“Tired of Running” Repeated Displacement and Premature Returns in South Sudan

Chloe Sydney

IDMC’s ‘Invisible Majority’ thematic series, November 2019



As of December 2018, there were 1.9 million IDPs in South Sudan, and a further 2.3 million South Sudanese had sought refuge abroad. Despite the unstable situation, around 183,500 refugees had returned spontaneously to South Sudan by the end of June 2019. As many as 684,000 IDPs may have returned since 2016, although they are unlikely to have found durable solutions. This report examines the relationship between internal displacement, cross-border movements and durable solutions in South Sudan including: drivers of displacement and onward movements within and across borders; IDPs’ and refugees’ priorities/preconditions for voluntary return; and obstacles and opportunities faced by returning IDPs and refugees to achieve durable solutions. The analysis is based on more than 200 interviews with IDPs, returning IDPs and returning refugees in and around Bentiu and Juba in July 2019 (data is not representative).


Key findings include:

  • Repeated displacements are very common. Over three-quarters of those surveyed had been displaced more than once. Around a third had tried to return to their homes, only to be displaced again by renewed violence.
  • Not all IDPs who want to leave the country are able to do so. Almost 80 percent of surveyed IDPs cited cost as a barrier to cross-border movement, and two-thirds of IDPs mentioned insecurity as another barrier.
  • Refugees have often been first internally displaced. More than 80 percent of surveyed returning refugees had previously been IDPs before they left the country.
  • Returns of IDPs and refugees have increased following the signing of the revitalized peace agreement in 2018. The majority of the surveyed returning refugees had returned in 2018 and 2019.
  • Not all refugee returns have been voluntary, particularly among refugees returning from Sudan. Some returning refugees said the security forces had forced them to leave or they had been threatened with arrest and deportation, and others returned because of political unrest in Sudan.
  • Among refugees who returned voluntarily, improved security in South Sudan was the main motivation, followed by reunification with family and friends. Poor living conditions in displacement were an important secondary motivation.
  • Returning IDPs surveyed said they mainly wanted to recover their livelihoods.
  • The majority (around 85 percent) of returning refugees live in IDP-like situations. Predominantly because of insecurity, two-thirds of surveyed returning refugees were living outside their area of origin, including in Protection of Civilians sites (PoCs). Others, as well as many returning IDPs, live in temporary shelters because their homes were destroyed.
  • Destruction of property is a major barrier to durable solutions for both IDPs and returning refugees. More than 80 percent of the IDPs surveyed had property before their displacement, but 70 percent of these said it had since been destroyed.
  • PoC sites provide essential protection, but more support is needed for those who return. 80 percent of the IDPs surveyed want to return to their area of origin, but only half think they will be able to within a year. Many are unwilling to return because they do not trust the revitalized peace agreement. PoCs provide essential protection for those afraid of being targeted on ethnic grounds. Those who do choose to return are in significant need of support, which so far has not been forthcoming.