lisa monaghan

Huser (2015). Displacement- An Auto-Protection Strategy in Unity State

In mid-December 2013 a political conflict plunged South Sudan back into a civil war with immense humanitarian consequences for the population. An estimated 2 million people have been displaced across Greater Upper Nile region, comprised of three states of Jonglei, Upper Nile and Unity State. Violence against civilians, along ethnic, tribal and gender lines has been a key feature of this conflict and one that continues to inform how protection of physical well being and access to basic other needs is perceived. This is no more prominent than in the considerations of those who have been displaced, often multiple times seeking to establish some certainty and regularity in a situation of adversity. The continued exposure to violence and ultimate failure of state institutions to protect has resulted in people having to take extraordinary measures to meet their own protection needs on a daily basis. Understanding how these strategies are formed, from an appreciation of the lived experience of violence, the humanitarian in South Sudan can ensure that their interactions and interventions effectively supports people to live in safe and dignified way. At the time of writing however the armed conflict in South Sudan shows little sign of abating. No real peace agreement has emerged after over a year of high-level mediation efforts led by the Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and championed by senior global figures and the diplomatic community. Despite occasional lulls in violence, civilians remain the main target for attack by different armed actors and are largely excluded from decision-making processes (national and international).


This paper documents the lived experiences of some of the 345,300 (OCHA, 2015) people displaced in Unity State since January 2015.[1] Displacement is a primary auto protection tool available to people to address on-going violence as well as being a consequence of it. Appreciating how it has enabled people to protect themselves but also opened them up to increasingly negative risks is a subject for this paper. [2] Though oft repeated every respondent in this research confirmed that the scale and speed of armed hostilities in Unity’s capital Bentiu and its interior caught people by surprise. Notwithstanding the political fall out within the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and political instability in Unity State that had remained since 2005 the possibility that South Sudan would return to “outright” war was unfathomable. As such as the conflict emerged so did two broad displacement strategies that deeply reflected, amongst other things, the socio-economic dynamics inherent to these areas prior to the conflict. For those able to access it, the UNMISS site was seen as a safe haven. For the others, it was flight to rural areas – typically towards their ‘place of origin’, in order to draw on solidarity and family networks for support. In these rural localities, micro strategies were further developed that led people ‘at risk’ either deeper into the interior (sometimes familiar and other times not) as they desperately tried to evade the perpetrators of violence. Some moved progressively southward (avoiding neighbouring states such as Warrap and Jonglei) in pursuit of safety. Many of these people reported being pursued throughout their journey by armed actors. Far from being linear or predictable initial displacement was met with further movements as opportunities arose to access to markets, fields, trade, humanitarian assistance, and social protection (family reunification etc.). In an understanding of what is protection for people, it is important to note that physical safety is tied to meeting other goals such as access to food, water, markets, and health care services.

[1] This document is a complement to a document entitled ‘The Lived Experience of Protection in Unity State: Examining the links between Auto-Protection & Livelihoods’. That document provides a more detailed exploration of the notion of auto-protection in relation to broader notions of protection, while this paper specifically explores displacement as a primary auto-protection mechanism that people at risk in armed conflict typically resort to. See also: ‘Bentiu-PoC as a Protective Option: a critical asset within the auto-protection tool kit’ which explores the experience of protection in relation to the Bentiu-PoC.

[2] The analytic frame on which this paper is structured is discussed extensively in the annex.

Category: Conflict, Human Rights and Protection

Sub-category: Community, Displacement and Protection of Civilian Sites, UNMISS and Peacekeeping