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Data Overview: Violence against Civilians in South Sudan

Summary of information about levels of violence against civilians in South Sudan, with a focus on Protection of Civilians sites.

  • October 13, 2020
  • 4:18 pm

This data overview was developed after the decision of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to begin re-designating Protection of Civilians (POC) sites in South Sudan as of September 2020. It summarizes information about levels of violence against civilians (VAC) in the country, with a specific focus on the 180,000+ internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in or near the POC sites in Bentiu, Bor, Malakal, Juba, and Wau.

Overview: Violence against civilians

Violence against civilians has seen a strong resurgence in 2020, according to UNMISS’s data. The targeting of civilians has been far higher in the first half of 2020 than in corresponding months in 2019.

  • April-June 2020: UNMISS reported more than 417 attacks against civilians reported, with a minimum of 1,620 civilians harmed.1United Nations in South Sudan Human Rights Division (UNMISS HRD), “April – June 2020: Quarterly Brief on Violence Affecting Civilians,” p. 1.
  • This is a near quadrupling of civilians attacked from the same period in 2019, which reportedly saw 138 incidents and with 441 civilians harmed.2Ibid.

According to ACLED, there was a significant spike in the number of organized violent events in South Sudan in the first half of 2020. ACLED’s data suggests that the number of civilian fatalities in South Sudan has varied significantly from year to year since the outbreak of the civil war in South Sudan. So far this year (from January through September 2020), ACLED’s data shows lower levels of civilian fatalities due to armed conflict and violence compared to all of 2019. 

According to ACLED’s data, events targeting civilians in 2020 have comprised nearly half of all organized violent events.

Type of violence

In 2020, the majority of violence against civilians is attributable to intercommunal violence.

  • April-June 2020, UNMISS reports that this intercommunal violence was responsible for over 86% of civilian harm, an increase of 11% from earlier in the year. The states of Jonglei, Lakes and Warrap experienced the brunt of it during that period.3Specifically, April through June, UNMISS attributed 14% of attacks against civilians to the counties of Tonj East and Tonj North in Warrap, 10% to Uror county in Jonglei, and 6% to Rumbek East in Lakes. Source: UNMISS HRD, “April – June 2020: Quarterly Brief on Violence Affecting Civilians,” p. 4-5.
  • The UNSG reports that, January-March 2020, 36,000+ civilians were displaced by communal violence, including in the areas of Central Equatoria, Jonglei, the greater Pibor area, Lakes, Unity, Western Bahr el-Ghazal and Warrap.4United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation in South Sudan, S/2020/536, 15 June 2020, p. 6.

Death and physical injury continue to be the most frequent forms of violence against civilians, followed by abduction and sexual violence.5UNMISS HRD, “April – June 2020: Quarterly Brief on Violence Affecting Civilians,” p. 1. Men, especially young men, make up the vast majority of victims of violence against civilians as a whole. Women and children tend to face greater secondary impacts from ongoing violence, such as having less access to education, healthcare and livelihood activities.6UNMISS HRD, “April – June 2020: Quarterly Brief on Violence Affecting Civilians, p. 4.

Type of perpetrators

Community militias/self-defense groups

  • These actors are primarily responsible for the significant rise in intercommunal violence. Attacks against civilians carried out by these armed groups appear to have some prior coordination and local buy-in.
  • In attacks occurring in Jonglei and Greater Pibor in the first half of 2020, these groups had the reported approval of local religious leaders from the Lou Nuer and Murle communities to commit attacks, as well as individual participation from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO (RM)) and the South Sudan People’s Defense Forces (SSPDF).7Ibid., p. 5.

Government forces and armed groups

  • Violence against civilians by the conventional conflict parties has continued, though UNMISS reports a decrease from 23% in the first quarter of 2020 to 11% in the second quarter.8Ibid.
  • From April to June 2020, the geographic focus of violence against civilians has been in Yei (Central Equatoria) and Mundri, Maridi, Mvolo and Tambura (Western Equatoria).9Ibid. This violence has resulted from fighting between government forces and sections of SPLA-IO (RM), as well as the government’s targeting of the National Salvation Front (NAS).10Ibid., p. 4.

Lastly, opportunistic actors have been responsible for about 3% of violence against civilians this year.11Ibid., p. 5.

POC sites

From July to early September 2020, 13 people had been detained by UNMISS for their suspected leadership in security incidents within the POC sites in Bentiu, Juba and Malakal. Eight of these individuals are to face investigation and prosecution by national authorities.12United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation in South Sudan, S/2020/890, 8 September 2020, p. 8. This is a significant decrease from last reported numbers in June, which saw 100+ individuals detained by UNMISS, with 17 facing prosecution.13United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General on the Situation in South Sudan, S/2020/536, 15 June 2020, p. 8.

