Why doesn’t South Su­dan’s refugee ex­o­dus spur East Africa to ac­tion?

The East African - - OUTLOOK -

Mi­gra­tion crises in Europe, the Mid­dle East, and North Africa re­con­fig­ured global pol­i­tics. So why — as the mil­lionth South Su­danese took refuge in Uganda ear­lier this year, and with the to­tal num­ber of South Su­danese refugee and asy­lum seek­ers now more than two mil­lion — is there no com­pa­ra­ble shift in the po­lit­i­cal pos­ture of East African states?

Uganda hosts by far the great­est num­ber of South Su­danese refugees, but Su­dan also hosts nearly half a mil­lion, Ethiopia more than 400,000, and Kenya over 100,000. In 2017 alone, the num­ber of refugees in­creased by 500,000, and there’s no sign the mas­sive and rapid de­pop­u­la­tion of South Su­dan will abate any time soon.

All four host coun­tries are cru­cial to sus­tain­ing, or spoil­ing, any conflict res­o­lu­tion ef­fort in South Su­dan, but it’s time to end the pre­sump­tion that the refugee ex­o­dus is suf­fi­cient to al­ter re­gional geopol­i­tics. There’s lit­tle ev­i­dence that the mass move­ment of South Su­danese across in­ter­na­tional borders has mo­bilised the coun­try’s neigh­bours to act pos­i­tively to ad­dress and re­solve the mul­ti­ple po­lit­i­cal, se­cu­rity, and hu­man­i­tar­ian crises in South Su­dan.

It would be a mis­take to be­lieve there is a mi­gra­tion tipping point at which the re­gion, ac­cus­tomed to tol­er­at­ing refugee pop­u­la­tions for decades, will sud­denly unite or work col­lab­o­ra­tively to ad­dress the conflict. For the most part, the pres­ence of South Su­danese refugees doesn’t af­fect core na­tional or re­gional po­lit­i­cal or se­cu­rity in­ter­ests.

Other in­ter­ests ex­plain bi­lat­eral and re­gional be­hav­iour. These in­clude eco­nomic ties and pe­cu­niary re­la­tions; the be­lief in main­tain­ing a re­gional bal­ance of power; on­go­ing jock­ey­ing for re­gional hege­mony be­tween Ethiopia and Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, and Ethiopia and Egypt; his­toric an­tag­o­nisms be­tween Su­dan and Uganda (even if that bi­lat­eral re­la­tion­ship is cur­rently im­prov­ing); the be­lief that sta­bil­ity in South Su­dan is best served by a con­tin­u­a­tion of the cur­rent regime; or, con­versely, that a de­gree of in­sta­bil­ity in South Su­dan is nec­es­sary to en­sure Juba is never strong enough to again threaten its neigh­bours.

The bot­tom line is this: The prospect of the sys­tem­atic de­pop­u­la­tion of the world’s new­est coun­try doesn’t mo­ti­vate ac­tion by the re­gion.

Fur­ther, wider in­ter­na­tional pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the refugee cri­sis may only re­in­force re­gional po­lit­i­cal com­pla­cency.

To un­con­di­tion­ally com­mend neigh­bour­ing coun­tries for their gen­eros­ity in host­ing civil­ians flee­ing conflict or star­va­tion over­looks the cyn­i­cal real­ity that host­ing refugees is an op­por­tu­nity for some states to raise money and bur­nish rep­u­ta­tions.

Even worse, it risks send­ing the mes­sage that as long as sanc­tu­ary is pro­vided to civil­ians, there’s lit­tle ex­pec­ta­tion that the neigh­bours need do any­thing more to tackle the conflict.

De­pend­ing on the neigh­bour, dif­fer­ent factors ac­count for the false logic that refugee flows mat­ter.

In the cases of Kenya and Uganda, South Su­danese refugees are hosted in the most mar­ginal, dis­tant parts of both coun­tries, far re­moved from the pol­i­tics of Nairobi and Kam­pala.

The Turkana of Kenya may be up­set by the in­flux of refugees into Kakuma refugee camp, but Kenyan po­lit­i­cal elites do not per­ceive the South Su­danese in­flux in the same terms.

