South Sudan: Treatment of failed refugee claimants returned to South Sudan (2013 - November 2016) [SSD105665.E]

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa

1. Overview

In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a former research specialist on Sudan who has worked for the Congressional Research Service [1] stated that over the past few decades, more than one million South Sudanese people were internally displaced or refugees (Former specialist 7 Nov. 2016). The same source noted that after the signing of the peace agreement, many South Sudanese refugees returned to South Sudan from neighbouring countries, such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda and others returned to join the government (ibid.). The UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) news agency reported in July 2013 that, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 to end a decades-long civil war between Khartoum and southern rebels, at least 2.5 million people returned from Sudan to South Sudan (UN 15 July 2013). The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) [2] cites the IOM as stating that between 2007 and July 2014, approximately 2 million South Sudanese people returned to their country of origin, most of which were voluntary returns (IDMC 9 July 2014, 9).

Sources report that a civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013 (IDMC 9 July 2014, 1; RI 12 Mar. 2015, 4), leading to the displacement of about 2 million people, as reported in March 2015 (ibid., 3). According to UNHCR figures, as of 15 October 2016, there were 1.61 million South Sudanese IDPs and approximately 1.18 million South Sudanese people who became refugees in other countries (UN 15 Oct. 2016, 1).

Refugees International (RI), an independent Washington-based advocacy organization that "accept[s] no government or UN funding" and that "advocates for lifesaving protection and assistance for displaced people and promotes solutions to displacement crises" (RI n.d.), states in a field report from March 2015 that populations of South Sudanese in the north "have been pushed to the brink of starvation" (ibid. 12 Mar. 2015, 3). According to an April 2015 report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 2.5 million people in South Sudan were reported to be "facing crisis [or] emergency levels of food insecurity" since January 2015 (UN 3 Apr. 2015). A nutrition analysis included in the UN's South Sudan Humanitarian Response Plan 2015 states that the malnutrition situation is classified as critical or very critical in over half the country (UN 1 Dec. 2014, 17). According to a report by South Sudan submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in August 2016, some of the areas most affected by food gaps as a result of the civil war are Jonglei state (595,000 IDPs), Unity state (437,600 IDPs), and Upper Nile state (244,900 IDPs), among others (South Sudan 23 Aug. 2016, para. 62).

The UNHCR's 14 April 2015 Position on Returns to South Sudan document states that "[t]he security, rule of law and human rights situation pertaining today in South Sudan … stands in the way of safe and dignified return for any person originating from South Sudan," and for these reasons, the UNHCR recommends that states "suspend forcible returns" to the country (United Nations 14 April 2015, para. 9).

2. Treatment of Failed Refugee Claimants

In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a Senior Fellow at Harvard University's Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, who is also a professor of English at Smith College, has written books and articles about Darfur and Sudan, and describes himself as being involved in "research, analysis, and advocacy" on Sudan, indicated that he did not know of any cases of returns to South Sudan; however, he gave the opinion that the manner in which South Sudanese authorities would treat a person who was known or suspected of being a failed refugee claimant in the West upon return to Sudan "depends almost entirely on the political profile of the person returning; merely seeking asylum is unlikely to be known or a cause in itself for persecution or punishment" (Senior Fellow 30 Oct. 2016). The same source further stated that the factors affecting treatment would be whether the person has political affiliations with the government in Juba or the opposition (primarily the Sudan People's Liberation Army in Opposition) (ibid.). However, he also noted that the treatment of a person who returns to South Sudan from abroad is "contingent upon conditions" in the country, which is "highly unstable" and subject to change (ibid.).

In correspondence with the Research Directorate, the Director of the Nairobi office of Crisis Action [3], who provided his individual viewpoint and not necessarily the viewpoint of Crisis Action, gave the opinion, concerning returnees, that "[n]ot everyone would be monitored and detained, but activists, human rights defenders, politicians, etc. would be heavily scrutinized" (Director 14 Nov. 2016). The same source did not have knowledge of specific cases, however, he stated that people who are known or suspected of being failed refugee claimants who return to South Sudan

might face some harassment from authorities depending on who they are, and the nature of the asylum claim . . . If they are alleging risk of being tortured by the South Sudanese government, for example, there is a high risk that would carry repercussions if the authorities in South Sudan were made aware. (ibid.).

