Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Why South Sudanese refugees are not joining flows to Europe

With the current focus on the European ‘refugee and migrant crisis’, other displacement crises around the world, unless somehow connected with population flows to Europe, tend to be forgotten. Displacement situations in the Horn of Africa and Yemen region in particular receive considerably less international media coverage and funding for humanitarian assistance, compared to, for example, the Syrian displacement crisis.

The Yemeni conflict resulted in widespread destruction, displaced 2.7 million Yemenis within their own country, and resulted in bi-directional migrant and refugee flows between the Horn of Africa and Yemen. In 2015 humanitarian partners received only 56% of the funding required. In 2016, the Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen received USD 305 million of funding, while USD 1.5 billion of required funding is still unmet.

Another example from the region is South Sudan. On 15 December 2013, a civil war began in South Sudan when fighting erupted between Dinka and Nuer elements within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). As of May 2016, 720,999 South Sudanese fled to neighbouring countries (post 15 December 2013 and in addition to an already existing refugee population of 123,228). Most of the post-2013 refugees are hosted in Sudan (231,652), Ethiopia (230,134), Uganda (201,937) and Kenya (57,276). Additionally, an estimated 1.7 million Sudanese are internally displaced. As of April 2016, the South Sudan Regional Refugee Response Plan was funded at just eight percent, while the European Union (EU) promised 6 billion Euros to Turkey to deal with hosting Syrian refugees. In the country’s Regional Refugee Response Plan, UNHCR noted that “given the concerns regarding the ability to provide a response, which meets minimum standards, there is a possibility of South Sudanese moving onwards within Sudan or abroad to other countries where they would be able to access better services”.

However, there are no indications that such onward movement is occurring, which may partly explain the relative lack of attention in international media and among donor countries on the South Sudanese (and Yemeni) displacement crises. More specifically, Yemeni and South Sudanese refugees do not engage in onward mixed migration movements to Europe. Since the start of the conflict in Yemen, less than 100 Yemenis have arrived in Europe and only 515 South Sudanese asylum applications have been lodged in the 28 countries of the European Union, plus Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein between 2012 and April 2016.

YearNumber of South Sudanese asylum applications in EU-28+4


2016 (first 4 months)60

Source: Eurostat

Taking into account the scale of South Sudanese displacement, these numbers are negligible. Over more than 4 years, only 0.02% of displaced South Sudanese applied for asylum in Europe. Migrants and refugees from other countries in the region, on the contrary, feature prominently in the mixed migration flows towards Europe and do make up a large part of the sea arrivals in Italy. Between January 2015 and March 2016, 153,842 migrants and refugees arrived in Italy, of which 23% Eritreans (the largest group), 8.1% Somalis, 5.6% Sudanese and 2.1% Ethiopians. This raises the question: why are the South Sudanese not part of these mixed migration flows? Consultations with professionals working in Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia, point to a number of reasons.

Close ties to South Sudan and preference to stay in the region

South Sudanese people remain deeply tied to their homeland. They identify themselves by tribe and clan, which are connected to an ancestral area, and see their land as their heritage. They see the possibility of future return to their homeland as a core component of their identity and survival. South Sudanese also have a strong sense of nationalism and, after years of independence struggle, a strong sense of finally having their own place in the world.

The back and forth displacement within the region has been present for a long time and is considered a temporary and normal phenomenon. A deeply rooted culture of pastoralist movement within South Sudan and across borders, also normalizes movement away from home. Many South Sudanese have strong extended family bonds reaching across borders in the countries where they seek refuge, with the same tribes present on both sides of the border, which provides additional support upon arrival in neighbouring host countries. Staying close to their home country also allows South Sudanese refugees to continue their business activities.

Favourable refugee environment in Uganda

In 2006, Uganda adopted new refugee legislation, the Refugees Act. The Act recognizes the right of the refugees to work and livelihoods, move around freely within the country and live in the local community, rather than in camps. In Uganda, South Sudanese refugees feel relatively secure and are able to pursue economic opportunities which gives them a sense of hope in a better future, while still staying close to home. This favourable environment towards refugees in Uganda, limits the necessity to seek a better future elsewhere and prevents onward movement of refugees.

Lack of resources, opportunity and prior experience with mixed migration

Many South Sudanese have lived in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan before and experienced these as relative safe havens and as part of their survival strategy. At the same time, most South Sudanese have little education, no experience of living in large urban areas and have had limited exposure to the world beyond South Sudan or bordering areas. Many fear travelling long distances through unfamiliar territory (such as northern Sudan, Libya and Egypt) and crossing the Mediterranean Sea and do not anticipate living in European cities as part of their future, as they are not prepared for “Western living”. As one interlocutor phrased it: “where would you keep your cows?”. To most South Sudanese, staying in the region makes more sense culturally, economically and socio-politically.

Moreover, migration to Europe is expensive. Somalis and Eritreans are known to pay amounts up to 10,000 USD to get to Italy. Most South Sudanese will lack the resources to pay for these expensive migration journeys. Finally, while migrants and refugees from other countries in the region use a network of smugglers to get them across borders and at their final destinations, there are no indications of an established network of smugglers offering their ‘services’ to South Sudanese refugees.

Profile of South Sudanese refugees

The demographics of South Sudanese refugees show that over 86% of the refugees are under 18 (64.8%) or women above 18 (another 21.7%). Only 13.8% are men over 18. Most of the men are still in South Sudan, either involved in the conflict or taking care of cattle or belongings. The families (women and children) are not likely to leave the region and migrate towards Europe on their own.

Diaspora and resettlement

Resettlement of South Sudanese refugees, mainly to the United States, Canada, Australia and the UK, has been ongoing for over two decades, which has also led to subsequent resettlement through family reunification. This has provided a legal migration passage for thousands of South Sudanese refugees and is another reason not many engage in irregular migration.

Finally, other migrant and refugee groups from the region, such as Eritreans, Somalis and Ethiopians, have established mixed migration patterns to Europe, which results in so-called ‘chain migration’, in which movement of prospective migrants is facilitated by social relationships with previous migrants. South Sudanese do not have such established migration patterns and, compared to other migrant groups from the region, there are no substantial communities of South Sudanese in major European destination countries, which are able to provide the support and social network for migration to Europe.


In a poll of 15 of the world’s leading aid agencies, many respondents listed Yemen and South Sudan as the top humanitarian concerns in 2016, often with the argument that these displacement crises tend be forgotten. Both conflicts are often referred as forgotten crises, for example in recent articles by the Guardian and Al Jazeera as well as by organizations such as Amnesty and Oxfam. This article argued that one reason these crises tend to be forgotten is that not many refugees from South Sudan and Yemen are part of the mixed migration flows heading to Europe. Subsequently, the article focused on South Sudan and explored the various reasons why the South Sudanese are not engaged in these flows to Europe.

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.