas in which it works, namely Bahr el Ghazal, Equatoria, Eastern Upper Nile and Southern Kordofan. The biggest threat is security whilst access to basic health services such as immunisation programs is very limited. She agreed with the panellists that the challenges ahead are very great before turning to the floor. 

The following issues/questions and responses arose in the floor discussion.

  1. The role of NGOs and community based organisationsin returns and reintegration. The panellists responded that community based organisations and NGOs are playing a very strong role. In Southern Kordofan some of the most intelligent and innovative programming has come from local NGOs because of their proximity to the communities and their knowledge of the context. In general, they have focused less on the returns process and more on supporting communities locally but the way that the international community has channelled its support has meant that these organisations remain isolated. There is a need to strengthen these parties – either through the NGO sector or through bilateral assistance to a Government which has proved a relatively efficient interlocutor in Southern Sudan. Examples from the disarmament experience in Jonglei State were also offered in support of these views.

  1. State sponsored disruption of the referendum. Panellists said that it was not possible to say whether the referendum will be disrupted by any party. They noted that it will first be interesting to see what happens with the dissemination of the census results, and the elections, before understanding what could happen with the referendum.

  1. Patterns of returns and reintegration in urban and regional environments. Juba can be seen as an extreme example of what is happening in many towns across the South: the struggle to deal with an expanded population without commensurate improvements in infrastructure and services. It was noted that some of the processes currently at play in the South will resonate in Darfur in the years to come.

  1. Systemic corruption in South Sudan. Juba is not necessarily uncharacteristic of post conflict situations. Although panellists could not comment on how systemic corruption is in the area, they acknowledged that if it is allowed to continue unchecked there is a danger that the problem could become serious.

  1. International leadership and coordination. There has been a clear lack of leadership on the side of the international community despite a UN peacekeeping mission with a large section specifically mandated to provide leadership to the international community and support to the national government. This problem must urgently be recognised as to put a strategy in place requires the capacity to implement it. The Mission developed its strategy after the first report from the HPG but has not acted effectively to implement the recommendations. The Government has shown to be more proactive and the authors have been invited to Juba to lead workshops with the different ministries at Central Equatorial level and Government of South Sudan level. The objective of these sessions will be to help figure out ways of implementing the recommendations in the report. Meanwhile, UNMIS continues to provide limited international leadership or support to national structures with regard to the reintegration process.


Sudan’s peace agreement is approaching its most testing time. As up to two million displaced people attempt to re-settle in areas that are impoverished and ill-prepared, a number of colossal challenges present themselves. Action is urgently needed to address massive and rapid urbanisation, encourage civilians to disarm and provide opportunities for the sustainable use of natural resources, including land in urban areas. Infrastructure and markets need to be developed and equitable access to essential services must be put in place.

This ODI meeting, hosted by the Associate Parliamentary Group on Sudan, will launch the second phase of a study by the Humanitarian Policy Group on reintegration in Southern Sudan and the Three Areas. The authors, Sara Pantuliano, Margie Buchanan-Smith and Paul Murphy, will outline the key obstacles faced by returnees and the strategies that must be put in place to support one of the world's largest return and reintegration processes. Wendy Fenton, an independent consultant with over twenty years experience working in Sudan, will act as a discussant at this event.

Committee Room 12