Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

South Sudanese Disenfranchised in North

People from the newly-independent state in the south suddenly find themselves foreigners in Sudan.
By IWPR contributor
  • People arriving in South Sudan by bus as the mass population shift got under way last year. Picture from November 2010. (Photo: Tim Freccia/ENOUGH Project/Flickr)
    People arriving in South Sudan by bus as the mass population shift got under way last year. Picture from November 2010. (Photo: Tim Freccia/ENOUGH Project/Flickr)
  • People arriving in South Sudan by bus as the mass population shift got under way last year. Picture from November 2010. (Photo: Tim Freccia/ENOUGH Project/Flickr)
    People arriving in South Sudan by bus as the mass population shift got under way last year. Picture from November 2010. (Photo: Tim Freccia/ENOUGH Project/Flickr)

The separation of South Sudan from the north has created a huge population shift as southerners find themselves disenfranchised by the Khartoum government, under new rules that treat them as foreigners even if they were born there. 

Nearly 350,000 have already returned to the south, while thousands of others are held up by security and transport problems.

South Sudan’s near-unanimous vote to break away from Khartoum in January led to formal recognition of the new state in July, drawing a line under the 2005 peace process which ended Africa's longest running civil war.

Following the referendum, the Khartoum government amended its nationality law in a way that allows it to effectively exclude southerners, and is now issuing new identity documents that specify ethnic origin. Anyone categorised as a southerner will no longer qualify for Sudanese citizenship, even if they have always lived in the north.

The government has set a deadline of March 2012 for South Sudanese people living in the north either to leave for South Sudan or to apply for new papers allowing them to remain as foreigners.

The move comes as a shock for South Sudanese who have lived and worked in the north for years. The years of conflict in the south led many to flee northwards, or move there in search of better opportunities.

Now they find themselves classed as foreigners, kicked out of public-sector jobs and generally unwanted by the Khartoum government.

Classification is by ethnic ancestry, whereas neither residence nor even birth in the northern part of Sudan does not count.

"Many South Sudanese residing in Khartoum have called north Sudan home for years. Some have never seen the South,” Munzoul Assal, professor of social anthropology at the University of Khartoum, said. “I don't understand why they have to leave the land of their birth.”

Take Josephina Michael – born and raised in Khartoum, a fluent Arabic speaker, and now completing a law degree at university. Under other circumstances, her future would be in Sudan.

“My family took refuge in Khartoum in the early 1980s and I was born here and I have lived here my entire life,” she said. "I have never seen the south, I have never visited it.”

Michael would like to go on to postgraduate studies in Khartoum, but now moving to South Sudan is looking like a better option, even though life will be far less comfortable. Her mother and other families are already there.

Should she choose to remain, it is far from clear what status people in her position will have after next March. It seems they will have to apply for residence as foreign nationals or temporary migrants.

“We don’t know what will happen to the southerners in Khartoum,” Barnaba Gilo, coordinator with the Southern Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, SSRRC. “But they can apply for documents and remain just like Ethiopian and Eritrean migrant workers here.”

Some believe that the exclusive legislation is Khartoum’s way of punishing southerners for voting for independence.

Until this year, many South Sudanese held posts in the civil service or other parts of the public sector in Khartoum. Many were taken on as part of the 2005 peace deal. They too have fallen foul of the changes. Some resigned or were pushed into resigning ahead of South Sudanese independence, but the majority had their contracts summarily terminated and were dismissed.

"My husband was a civil servant in the government of Sudan and we lived with people from all parts of Sudan… in Khartoum," Khartoum resident Agool Major told IWPR.

Because the couple are southerners who moved to Khartoum in 1988, they now count as foreign nationals, and Major’s husband had his contract terminated in July.

They plan to go to the Bahr Al-Ghazal region of South Sudan once the civil service paid Major’s husband his severance and pension money.

Many of those dismissed after the referendum are finding it hard to claim the final payments due them.

"If you left your job before July, you were given more money as a reward, but some worked as civil servants until July and they are now struggling to get their benefits and retirement money," explained Carlo, who is from Sudan’s unstable South Kordofan region but plans to move to South Sudan.

Both Major and Carlo are now living in a temporary camp for people near the al-Shajara railway station in Khartoum.

Dismissed civil servants and other public-sector workers have swelled the ranks of the camp, which now numbers over 4,000 people, who have been waiting for the Sudanese government to lay on trains to take them south since November 2010.

These numbers are only a tiny percentage of that mass exodus that began before South Sudan held its referendum. In total, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, estimates that 346,000 people have moved to South Sudan since October 2010. There are few accurate statistics, but OCHA believes that is about a third of the total number of southerners living in the north. According to OCHA, a further 27,000 are waiting to be taken to South Sudan by boat or train from Khartoum and the eastern town of Kosti, under a repatriation scheme led by the International Office of Migration, IOM.

Apart from lack of transport, the main obstacle to travel to South Sudan is security, especially in troubled border areas. Blue Nile, Southern Kordofan and Abyei regions have all seen armed conflict in recent months, as Sudanese government forces assert their control over populations sympathetic to the south.

The clashes have closed down some of the main routes between north and south.

“Last year there were fatal attacks on returnees near Abyei [in the north] by Misseriya tribesmen. This is why buses stopped taking this route and until now, the borders of Bahr al-Ghazal, Unity state [in the south] and Abyei are closed by road. This is why we transport people by trains and boats,” said Gilo, the SSRRC coordinator.

The SSRRC works with the Khartoum government, the IOM and other international organisations to help southerners return, and offers them support in resettling and reintegrating into South Sudan.

Salah Osman, a senior operations officer at IOM, said another route, via South Kordofan to South Sudan’s Upper Nile state, was still functioning. He said the Sudanese military provided security as far as the border when its southern equivalent took over.

"The government protects us,” Osman said. “We cannot protect people, so we resort to negotiations and we have an army escort with each convoy."

Another route south, from Kosti to the South Sudan town of Renk – a popular choice for people travelling by bus outside the official travel schemes – has been all but closed off. Unofficial orders from the Khartoum government on November 10 barred vehicles and people from crossing over to Renk. If they want to reach Upper Nile state in the south, they will have to take a long detour including 300 kilometres on foot.

At the al-Shajara camp, as well as thousands of tents there are piles of neatly-stacked furniture - whole households packed up and ready to go.

Many owners will have to leave their possessions behind.

"Our priority is transporting people,” Osman said. “However, we sympathise with them, as they want to take their whole life with them."

The author is an IWPR contributor in Khartoum.

The names of some interviewees have been changed for security reasons.