Violence has spread quickly throughout South Sudan since the outbreak of civil war on 15 December 2013, when tensions flared within the army in events the government has called an attempted coup. Other armed groups have joined the conflict, as what began as a struggle between two leaders has become a vehicle for people to express complex political, social and economic grievances.
More than a million people, or around one in ten of the country’s population, have been internally displaced and more than 390,000 have fled the country (OCHA, June 2014). Attention and assistance has focused on the 95,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) sheltering in the UN peacekeeping mission’s military bases (UNMISS, June 2014), but 90 per cent of those fleeing their homes have taken refuge elsewhere, and have little access to protection, services or humanitarian aid.
Displacement in the country is primarily a protection concern, and extends far beyond the material needs of the newly displaced for food, water, shelter and non-food items. What is now South Sudan has a long history of underdevelopment and conflict, and the multiple causes of displacement make for complex dynamics that frequently overlap. Some key drivers, however, can be identified in escalating armed conflict, recurrent natural hazards and considerable development challenges, which are all further complicated by a lack of inclusive governance and socio-economic marginalisation.
The capacity and willingness of government and opposition forces to protect civilians is questionable, given that both parties have committed grave abuses against them (protection cluster, May 2014). It has largely fallen to the international community to protect and assist IDPs, but many humanitarians and their donors have been caught off guard by the scale of the crisis and have not been able to respond immediately and effectively.
In February 2014, the UN declared the situation in South Sudan a level-three emergency, the most serious possible. Despite this, the response continues to be hampered by insecurity, logistical constraints, the looting of aid supplies, the harassment of aid workers, bureaucratic obstacles and uncertainty about funding.