By Salah Mohammed, Gilbert Nantsa and Alexa Lacey-Varona
When South Sudan erupted into civil war in 2013, hundreds of thousands of civilians were forced to flee their homes, leaving behind them everything too burdensome to carry. Thousands sought refuge from the surrounding violence at the compound gates of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). Responding quickly, the United Nations Security Council instructed UNMISS peacekeepers to open their gates and establish Protection of Civilians sites in conflict prone regions in Benitu, Bor, Juba, Malakal, Melut and Wau.
At the onset of the crisis, 35,000 civilians sought protection within the confines of UNMISS compounds. By 2015, at the height of the civil war, the number of civilians living in Protection of Civilians sites swelled to over 240,000. Today, that number stands at just under 183,000 — largely thanks to the efforts of UNMISS, humanitarian organizations and humanitarian branches of South Sudan’s government and opposition who are supporting the safe, informed, and voluntary return of internally displaced persons to their homes. No other place best reflects the work that is being carried out to safely oversee the voluntarily return of internally displaced persons by UNMISS then in Bor.
In 2013, UNMISS established a Protection of Civilians site in Bor that housed some 18,000 people. Over time, family reunion and access to basic services became drivers of the increasing head count within the camp (rather than a genuine need for protection). In 2016, UNMISS, along with several other members — UNHCR, WFP, UNOCHA, IOM, ACTED and other stakeholders — established the Bor Working Solutions Group. The objectives of the Group include decongesting the Bor protection site, supporting the safe and voluntary returns for displaced persons, while also finding durable, long-term solutions for persons living within the site.
To ensure objectives are met, the Bor Solutions Working Group, in close collaboration with humanitarian branches of the South Sudanese government and opposition, carry out a range of activities with the support of UN peacekeepers. By providing force protection, logistical support, conducting dynamic ground and air patrols, and active planning and facilitation of returns, UNMISS has been able to support the Bor Working Solutions Group’s humanitarian actors in carrying out joint field assessment missions and field visits which help support situation awareness, conflict mitigation and confidence building.
Since its establishment, the Bor Solutions Working Group has supported the voluntary return of thousands of internally displaced persons from the Bor site, facilitating the gradual return of civilians to Akobo and Fangak. Movements are mainly carried out by road and river, however, 244 facilitated returns to Akobo in November 2018 was achieved with the logistical support of UNMISS including the use of air assets which was a last resort due the remoteness of the location and insecurity along the road. Today, the population of Bor’s protection of civilian site stands at nearly 2,000–11% of its size at the onset of conflict in 2013.
The Bor Solutions Working Group exemplifies excellent collaboration between the UN peacekeeping mission and humanitarian agencies working closely with branches of the national government and opposition to achieve the common goal of supporting the return of civilians to their homes, re-establishing a protective environment within the region, and fully realizing UNMISS’ mission mandate to “support the facilitation of the safe, informed, voluntary, and dignified return” of civilians from United Nations protection of civilian sites.”
It is expected that the lessons learned in Bor will serve as example of a durable solution to displacement in other regions.
The authors work for the United Nations Department of Peace Operations as Associate Public Information Officer, Protection of Civilians Advisor, and Public Information Intern, respectively.