Bentiu

Number of individuals: 99,052.14“South Sudan — Bentiu POC Site Population Count (June 2020),” IOM, 24 July 2020.

Demographics: South Sudanese IDPs are mainly from opposition areas, with a primary ethnic makeup of Nuer and some Shilluk. From December 2018 to May 2019, the majority of displaced persons entering the site came from Sudan.15United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General on Future Planning for the Protection of Civilians Sites in South Sudan, S/2019/741, 12 September 2019, p. 9-10.

Perceived threats inside camp: Armed looting; communal clashes; arson.16Ibid, p. 10.

Perceived threats outside camp: Criminality; cattle raiding; presence of armed forces; physical, sexual and gender-based violence.17Ibid.

Reasons for lack of departure: General insecurity; lack of food in return areas; few education opportunities.18Ibid.

Intention to leave: 46% within next year.19Richmond Blake, Rebecca Gibbons, Jon Kurtz, and Janardhan Rao, “Migration Intentions, Access to Information, and Social Connections in South Sudan,” Mercy Corps, February 2020, p. 1.

Reasons for intended departure: Increased confidence in travel safety due to political peace deal; unsafe/deteriorating camp conditions.20Ibid., p. 2.

Top sources of information: Familial and social connections.21Ibid.

Need for information: 83% do not have sufficient access to information on safety and security outside the POC site.22Ibid.

Note: In November 2019, two civilians were killed at the Bentiu POC site after fighting arose.23“UN mission, community leaders, condemn South Sudan violence which left two dead at camp,” UN News, 25 November 2019, https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/11/1052121.

Under violence against civilians, ACLED includes attacks, abductions, and sexual violence

Juba

Number of individuals – POC 1: 7,515; POC 3: 24,598.24“Intentions of IDPs in Protection of Civilians Sites, Location: Juba POC 1,” UNHCR, September 2018 and “Intentions of IDPs in Protection of Civilians Sites, Location: Juba POC 3,” UNHCR, October 2018.

Demographics: IDPs are predominantly of the Nuer ethnicity.25United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General on Future Planning for the Protection of Civilians Sites in South Sudan, S/2019/741, 12 September 2019, p. 11-12.

Perceived threats inside camp: Gangs; tensions at water sources; politicization of communities.26Ibid.

Perceived threats outside camp: Military checkpoints; government security forces; retribution for desertion or political affiliation.27Ibid.

Intention to leave – POC 1: 38% of households in POC 1; POC 3: 43% of households.28“Intentions of IDPs in Protection of Civilians Sites, Location: Juba POC 1” and “Intentions of IDPs in Protection of Civilians Sites, Location: Juba POC 3.”

Reasons for departure – POC 1: Improvement of road access (58%); POC 3: Family reunification (86%).29Ibid.

Reasons for lack of departure in POC 1: External safety concerns (38%); food assistance (34%); health reasons (20%).30“Intentions of IDPs in Protection of Civilians Sites, Location: Juba POC 1.”

Reasons for lack of departure in POC 3: External safety concerns (95%); food assistance (32%); shelter (19%).31“Intentions of IDPs in Protection of Civilians Sites, Location: Juba POC 3.”

Top sources of information: Familial and social connections in preferred destination (main method of communication: phones).32Ibid.

Need for information – POC 1: Security (37%); POC 3: security (38%); family situation (15%).33Ibid.

Note: POC1 and POC 3 reportedly house senior political and military opposition figures.34United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General on Future Planning for the Protection of Civilians Sites in South Sudan, S/2019/741, 12 September 2019, p. 12.

Malakal

Number of individuals: 27,924.35“Biometric Registration, Malakal, POC Site Upper Nile,” IOM, 27 January 2020.

Demographics: Majority of IDPs are of the Shilluk ethnicity.36United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General on Future Planning for the Protection of Civilians Sites in South Sudan, S/2019/741, 12 September 2019, p. 13.

Perceived threats inside camp: Sexual and gender-based violence (especially at night); criminality.37Ibid.

Perceived threats outside camp: Physical and sexual violence (esp. from soldiers); retribution.38Ibid.

Intention to leave: 44%, one-third intended to leave within three months’ time, as of October 2018.39“Malakal POC, Intention-Perception Survey,” IOM and UNHCR, 8 May 2019, p. 1.

