Deconstructing borders: Mobility strategies of South Sudanese refugees in northern Uganda

Sarah Vancluysen

Global Networks (2021)


Uganda currently hosts more than 880,000 South Sudanese refugees, mostly in its northern districts. Refugees are permitted to work and move freely, and consequently there is interaction with surrounding host communities. Refugees are also free to settle independently in urban areas or town centers, but given that settlement registration is a prerequisite for support, most South Sudanese remain in the rural settlements.

This paper explores the mobility of South Sudanese refugees in northern Uganda. The analysis is based on fieldwork undertaken by the author in 2018 and 2019 in Adjumani district, which hosts more than 200,000 refugees across 13 refugee settlements. The author interviewed refugees in Boroli settlement (home to 15,000 refugees, all new arrivals since 2013) and Alere settlement (home to around 6,700 refugees, including both new and old caseloads) as well as Adjumani town (home to many South Sudanese refugees that self-settled). Alongside the more recent arrivals, some old caseload refugees are settled in town and have registered themselves again as refugees during the recent influx. From town it is approximately 50 km to the Elegu-Nimule post on Uganda’s border with South Sudan.

Key findings:

  • Decisions to flee South Sudan are a function of multiple factors including: whether a person has a source of income in South Sudan, which may make them less likely to seek asylum in Uganda; whether a person is enrolled in education in South Sudan or Uganda; whether a person has children, who they may wish to relocate to a safer location in Uganda; the location of family members; personal preferences such as whether to stay in a rural area or town; and previous experiences of displacement.
  • The border delineating South Sudan and Uganda cuts through ethnic communities. Communities in northern Uganda and South Sudan share a long history of cross-border activities, dating back to pre-colonial times. For many South Sudanese it is not the first time living in asylum in Uganda, and so they can fall back on pre-existing social ties with co-nationals as well as host community members, based on shared ethnicity, trade or earlier experiences of displacement. There is also a large group of South Sudanese that grew up in the Adjumani settlements or town and so there is a high degree of de facto integration.
  • Refugee settlements are places of arrival, onward movement, temporary visits and voluntary return and figure as nodes in larger national, regional and international networks. There is a continuous flow of people between the settlements, rural villages and town centers in Uganda and South Sudan; and, to a lesser extent, third countries in Africa or elsewhere. The movements are both a continuation of pre-conflict movements as well as a response to new challenges caused by displacement.
  • Refugees travel between the rural settlements and urban areas, and also cross the border into South Sudan for short visits or extended stays. South Sudanese refugees in Uganda engage in two different forms of mobility: (1) many refugees are attracted by the living conditions and socio-economic opportunities available in towns near the refugee settlements, but commute to the refugee settlements at least once a month to maintain their registration and collect assistance on distribution days; and (2) there is also a relatively high degree of cross-border mobility between the northern Ugandan settlements and South Sudan, driven by diverse push and pull factors (e.g. better education, employment, marriage opportunities), with refugees crossing the border for short visits as well as extended stays.
  • Although neighboring town centers are sites of attraction, mobility also happens in the opposite direction. Life in a settlement, where food and a plot of land is provided, can be less costly and demanding than life in town.
  • Mobility happens in the form of many daily movements, including a lot of interactions with surrounding host community members who are coming and going, for example to sell their agricultural produce. For example, on days when aid is distributed in the settlements, Ugandans (as well as self-settled South Sudanese) from town come to the settlements to sell their products such as clothing, cooking utensils and cell phones.
  • A common strategy employed by (mostly) male South Sudanese is to leave their wife and children safely in Uganda and to remain in or return to South Sudan in search of work. This was also a common practice during the protracted civil war in Sudan (prior to South Sudan becoming an independent state), when refugees in Uganda described southern Sudan as an “extension of their socio-economic network, made possible by its accessibility”.
  • The border is also crossed to maintain social relationships and activities. Respondents mentioned trips to South Sudan to visit relatives (to take care of a parent, or attend funerals or celebrations), to seek treatment in formal health facilities or from traditional healers, and to enroll in secondary or university education in Juba or elsewhere. The other way around, those who are employed or are students in South Sudan spend holidays in the secure environment of the northern Ugandan settlements and towns, surrounded by family members. A less common reason to cross the border into South Sudan is to enact customs (marriage, customary conflict resolution). There is often a gendered pattern in the division of tasks, with men searching for employment and women settling in Uganda to take care of children or elderly family members.
  • For the majority of the South Sudanese in Adjumani, displacement remains the dominant form of mobility, with only exceptional movements during occasions of decease, illness or celebration.
  • In terms of durable solutions, return and local integration are not mutually exclusive possibilities. There are several possibilities along a spectrum from local integration to return, including the continued presence of family members in the host country. Patterns of a ‘split-return’ can vary according to a number of characteristics of a household, such as its size and gender composition, as well as the circumstances of return.

The author argues that for South Sudanese refugees, mobility and crossing borders can be empowering and gives them agency. While displacement to Uganda has been a life-rupturing event, refugees now engage in forms of mobility that are life sustaining, including for education, work or social events. Turning their households (and wider families) into transnational networks, with members at complementary locations, they are able to avoid risks, diversify livelihood activities and continue social customs. These findings raise questions about the relevance of mutually exclusive notions of ‘refugees’ versus ‘migrants’ and ‘home’ versus ‘host’. The author also argues that freedom of movement results in a win-win situation, whereby refugees are less dependent and contributing to local markets and communities. However, the author also highlights that to engage in this kind of cross-border mobility and to stay in often insecure regions in South Sudan while being separated from family members is not without risks to personal safety and security.