Concerning factors that influence the treatment of returnees, the Director indicated that men tend to be scrutinized more than women, and that "there are huge ethnic tensions at the moment. Nuer would be scrutinized more than most upon return, as well as [people from] some areas that are perceived to be harboring SPLM-IO [Sudan People's Liberation Movement - In Opposition] sympathizers” (ibid.).

Examples of specific cases of individuals who were failed refugee claimants who were returned to South Sudan could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

The former specialist knew of a case in which a spokesperson of the rebel faction of the SPLM-IO, who had refugee status in Kenya and a US Green Card, was deported to South Sudan because the Kenyan authorities stated that they "do not want to allow people to use their country for violent purposes" (Former specialist 7 Nov. 2016). Without providing details, the same source indicated that security forces questioned the spokesperson and "it is possible he might be freed" (ibid.). Further and corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

3. Situation of Returnees

According to sources, South Sudan's transitional constitution includes rights to freedom of movement (Freedom House 2016; US 13 Apr. 2016, 25) and repatriation (ibid.). The US Department of State's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015 states that

[t]he 2012 Cooperation Agreements signed by the governments of Sudan and South Sudan cover security, economic, and other matters, including an agreement to protect freedoms of residence, movement, economic activity, and property ownership for citizens of both countries residing in Sudan or South Sudan. Although the negotiating parties made progress in October in Addis Ababa on border issues, the governments failed to make substantial progress during the year on aspects of the agreement relating to each other's nationals. (ibid.)

IRIN reports that some returnees who returned to their home areas in 2013 found new owners had taken over their farms and some others lacked the required documentation to resettle on their land (UN 15 July 2013). IRIN also quotes the South Sudan Country Director for the International Rescue Committee, which lobbies the government to improve the situation of returnees, as stating that South Sudan lacks a legal framework to resolve land allocation issues; resentment between returnees and host communities over resources in South Sudan has caused tensions and "'increase[s] the likelihood of conflict'" (ibid.). Freedom House similarly indicates that South Sudan has "unclear or non-existent laws" related to land use and ownership, and that land issues are "frequent causes of conflict in South Sudan, and returning refugees have exacerbated the problem" (Freedom House 2016).

IRIN cites a representative of the IOM as indicating that the Upper Nile region hosts some of the largest populations of returnees, refugees and IDPs (UN 2 May 2013). The same article indicates that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) stated that South Sudanese returnees from Sudan "often lack […] skills, experience and social networks" and that food security is poor due to demands on "social services, poverty, unemployment and a lack of productive assets" (ibid.).

According to the IDMC, returnees' choices of places to return is restricted, as urban land is expensive and rural land offered by the government to encourage returns is sometimes in unfamiliar areas where returnees do not have social networks, service provision, adequate transportation or communications infrastructure (IDMC 9 July 2014, 9). Sudan Tribune reports that approximately 3,750 people returned to Pibor, but faced "widespread" hunger in the area (Sudan Tribune 4 Aug. 2014).

3.1 Attacks Against Returnees

According to Sudan Tribune, armed youth attacked a boat carrying returnees from Juba to Bor, which killed 2 people and injured four others; the targets were primarily pastoralists returning to Bor from Jubek state (Sudan Tribune 2 Apr. 2016). The same source notes that there have been other attacks and that "lack of protection for returnees has been the main concern for pastoralists" (ibid.).

Sudan Tribune also reports that in Khartoum-Jadid, a new residential area on the outskirts of Rumbek town in the Lake State that was given to returnees from Khartoum, female returnees have been targeted and subjected to rape and looting of property by armed gunmen at night (ibid.6 Dec. 2015).

