Displacement in East Africa: Factors driving returns of South Sudan refugees from Uganda and Kenya

The ongoing conflict in South Sudan displaced an estimated 4 million people from their homes. According to UNHCR, 2.5 million out of the 4 million displaced South Sudanese have become refugees in neighbouring countries, including Uganda, Kenya, Sudan and Ethiopia. However, due to difficult conditions in refugee camps and settlements, some refugees are reportedly returning to South Sudan even as war rages on.

In September 2017, REACH launched a cross border assessment to understand the factors influencing returns to South Sudan and to provide vital information that could link humanitarian response across East Africa, through the development of cross border information streams. In Moyo District, Uganda, data was collected between September 2017 and February 2018, through 39 Key Informants (KI) interviews and 18 Focus Group Discussions (FGD). In Kenya, REACH conducted 4 KIs interviews and 8 FGD in Kalobayei Refugee Settlement, near Kakuma Refugee Camp, in November and December 2017.

REACH findings indicate that returns from assessed areas of Uganda were driven by difficult living conditions and limited services in refugee and host community settlements alike. Informants cited challenging conditions in Palorinya, a refugee settlement which was established in 2016 and hosts an estimated 180,000 South Sudanese refugees, including limited infrastructure, food shortages, insufficient non-food items (NFI) and environmental degradation. The number of returnees reportedly increased after church and tribal leaders negotiated safe access with the armed groups in Kajo-Keji County. As a result, about 760 people reportedly returned in February 2018, with the villages of Jalimo, Litoba and Bori, along with Kajo-Keji town, reporting sizable civilians’ presence. However, most refugees suggested they would only return home after definitive peace, as well as reconstruction of schools and health facilities.

Meanwhile, in Turkana County, Kenya, Kalobayei refugee settlement is home to around 27,000 displaced South Sudanese. Although there are no clear numbers of how many people have left the settlement, most FGD respondents reported knowing people who have returned to South Sudan. Refugees in Kalobayei reported feeling insecure due to harassment by host communities and theft of their food and property. However, the majority reported that they would not return to South Sudan until there was peace and stability.

REACH teams across South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya will continue to monitor movement of refugees between South Sudan and neighboring countries, to provide an ongoing understanding of displacement intentions and living conditions of refugees and returnees across the region.

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