South Sudan + 2 more

Population movement baseline report: Movement and displacement in South Sudan, 1983-2019 (September 2020)

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I. Summary

Since the Second Sudanese Civil War in 1983, South Sudan has seen significant levels of displacement driven by conflict, resource stress, climate shocks, and disease. Movement, already an endemic feature of life in South Sudan, has enabled many South Sudanese households or household members to escape or mitigate years of shocks, but those deciding to move have often faced competing needs, physical risks, and constraints on movement. In order to better understand how both displacement routes and displacing households’ decision-making regarding movement has evolved over the past 35 years, REACH conducted research, consisting of secondary data review and quantitative and qualitative analysis, on long-term population movements trends in South Sudan between 1983-2019, to help humanitarians improve their ability to plan for early response in areas likely to receive displacement.

Population Movement Baseline Database by the Numbers

  • Across all movements recorded in the Population Movement Baseline (PMB) database (which may not represent all movements that took place in actuality), the most prevalent year of displacement was 2017 in the contemporary conflict, followed by 1992 in the Second Sudanese Civil War;

  • Among unique movements tracked at the county level, Upper Nile and Unity states comprised much of the most prevalent intra- and inter-county movements from 1983-2019;

  • Movement within contemporary South Sudan characterised 85% of the movements tracked in the PMB database, while 15% were movements that crossed the border of contemporary South Sudan, mainly from or into Ethiopia and Sudan;

Population Movements by Driver

  • Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) revealed that micro-movements of shorter distance and duration were the most common form of movement in response to most drivers, while populations resorted to farther and longer displacements more often when shorter movements were not an option, or when shocks became prolonged or widespread;

  • Severe or widespread shocks could also result in movement restrictions, in which the most vulnerable households could not take advantage of movement to alleviate resource stress or exposure to flooding, disease, or insecurity;

  • Displacement, and particularly farther and longer-term displacement, was often the result of drivers occurring in conjunction or in succession, such as flooding destroying crops and triggering food insecurity, or insecurity restricting livelihood access and exacerbating pre-existing food insecurity;


  • In FGDs, many Internally Displaced Person (IDP) participants said that they would not return until peace was more certain; some reported that they would not return until armed forces moved from their areas of origin, or until populations reportedly occupying their homes left;

  • FGD participants also reported that returns that were occurring were often a single household member returning to cultivate or check on safety conditions, or people “returning” from abroad to a secondary location close to their home settlement and deemed secure, while they waited for safety conditions to improve;

Decision-making during Population Movement

  • In deciding where, when, and how to move, households were influenced by exogenous factors which included access to relevant resources or services and the existence of movement constraints, and by endogenous factors which included the attributes of a given household, such as their and financial and household asset base, what pre-existing social connections they could rely on, and the gender/age composition of the household;

  • The most vulnerable households, i.e. those facing movement restrictions and lacking coping resources or capacity, generally have fewer movement options, and these households in particular are often forced to make choices between movement towards physical safety and movement to meet essential resource needs, sometimes risking an individual family member’s welfare in order to increase their family’s chances of survival;

  • The decision of whether and where to displace reportedly was almost always made at the level of the family unit, by the head of household;

  • During population movement, households often voluntarily fragmented, splitting up their household as a means of diversifying their use of movement-related coping mechanisms in order to maximise access to physical security, resources and services (including humanitarian aid), or income-generating activities, or to preserve existing livelihood profiles. Whole households moving together was often an indication of more acute or sudden-onset drivers or higher levels of vulnerability;

Challenges along Displacement Routes

  • Protection concerns such as violent theft or sexual violence, as well as lack of access to enough food, water, and essential medicines were reported as challenges across many different displacement routes;

  • Despite these challenges, in times of conflict or serious resource stress, many still chose to make journeys known to be potentially risky to their physical safety;

Changes in Routes over Time

  • Among the inter-county routes analysed, only 9.7% (22 routes) occurred during both the historic (1983-2012) and contemporary (2013-2019) periods, suggesting that historic use of a route may not predict repeated use of the same route in the contemporary period;

  • Observed changes in the routes used from the historic period to the contemporary period indicated loss of access to old routes and emergence of new routes representing a shift from micro-displacement to farther and longer-term displacement, especially for vulnerable households;

  • These changes appeared to be driven by a collection of intersecting factors: a more restricted movement environment partially related to the perception of worsening fault lines between identity groups, a perceived escalation of violence against civilians and theft or looting of their property, and severely weakened household resilience as a result of years of accrued shocks and escalated asset-stripping.