Why doesn’t South Sudan's refugee exodus spur East Africa to action?
8 months ago, 7 Dec 15:24
Migration crises in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa reconfigured global politics. So why — as the millionth South Sudanese took refuge in Uganda earlier this year, and with the total number of South Sudanese refugee and asylum seekers now more than two million — is there no comparable shift in the political posture of East African states? Uganda hosts by far the greatest number of South Sudanese refugees, but Sudan also hosts nearly half a million, Ethiopia more than 400,000, and Kenya over 100,000. In 2017 alone, the number of refugees increased by 500,000, and there’s no sign the massive and rapid depopulation of South Sudan will abate any time soon. All four host countries are crucial to sustaining, or spoiling, any conflict resolution effort in South Sudan, but it’s time to end the presumption that the refugee exodus is sufficient to alter regional geopolitics. There’s little evidence that the mass movement of South Sudanese across international borders has mobilised the country’s neighbours to act positively to address and resolve the multiple political, security, and humanitarian crises in South Sudan. It would be a mistake to believe there is a migration tipping point at which the region, accustomed to tolerating refugee populations for decades, will suddenly unite or work collaboratively to address the conflict. For the most part, the presence of South Sudanese refugees doesn’t affect core national or regional political or security interests. Opportunity to raise money Other interests explain bilateral and regional behaviour. These include economic ties and pecuniary relations; the belief in maintaining a regional balance of power; ongoing jockeying for regional hegemony between Ethiopia and Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, and Ethiopia and Egypt; historic antagonisms between Sudan and Uganda (even if that bilateral relationship is currently improving); the belief that stability in South Sudan is best served by a continuation of the current regime; or, conversely, that a degree of instability in South Sudan is necessary to ensure Juba is never strong enough to again threaten its neighbours. The bottom line is this: The prospect of the systematic depopulation of the world’s newest country doesn’t motivate action by the region. Further, wider international preoccupation with the refugee crisis may only reinforce regional political complacency. To unconditionally commend neighbouring countries for their generosity in hosting civilians fleeing conflict or starvation overlooks the cynical reality that hosting refugees is an opportunity for some states to raise money and burnish reputations. Even worse, it risks sending the message that as long as sanctuary is provided to civilians, there’s little expectation that the neighbours need do anything more to tackle the conflict. Depending on the neighbour, different factors account for the false logic that refugee flows matter. In the cases of Kenya and Uganda, South Sudanese refugees are hosted in the most marginal, distant parts of both countries, far removed from the politics of Nairobi and Kampala. The Turkana of Kenya may be upset by the influx of refugees into Kakuma refugee camp, but Kenyan political elites do ...
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