Internal displacement is a way of life in South Sudan. Millions of southern Sudanese endured decades of civil war from 1955–1972 and again from 1983–2005, fleeing to neighbouring countries or displaced in their own country as internally displaced persons (IDPs). In a wave of optimism following the signing of the peace agreement in 2005, millions returned to southern Sudan to vote, overwhelming, for independence from Sudan in 2011. The first two years of the new nation seemed promising as communities began to rebuild. However, long dormant tensions among political elite were coming to a head and erupted in violence in December 2013 and again in July 2016.

Today, more than 1.7 million people are internally displaced and 2.4 million have sought safety across borders as insecurity persists across much of the country. Approximately 203,000 people in South Sudan are living in the confines of five United Nations (UN) peacekeeping bases, seeking protection from the crisis and fearing targeting due to their ethnicity. While comprising only a small fraction of the displaced community, the protection of civilian (PoC) sites have presented distinct challenges for humanitarian actors.

While the nature of IDP settlements may vary depending on the context, PoC sites are unique.1,2 Never, on such a large scale, have IDP settlements existed within or near UN peacekeeping bases, protected by armed peacekeepers, and seen the blurring of civil and military lines. PoC sites do not fit neatly into any of the defined types of typical IDP settlements—planned camps, self-settled camps, collective centre, reception and transit centres and emergency evacuation centres.3 When the crisis erupted, South Sudanese chose to flee to nearby peacekeeping bases to seek protection. The bases, not designed to host such large numbers of IDPs, have required extensive expansion, rehabilitation and maintenance in the following years to ensure dignified living conditions as the crisis shows few signs of abating.

The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement have, at least implicitly, informed the response in the PoC sites. Surrounded by an unpredictable security situation, humanitarians and the displaced population in the PoC sites face three distinct challenges, aligning with Principles 3, 22 and 28:

  • Principle 3: The PoC sites exist amid active conflict and represent, themselves, a failure of the authorities to protect and provide for its displaced population.
  • Principle 22: While their futures are reliant on a national, political solution, IDPs in PoC sites feel removed from the process and lack a direct avenue to participate.
  • Principle 28: Humanitarians seek to provide dignified living conditions for PoC IDPs while at the same time fostering returns through relief activities outside of the PoC site amid fluctuating and unpredictable security conditions.

Principle 3 – Protection

At its core, the existence of PoC sites highlights the failure of Principle 3 of the Guiding Principles: “National authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons within their jurisdiction. Internally displaced persons have the right to request and to receive protection and humanitarian assistance from these authorities. They shall not be persecuted or punished for making such a request.”

The PoC sites exist first and foremost as a means of providing protection from fighting between Government and opposition forces and violence from other armed actors. For many, the Government’s security forces are considered the primary threat. In turn, peacekeeping and humanitarian actors have taken on the role of providing assistance and, de facto, protection to IDPs.

The town of Bentiu is home to the largest PoC site, with approximately 113,000 IDPs and a population that is predominantly Nuer, the ethnic majority of the opposition. Bentiu is located in one of the most volatile flashpoints of the country, Unity State,4 which is an oil producing state and home to the opposition leader, former first vice president Riek Machar, and the current first vice president, Taban Deng. Fighting in Unity has been particularly rife throughout the conflict, including a dry season offensive in 2015 that led to the largest influx of IDPs to the Bentiu PoC site. Once again in 2018, fighting resumed in southern Unity, with an incredible push not only to kill civilians but also destroy their livelihoods. Thousands of people fled into the bush and the swamps for safety.

For many, the decision to come to the PoC site was a last resort. Angelina, a 24-year-old living in the Bentiu PoC site, said “The conflict forced me to come here. I was living in Bentiu town since 2008 and when the fighting struck after December 2013, I fled to our village in Koch [south of Bentiu], where I thought it would be safe. When we reached Koch, we saw the same problem: people were dying from fighting, dying because they had no food. So, we came here for security in January 2014, walking for two days, fearing all along of attacks along the road.”

Angelina’s experience is heard again and again from IDPs across the Bentiu PoC site. Many fear stepping out of the confines of the PoC site for threat of ethnic targeting or gender-based violence from armed men in the area. Not only do they fear for their lives, but many have nothing to return to, their homes and villages burned or destroyed by the warring parties. And, even if their homes are left standing, lands have gone unharvested for years and livelihoods lost as the crisis continues. Further issues regarding housing, land and property arise from lack of legal infrastructure, appropriation of IDP homes by actors in the conflict and habitation of abandoned homes by IDPs and returnees who lack better options.5

Principle 22 – Non-Discrimination

The future of IDPs, particularly in PoC sites, is tied to a political peace process that they perceive as going forward without their involvement. Each time it delays, fails or is not respected, their stay in the PoC is prolonged. Yet, IDPs are not a passive group in this narrative. It is their perceptions of security and ability to meet basic needs that guide their returns.