Nor are all refugees per­ceived equally in Kenya. In the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion of some Kenyans, a So­mali mi­grant in Dadaab, or Eastleigh, Nairobi is im­me­di­ately to be treated with sus­pi­cion.

The nar­ra­tives — all too of­ten seen through the dis­torted prism of ter­ror­ism — and con­cep­tions of So­mali-kenyans within the na­tional Kenyan iden­tity, po­si­tion So­mali refugees quite dif­fer­ently from South Su­danese refugees.

In Uganda, al­though na­tional se­cu­rity is an over­rid­ing pol­icy con­cern, the pres­ence of South Su­danese refugees doesn’t threaten the in­tegrity of the state, in the way, for ex­am­ple, that the in­sur­gency of the Lord’s Re­sis­tance Army once did.

While there have been some con­cerns that the scarcity of re­sources, demon­strated in com­pet­ing de­mands for land and wa­ter, has and will up­set host com­mu­ni­ties, such prob­lems will not rise beyond the local level. A cynic could ar­gue that Kam­pala has his­tor­i­cally shown lit­tle con­cern for its cit­i­zens in north­ern Uganda, so why should non-cit­i­zens present there be of any greater in­ter­est?

To the north, in Su­dan, most flee­ing South Su­danese are in im­me­di­ate bor­der ar­eas, such as White Nile and South Dar­fur states, or in the cap­i­tal, Khar­toum. And apart from their des­ig­na­tion as refugees as spec­i­fied by in­ter­na­tional con­ven­tion, lit­tle has changed in Khar­toum’s eyes since the times when such mi­grants would have been cat­e­gorised as in­ter­nally dis­placed (Su­danese) per­sons.

If Su­dan is less in­clined to med­dle in South Su­dan’s in­ter­nal af­fairs than has his­tor­i­cally been the case, it is be­cause of broader pol­icy ob­jec­tives such as re­gional align­ment with Ethiopia and the en­tic­ing prospect of nor­mal­is­ing re­la­tions with the United States. The pres­ence of South Su­danese on Su­danese ter­ri­tory is not a push fac­tor.

Ethiopia was per­haps most sen­si­tive to the im­pli­ca­tions of host­ing South Su­danese refugees, given con­cerns that the del­i­cate bal­ance be­tween Anyuak and Nuer in its Gam­bella re­gion would be up­set by an in­flux of South Su­danese Nuer.

In the early phases of the conflict, in late 2013 and early 2014, Ethiopia hosted the ma­jor­ity of South Su­danese refugees. And while there have been some in­ci­dents in Gam­bella as a re­sult of the refugee pres­ence, these have been spo­radic and far less con­se­quen­tial than other cross-bor­der se­cu­rity is­sues, in­clud­ing the ab­duc­tion of Ethiopian chil­dren in April 2016, and the Au­gust 2017 bor­der in­cur­sion by South Su­danese armed forces dur­ing the fight for Pa­gak, an op­po­si­tion strong­hold.

As shock­ing as it is that South Su­dan risks los­ing an­other gen­er­a­tion to dis­place­ment and ex­ile, the be­lief that this sad de­vel­op­ment will, in and of it­self, mo­ti­vate re­gional states to ac­tively re­solve the conflict is mis­placed.

Any in­ter­na­tional strat­egy to en­gage the re­gion needs to un­der­stand the true, diver­gent and con­ver­gent, po­lit­i­cal and na­tional se­cu­rity goals of each coun­try, in­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively. Re­gional unity of pur­pose to ad­dress the conflict will oth­er­wise re­main elu­sive.

The bot­tom line is this: The prospect of the sys­tem­atic de­pop­u­la­tion of the world’s new­est coun­try doesn’t mo­ti­vate ac­tion by the re­gion.”

Aly Ver­jee is A vis­it­ing ex­pert at the United States In­sti­tute of Peace and a fel­low of the Rift Val­ley In­sti­tute.

Pic­ture: File

Newly ar­rived refugees from South Su­dan be­fore they are reg­is­tered at Ku­luba Re­cep­tion Cen­tre in Koboko District north of Kam­pala last year. For the most part, the pres­ence of South Su­danese refugees doesn’t af­fect core na­tional or re­gional po­lit­i­cal or se­cu­rity in­ter­ests.

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