Why doesn’t South Sudan’s refugee exodus spur East Africa to action?

Aly Verjee is a visiting expert at the United States Institute of Peace and a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute.

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?

Peter Caton/UNHCRUganda 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 positively act 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.

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