A ‘children’s refugee crisis’: the devastating conflict in South Sudan

The world’s newest country, South Sudan, has been embroiled in a civil war for over four years. This has given rise to the largest refugee crisis in Africa, as millions of citizens have fled brutal violence and acute food insecurity.


The UN estimates that one-third of South Sudan’s pre-war population of 12 million has been displaced since fighting broke out in December 2013. While around half of the displaced have crossed borders into neighbouring countries and beyond, approximately 2 million are internally displaced and face severe food shortagesTwo-thirds of South Sudanese refugees are children.


What are the causes of this conflict that has uprooted so many individuals in South Sudan, and what is being done to end the fighting?

The history of South Sudan has been punctuated by instances of violent conflict. After securing independence from an Anglo-Egyptian occupation in 1956, the new Sudanese Republic descended into a 17-year civil war between northern and southern groups. A ceasefire was agreed in 1972, but fighting resumed in 1983 and continued until 2005 – making it the continent’s longest-running civil war.


The North/South Comprehensive Peace Agreement, signed in 2005, led to the formation of the Autonomous Government of South Sudan and provided for an independence referendum to be held in 2011. The vote finally delivered secession from the Sudanese Republic, and South Sudan became the world’s youngest nation – only for the present civil war to take hold, within the new republic, in 2013.


What sparked the present civil conflict?

In December 2013, President Salva Kiir (an ethnic Dinka, the country’s tribal majority) sacked Vice-President Reik Machar (an ethnic Nuer, the largest minority group) and his entire cabinet to prevent a suspected coup, sparking an outbreak of violence. Machar fled the capital city to lead the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition against the government.


What began as a political feud has since become a protracted conflict, in which the warring parties’ leaders have manipulated tribal and ethnic divisions in their pursuit of power.


One attack in 2014 perpetrated by Vice-President Machar’s forces claimed the lives of over 400 civilians who had gathered in churches and mosques to escape the fighting. Local radio stations were reported to have encouraged the rape and murder of any government-supporting civilians. Government forces have also been accused of ‘tacitly encouraging ethnic cleansing.’


However, the conflict cannot be presented as a “a simple, binary competition between the Government and SPLM/A in Opposition and their respective tribal bases.” It is a multifaceted war, in which identities have been exploited and now serve as a cloak for resource competition, unaddressed grievances, and shifting political allegiances.



A ‘chaotic’ humanitarian crisis

The deteriorating political and humanitarian situation has created and exacerbated rivalries among other groups, of which there are more than 60, aside from the central Dinka-Nuer narrative. In December 2017, violence spread to the northern state of Western Lakes, where 45 people were killed in fighting between Ruop and Pakam tribe members. Even within the dominant Dinka and Nuer groups, factional infighting has claimed victims.


‘Things have grown so chaotic that many of the civilians fleeing to the U.N. base aren’t sure who is doing the killing anymore,’ wrote Foreign Policy reporter, Cassandra Vinograd, in 2017. The acute risks in South Sudan are highlighted by its citizens’ willingness to seek sanctuary in unstable regions such as Darfur, and to cross the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo, a state in the midst of its own conflict.


Over a million South Sudanese refugees fled to Uganda in just a year (July 2016-2017), a country that has received well-deserved international praise for its progressive asylum policies. However, there remains an urgent funding shortfall that must be redressed by the international community – both within and outside South Sudan.


For the 2 million individuals who are internally displaced, conditions are more dangerous. Still at risk of becoming targets in the sprawling conflict, those within South Sudan are also facing an acute shortage of food. In October 2017, The Economist reported that over half the remaining population is going hungry, and that a full-scale famine was narrowly avoided by the arrival of food aid. Health threats such as cholera and malaria are spreading quickly in the absence of adequate medical resources.


Protection of civilians: an urgent requirement

The UN’s Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has been present since 2011, though their priorities have changed from post-secession peace building to the protection of civilians in the present conflict. The 14, 000-strong peacekeeping force faced initial criticism for their failures to secure civilian safety – including for those staying at UN Protection of Civilians sites – but much has been done over the past year toshore up their protective capacity. Yet the mission remains some way short of its required funding goal of US$880 million: only a third of the target has been raised to carry out distribution of essential aid in the country.


In December 2017, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi made an urgent appeal. ‘The world cannot continue to stand by as the people of South Sudan are terrorized by a senseless war,’ he said. Grandi referred to the conflict as a ‘children’s refugee crisis’ due to the high proportion of child refugees created by the war.


Though international leaders have slowly begun to recognise the severity of the crisis on South Sudan (the US announced an official ban on arms sales to the country in early 2018), the conflict continues to rage. Beyond the obvious need for a solution to the violence, the victims of the conflict – both in South Sudan and those who have fled across borders – are in urgent need of assistance.


This piece was written by freelance journalist, Nick Jeyarajah.