On 9 September 2016, Radio Dabanga reported that about 74,000 residents of Abyei, a border area between Sudan and South Sudan, returned to the eastern areas of Abyei due to improved security, education, health, water and services (Radio Dabanga 9 Sept. 2016). The same source indicates that there is "relative stability" in the area but that "there remain small armed groups that storm markets and terrorise citizens" (ibid.).

Corroborating information for these examples could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

4. Support Services

According to the IDMC, South Sudanese authorities "made efforts to provide relief and engagement in the return process before the current crisis, but a lack of comprehensive data and understanding of displacement hampered an effective response" (IDMC 9 July 2014, 9). Freedom House states that South Sudanese authorities have encouraged the return of displaced people but "has largely failed to provide them with even the most basic assistance" (Freedom House 2016). IRIN similarly reports that returnees face "poor or non-existent services and a variety of reintegration challenges" (UN 15 July 2013).

According to the field report by RI, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has bases which have been approached by civilians seeking protection since December 2013 (RI 12 Mar. 2015, 7). The same 2015 publication reports that about 110,000 IDPs were receiving temporary shelter on 6 UNMISS bases, mainly located in Bentiu (52,000 IDPs), Juba (34,000), and Malakal (21,000) (ibid.). Country Reports 2015 noted that IDPs remained on the UNMISS sites "due to fear of retaliatory and ethnically targeted violence by armed groups, both government and opposition affiliated" (US 13 Apr. 2016, 25).

In an August 2016 report to the UN Human Rights Council, South Sudanese authorities indicate that they have taken short-term and long-term measures to address food security (South Sudan 23 Aug. 2016, para. 62). In the short-term, the government of South Sudan has distributed 11,000 metric tons of sorghum (dura) to areas particularly affected by the civil war (ibid.). In the long-term, they have provided farming equipment, supplies and training to farmers (ibid., para. 65). However, South Sudanese authorities note that despite these efforts, the majority of the population lives below the poverty line due to draught, insecurity and high levels of youth unemployment (ibid., para. 64). According to the same source, women and children from conflict-affected areas and returnees are the groups most affected by food insecurity (ibid.).

In a 2016 report on the mental health impact of South Sudan's conflict, Amnesty International (AI) states that "[d]espite significant and widespread needs, the availability and accessibility of mental health and psychosocial support services in South Sudan is extremely limited," noting that there are only two practising psychiatrists in South Sudan and only one public hospital that provides psychiatric care, all of which are located in Juba (AI Jan. 2016, 8). Corroborating information could not be found among the sources consulted by the Research Directorate within the time constraints of this Response.

RI explains that there is a joint humanitarian air operation that delivers aid to remote areas through the "rapid response mechanism (RRM)," comprised of approximately 30 organizations including UNICEF, WFP and other UN agencies and NGOs (RI 12 Mar. 2015, 5). The same source notes that some populations receive aid monthly, others less frequently, and some not at all (ibid.). According to the UNHCR's Regional Emergency Update on South Sudan, as of 15 October 2016, the UNHCR had received 24 percent of the 649 million dollars funding that they requested for their programs in South Sudan (UN 15 Oct. 2016, 1).

Country Reports 2015 states that South Sudanese authorities "sometimes obstructed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations seeking to provide protection and assistance to IDPs and refugees" (US 13 Apr. 2016, 25).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


[1] This source formerly worked as a Specialist on African Affairs for the Congressional Research Service between 1989 and 2012, where he wrote numerous reports on Sudan and South Sudan (Former specialist 7 Nov. 2016). He also worked as the UN Senior Adviser to the President of South Sudan between 2012 and 2013, lived in South Sudan from January 2012 to June 2013, and travels to South Sudan regularly (ibid.). The source is further the Founder and CEO of the non-profit foundation African Refugees and Victims Relief Fund (ibid.).

[2] IDMC is a global monitoring and analysis organization that seeks to "inform and influence policy and action;" it is part of the Norwegian Refugee Council, an independent, non-governmental humanitarian NGO (IDMC n.d.).

