South Sudan: A Nation Uprooted

Since December 2013, conflict in South Sudan has forced 2 million people from their homes. In the north of the country, where fighting is most severe, populations have been pushed to the brink of starvation. Tragically, this war in South Sudan is unlikely to end anytime soon.

Donors and aid organizations have mobilized to deliver significant amounts of humanitarian aid, but logistical and security challenges continue to hamper the effectiveness of the response. Improvements can and must be made, both to better respond to people in need and to prepare for new waves of displacement within South Sudan and into neighboring countries like Ethiopia, the largest South Sudanese refugee hosting country. This is a critical moment, before the rainy season begins in earnest in May and logistical challenges become even more difficult. United Nations peacekeepers, armed with a new mandate that prioritizes civilian protection, can also take steps to better implement that mandate and keep people safe.


Fighting erupted in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, in December 2013 when troops loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar clashed with government soldiers aligned with President Salva Kiir. Conflict soon engulfed a large portion of the country, with the northeastern states of Upper Nile, Unity, and Jonglei among the hardest hit. Thousands of civilians on both sides have been targeted and killed. As of February 2015, the number of South Sudanese thought to be displaced by the conflict had reached 2 million, including 1.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) and roughly 500,000 refugees living in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan.

The majority of IDPs are living with host communities which are themselves impacted by decreasing food availability and disruptions to markets. According to the latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), most of the Greater Upper Nile region is classified at a “crisis” level, while six counties are at the “emergency” level, one phase below famine. 

In January 2015, a RI team traveled to South Sudan and met with aid workers who said they were deeply concerned about conditions worsening toward the end of the dry season (April/ May), a time when household food stocks are depleted and well before the next harvest. 

In some areas, fighting and displacement has prevented families from growing any food at all. Recounting a recent field assessment to Unity State, an aid worker told RI, “I met families who scavenged for water lilies. They told me, ‘If we find water lilies, we eat. If not, we go hungry.’” In addition, the conflict has forced the displacement of millions of livestock, with large numbers of cattle dying from disease. This is devastating for a large part of the population which relies on animals for food, livelihoods, and asset accumulation.

The leaders of South Sudan’s warring factions have been either unable or unwilling to bring the war to an end. But even if President Kiir and former Vice President Machar reach an agreement, the humanitarian fallout of the war will persist for some time. In addition, it is possible that in the event of an agreement, the parties themselves could fragment, creating lower-level conflicts that would continue to threaten civilians. Humanitarian agencies and the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) will therefore continue to play a role in protecting and assisting vulnerable South Sudanese, and donors must be prepared to support their efforts. 

Our Recommendations

South Sudan:

  • Donor governments must maintain strong financial support for emergency aid in South Sudan, particularly for logistics.
  • South Sudan’s government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in Opposition should cease practices that limit the reach and effectiveness of humanitarian assistance, especially the harassment and detention of humanitarian staff.
  • The United Nations Humanitarian Air Service should dedicate a small number of aircraft to the humanitarian rapid response mechanism (RRM), with the option to reassign those aircraft to other routes if they are not needed for the RRM.
  • The United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and humanitarians must base decisions relating to assistance in and access to Protection of Civilians (PoC) sites on a thorough, shared analysis of displaced people’s needs and the threats they face.
  • The Special Representative of the UN Secretary General should ask the South Sudanese government to authorize an extension of Juba’s PoC site, and donor governments should provide strong political and financial support for this extension.
  • UNMISS’s UN Police section should assign additional officers to community policing within the PoC sites, with a preference for officers who have experience in women’s or youth affairs.
  • UNMISS should continue to expand its PoC activities beyond its bases in consultation with humanitarian protection actors. To enable these activities, the international community must insist that South Sudanese authorities cease all actions that limit the movement of UNMISS staff and assets, while the UN should consistently pursue accountability for any failures by UNMISS personnel to protect civilians.


  • Donor governments must press the Ethiopian government to provide suitable land for newly arriving refugees, and to expand options for cross-border aid delivery into South Sudan.
  • Donor governments must increase support for education and vocational training opportunities for the large youth refugee population in Ethiopia.
  • Donors should encourage UNHCR to robustly implement its protection mandate in Ethiopia.

Michael Boyce and Mark Yarnell traveled to Ethiopia and South Sudan in January 2015 to assess the humanitarian response to refugees and internally displaced people, as well as the protection of civilians.