Benjamin Mogga heads the community protection committee (CPC) in Aru, a dusty South Sudanese town hugging the road between Juba and the Ugandan border. He volunteered for the position three years ago and is responsible for the more than 200 returnees in his area, helping them reintegrate into the community and ensuring that they have access to justice. It has not been an easy job.
Tensions have arisen over access to the area’s scant basic services and land, and are particularly acute between new returnees and those who have been back home a little longer, or those who never left.
“A returnee is like a visitor who cannot get access,” said Mogga.
In Aru and the surrounding communities, returnees lack basic services such as medical care, education and even clean water from the community borehole. While there has been no open fighting, new returnees have simply had to do without, he said.
Lack of basic services
Through the International Rescue Committee (IRC) CPC project, Mogga has been lobbying the local government to improve the returnees’ situation - so far without success.
The returnees “are…depending on their own efforts,” he said.
According to IRC’s South Sudan country director Wendy Taeuber, the situation in Aru is not unique. Resentment over resources between the host communities and returnees, she said, can be a “big source of conflict.”
As South Sudan celebrated the second anniversary of its independence, on 9 July, at least 18,860 returnees were still living in semi-official transit sites with limited access to basic services, according to the IRC.
Millions of southern Sudanese fled the decades-long civil war between Khartoum and southern rebels, which ended in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), eventually leading to South Sudan’s independence in July 2011.
Since the CPA was signed, at least 2.5 million people have returned to what is now South Sudan, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
But they have returned to poor or non-existent services and a variety of reintegration challenges.
Not yet reintegrated
While the South Sudan government promised the returnees land and reintegration, the process has not been straightforward.
Some of those who returned to their home areas have found their farms under new ownership. Others lack the proper documentation necessary to settle back on their land.
South Sudan lacks a legal framework to address land allocation issues, and this can result in “a failure of reintegration, which will increase the likelihood of conflict between returnee and host populations,” said Taeuber.
In the introduction to a new Village Assessment Survey released in June, the IOM head of mission in South Sudan, Vincent Houver, wrote that the organization had found “major gaps in infrastructure and service delivery across the country.”
IOM visited 30 counties that have seen high rates of return and asked the new arrivals about access to services. What they found was a strong perception of a lack of the basics, with 87 percent of people unhappy with water services in their new homes, and nearly 70 percent lacking easy access to a health facility.
Toby Lanzer, South Sudan’s UN Humanitarian Coordinator, pointed out at the survey’s launch that host communities are dealing with the same shortages.
“These situation[s] always pose tremendous challenges for communities who are welcoming people, who are trying to help people integrate. And we shouldn’t underestimate how difficult the process is, how long it can take to have such integration,” said Lanzer.
Tensions to remain
Back in Aru, Mogga said that simmering tensions there would remain until there are enough services for everyone.
At present, returnees are collecting money from friends and relatives to build another school in the area to help with the overcrowding at the three existing primary schools.
Peter Lam Both, the chairman of South Sudan’s National Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, said the shortage of services has not led to conflict between returnee and host communities that he is aware of.
Both acknowledged that there have been financial strains that have forced the government to return people slower than originally anticipated, and that some of the returnees have not gotten access to land. He said that once they arrived at home, returnees are usually embraced by their communities.
“They have the relatives and are accepted back into the community,” he said. “The host communities are happy to share with them.”
But Rose Ajnu, who came back to Aru from a Ugandan refugee camp in 2007, tells a different story. She is still fighting for access to the one community borehole and to get her four children into school.
Her family ekes out a living by farming. “I have no plan to go anywhere. Though there are difficulties, this is my place. I will always remain here,” Ajnu said.
She says she is worried by reports that 200 new returnees will be arriving in Aru from Khartoum within the next month because there is not enough for the people already living there.
“If these guys come, it will be a big problem to us. Probably, it will cause some kind of disturbances among us.”