[3] Crisis Action is an international organization with offices in Brussels, Johannesburg, London, MENA, Nairobi, New York, Paris and Washington, DC that "works with individuals and organisations from global civil society to protect civilians from armed conflict" (Crisis Action n.d.). It describes itself as a "catalyst and convenor of joint action whose work behind the scenes enables coalitions to work quickly and effectively" and that the organization's "only agenda is the protection of civilians" (ibid.). The Director of the Nairobi office has conducted research and advocacy activities to promote human rights and rule of law in South Sudan (Director 14 Nov. 2016).


Amnesty International (AI). January 2016. 'Our Hearts Have Gone Dark.' The Mental Health Impact of South Sudan's Conflict. [Accessed 18 Nov. 2016]

Crisis Action. N.d. "About." [Accessed 5 Dec. 2016]

Director of the Nairobi Office, Crisis Action. 14 November 2016. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Former specialist. 7 November 2016. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Freedom House. 2016. "South Sudan." Freedom in the World 2016. [Accessed 17 Nov. 2016]

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). 9 July 2014. "South Sudan: Greater Humanitarian and Development Efforts Needed to Meet IDPs' Growing Needs." [Accessed 2 Nov. 2016]

Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). N.d. "About IDMC." [Accessed 16 Nov. 2016]

Radio Dabanga. 9 September 2016. "74,000 Residents Return to Secure Abyei Areas - South Sudan." (Factiva)

Refugees International (RI). 12 March 2015. Michael Boyce and Mark Yarnell. Field Report - South Sudan: A Nation Uprooted. [Accessed 4 Nov. 2016]

Refugees International (RI). N.d. "Our Work." [Accessed 16 Nov. 2016]

Senior Fellow, Harvard University's Francois-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights. 30 October 2016. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

South Sudan. 23 August 2016. United Nations Human Rights Council. National Report Submitted in Accordance with Paragraph 5 of the Annex to Human Rights Council Resolution 16/21. (A/HRC/WG.6/26/SSD/1) [Accessed 4 Nov. 2016]

Sudan Tribune. 2 April 2016. "Two Killed, 4 Injured on Another Juba-Bor Boat Attack." (Factiva)

Sudan Tribune. 6 December 2015. "Returnees from Khartoum Live in Fear of Rape in Rumbek." (Factiva)

Sudan Tribune. 4 August 2014. "Pibor Returnees Facing Critical Food Shortages Across Region." (Factiva)

United Nations (UN). 15 October 2016. UNHCR. South Sudan Situation: Regional Emergency Update. 1-15 October 2016. [Accessed 6 Dec. 2016]

United Nations (UN). 14 April 2015. UNHCR. UNHCR Position on Returns to South Sudan - Update I. [Accessed 10 Nov. 2016]

United Nations (UN). 3 April 2015. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). South Sudan: Crisis - Situation Report No. 81 (as of April 2015). [Accessed 6 Dec. 2016]

United Nations (UN). 1 December 2014. Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). South Sudan 2015 Humanitarian Response Plan. [Accessed 6 Dec. 2016]

United Nations (UN). 15 July 2013. Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN). "New Returnees in South Sudan Living on the Margins." [Accessed 3 Nov. 2016]

United Nations (UN). 2 May 2013. Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN). "Conflict and Returnees Strain South Sudan Food Security." [Accessed 3 Nov. 2016]

United States (US). 13 April 2016. "South Sudan." Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2015. [Accessed 4 Nov. 2016]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral Sources: African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies; Canada – Canadian Border Services Agency, Embassy of Canada in Nairobi, Global Affairs Canada; Center for Civilians in Conflict; Feinstein International Center, Tufts University; Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre; International Organization for Migration – South Sudan; Professor, Fletcher School of International Affairs, Tufts University; United Nations – Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees.

Internet sites, including: African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies; Center for Civilians in Conflict;; Factiva; Human Rights Watch; Institute for War and Peace Reporting; International Crisis Group; International Organization for Migration – South Sudan; UN – Refworld.