Displacement in South Sudan: Beyond the Crisis in Juba

In recent weeks, the crisis facing the people of South Sudan has only worsened. Throughout the county, 1.61 million people are internally displaced, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and another 751,000 people have escaped into neighboring countries, including Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, since conflict broke out in 2013. 

In early July, fighting concentrated in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, forced as many as 36,000 citizens to flee their homes. Although some of these displaced people have returned, the humanitarian situation in Juba remains serious. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), roughly 12,800 people remain internally displaced, including 10,140 people who are living inside bases of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Although both South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir and former First Vice President Riek Machar called for an end to the renewed violence in Juba, political chaos continues to plague the country – most recently due to President Kiir’s decision to replace Vice President Machar with Taban Deng Gai, the former minister of mining. 

With the renewed fighting comes increasing and urgent need for basic humanitarian assistance. According to Oxfam, before the recent fighting in Juba, 87 percent of South Sudanese did not have access to improved sanitation, while only 47 percent had access to safe drinking water. These statistics reveal that even before the violence reignited, citizens were endangered not only due to physical violence, but also as a result of the conflict’s secondary effects. According to OCHA, less than 40 percent of the $125 million needed to meet the nutritional needs of South Sudanese has been provided, with an even greater gap in funding for water, sanitation, and hygiene. Currently UNHCR's operations in the country are only funded at 17 percent. 

These statistics shed light on the overall lack of humanitarian resources available to South Sudan as a result of underfunding – a problem that is compounded by the South Sudanese government’s own obstruction of emergency response efforts. These facts beg the question: Why has the everyday suffering of South Sudanese not received a proportionate amount of global attention, even prior to the renewed fighting in Juba, compared to other current crises elsewhere in the world? 

I believe one of the main reasons why the international community fails to focus on the South Sudan crisis is the nature of the civilian deaths: the majority of South Sudanese caught in the conflict die from starvation and disease rather than from direct physical violence. A food crisis in the country continues, with food prices reaching record highs. Likewise, nearly three million people within the country suffer from extreme hunger and desperately need emergency food assistance. If South Sudanese citizens are not provided with access to basic food and healthcare, mortality will continue to rise and the crisis will continue unabated - the result of underlying structural corruption, elitism, and ethnic patronage that promotes the continuation of conflict.

 In the course of covering conflicts – especially complex ones - the media tends to highlight civilian deaths that result from fighting, rather than reporting on the deeper root causes and outcomes of the conflicts. While deteriorating conditions in Juba have attracted the larger share of media and in turn public attention, other more desperate areas of the country receive very little coverage, especially as the conflict continues to drag on. In my view, journalists should report all aspects of the South Sudan conflict, examining the plight of all internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, not just those fleeing the capital. However, in my opinion, Juba receives greater attention in large part because of its location in the center of the country, where much of the political control, wealth, and power is concentrated. 

Other factors may also contribute to the lack of attention to the South Sudan crisis - not the least of which is the the complexity of the conflict itself. Journalists face an ongoing challenge in reporting and explaining the South Sudan conflict to policymakers and the general public outside of the country. The current crisis in South Sudan is linked to the country’s complex history, including numerous civil wars and political factions and rivalries. No single “correct” narrative prevails, nor is there a simple synthesis of the conflict that divides the actors in the violence into two distinct sides. In this way, it becomes much more difficult for journalists and advocates alike to explain the context of the South Sudanese conflict, never mind offer recommendations to address the associated refugee and IDP crises.

It is clear that increased support to the refugees and the internally displaced - along with reduction of violence - are critical to resolving the ongoing challenges facing the people of South Sudan. Although much of the world has set its sights on the mounting violence and escalation in Juba, it remains pivotal to remember that this crisis also affects numerous other neglected regions of the country. By acknowledging all areas and citizens impacted across South Sudan, we can help ensure that none of the Sudanese refugees and displaced people are overlooked or forgotten.

Tori Baskind is a former intern with Refugees International.