Top preferred destinations: Malakal North, South, Center and East.40Ibid.

Reasons for intended departure: Improved security at destination; access to humanitarian services; economic and livelihood opportunities.41Ibid., p. 7.

Perceived risks of departing: Violence at preferred destination, regardless of gender or age, followed by violence on the road and lack of support at destination.42Ibid., p. 9.

Top sources of information: Public announcements; radio; familial and social connections in preferred destination.43Ibid., p. 10.

Need for information: 66% need more information about preferred destination.44Ibid.

Among those who do not intend to leave or are uncertain, improvement in security situation (78%) and assurances from the government on safety (36%) were listed as desired factors for leaving.45Ibid., p. 9. Among those who are Shilluk, there is reluctance to leave due to disputes with Dinka over land and presence of armed forces in the Wau Shilluk area.46United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General on Future Planning for the Protection of Civilians Sites in South Sudan, S/2019/741, 12 September 2019, p. 13.

Wau

Number of individuals: 9,956.47UNMISS, “’Protection of Civilians’ (POC) Sites Population Update,” 11 June 2020.

Reason for original displacement: Political conflict (84%); inter-communal fighting (14%).48“Wau Displacement Sites: Intention-Perception Survey Dec 2019 – Jan 2020,” IOM, 25 March 2019, p. 8.

Perceived threats inside camp: Criminality; gangs; sexual and gender-based violence; retribution.49United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General on Future Planning for the Protection of Civilians Sites in South Sudan, S/2019/741, 12 September 2019, p. 14.

Perceived threats outside camp: Armed groups; tensions between Lou and Dinka; detention of young people by government forces.50Ibid.

Intention to leave: 36% intend to leave, as of January 2020.51Wau Displacement Sites: Intention-Perception Survey Dec 2019 – Jan 2020,” p. 4.

Top preferred destinations: Jur River; Wau North and South; Besselia and Bagari (also in Wau county).52“Wau POC AA: Intention-Perception Survey,” IOM, 11 January 2019, p. 5.

Perceived risks of departing: Violence at preferred destination, regardless of gender or age, further compounded by lack of land or housing there.53Ibid, p. 7. For those from Wau North and Wau South, concerns include gang violence, military intimidation in the streets and frequent gunfire from partially populated neighborhoods.54Ibid., p. 6.

Top sources of information about preferred destinations: Radio is the top source of information. Friends and relatives in preferred destinations, word of mouth, public announcements, and community members in preferred destinations are additional sources.55Ibid., 8.

Need for information: 70% stated they need more information about their preferred area of return or relocation.56Ibid.

Recent influx of IDPs: March-June 2019, over 12,000 individuals entered POC site, fleeing violence in Jur River, which caused a 30% increase in IDPs in the Wau Town area. Their main reason for seeking refuge in the camp was the protection offered by UN peacekeepers.57“Wau Displacement Sites: Intention-Perception Survey Dec 2019 – Jan 2020,” p. 4.

Means of survival: As reported by the UNSG in September 2019, prominent Fertit and Luo leaders claim the Wau AA POC site is the “only viable means for survival” for their people. Others have asserted that UNMISS is protecting opposition affiliates and criminals within the site.58United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General on Future Planning for the Protection of Civilians Sites in South Sudan, S/2019/741, 12 September 2019, p. 14.

Bor

Number of individuals: 1,925.59“Bor POC Site Profile,” South Sudan Camp Coordination and Camp Management Cluster, April 2020.

Demographics: Majority of IDPs are Nuer.60United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General on Future Planning for the Protection of Civilians Sites in South Sudan, S/2019/741, 12 September 2019, p. 10.

Perceived threats inside camp: Sexual violence; forced marriage.61Ibid., p. 10-11.

Perceived threats outside camp: Presence of military and police training camps; detentions; abductions; sexual and gender-based violence.62Ibid., p. 11.

Need for information: Security (36%); access to preferred destination (15%); assistance (14%).63UNHCR, “Intention of IDPs in Protection of Civilians Sites, Location: Bor POC,” December 2018.

Relocation information access: 63% indicated they did not have access to information about their original or usual residence.64Ibid.

Majority of IDPs leave Bor site on a daily basis for livelihood/employment and return at night. Visitors who enter the site temporarily (mainly from northern Jonglei) have reported it using as a stopping point on their way to Juba or another destination.65United Nations, Report of the Secretary-General on Future Planning for the Protection of Civilians Sites in South Sudan, S/2019/741, 12 September 2019, p. 11.

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