In line with Principle 22, IDPs maintain their “rights to freedom of thought, conscience religion or belief, opinion and expression; the right to seek freely opportunities for employment and to participate in economic activities; the right to associate freely and participate equally in community affairs; the right to vote and to participate in governmental and public affairs, including the right to have access to the means necessary to exercise this right; and the right to communicate in a language they understand.”

However, IDPs in Bentiu, particularly young adults, feel excluded from the peace process. While hopeful that their leaders will commit to peace, they are concerned of lack of inclusivity and trustfulness of the parties.

As part of a larger multi-agency building initiative, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) undertook a project, known as ‘My Voice Matters’ in the Bentiu PoC site in early 2018. The project, which encouraged ownership by the youth, involved youth in and creative activities, such as production of music, art and sports, to promote peace and provide a platform for disenfranchised youth to share their thoughts on peace. My Voice Matters also provided a productive activity for those, particularly men, who are drawn to criminal activities as a result of idleness, confinement and frustration.

While the project initially sought to provide the youth a forum to interact with peace initiatives at the national level, IOM quickly found that, for the youth, with undefinable futures, the concept of peace was more local. They want to see social peace among themselves, among the youth, and try to bring in those inclined to violence to join a more positive activity. They see this internal peace emanating out beyond their community and to their leaders.

IDPs, particularly women, express a lack of understanding and information on what is happening with the peace process. The national and international processes feel distant and removed: “IDPs are not represented in the peace process. The people in Addis [where the international negotiations take place] do not know our challenges,” said Nyapat, a women’s leader in the Bentiu PoC site.

Principle 28 – Dual Responsibility

Peacekeeping and humanitarian agencies have also taken on much of the responsibility for seeking to establish conditions for return while at the same time providing lifesaving aid inside the PoC sites. According to Principle 28, “Competent authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to establish conditions, as well as provide means, which allow internally displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence, or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country. Such authorities shall endeavor to facilitate the reintegration of returned or resettled internally displaced persons. Special efforts should be made to ensure the full participation of internally displaced persons in the planning and management of their return or resettlement and reintegration.”

As diplomatic and political processes, including the High Level Revitalization Forum and National Dialogue, take place, the UN and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are placed in a catch 22, stretched thin attempting to provide dignified living conditions for IDPs while also extending lifesaving aid to the rest of the 7 million people in dire need of aid across the country.

Voluntary and safe returns are dictated by two conditions: humanitarian access to provide services in remote or rural areas and security, or perception thereof, in areas of return, resettlement or reintegration.

Through a strategy coined the “Beyond Bentiu Response,” relief agencies have undertaken a concerted effort to scale up humanitarian assistance in Unity, particularly areas in the vicinity of Bentiu, which 60 per cent per cent of Bentiu PoC IDPs indicate as their origin. This effort is often disrupted by insecurity.

For example, IOM had drilled nine out of 20 planned boreholes in surrounding towns to provide access to clean water for host communities, IDPs and returnees. This area had been viewed as relatively stable and ripe for returns, until a sudden deterioration of the security situation in April 2018 forced not only a suspension of activities but also forced the organization to withdraw and relocate costly equipment, demonstrating how volatile and unpredictable security around Bentiu remains.

While IDPs in the Bentiu PoC site express hope, they say that the security situation is worsening. “Outside it is not stable, people are still killing each other,” Angelina explains. “When the two parties see each other, they will fight. In this month [May], people are fighting from Leer to Mayendit to Koch. This is particularly hard on older people, they cannot always run when fighting starts.”

As humanitarians strive to maintain sufficient levels of aid, they have also faced obstacles in ensuring they “do no harm” in the implementation of assistance. The conflict and political dynamics that play out in the country at large are often mirrored in the PoC sites. In Bentiu, intercommunal tensions arise from divisions at the county level and within the opposition itself. In this context, humanitarian camp management must maneuver challenges in the distribution of aid and setting up and maintenance of leadership structures to avoid exacerbating divisions between population groups.

Violence in the PoC sites coupled with economic hardship have exerted negative influences on idle youth, leading to the formation of gangs inside the site. These groups often claim allegiance to particular political alliances, further exacerbating divisions. Despite the risk of destabilizing violence inside the Bentiu PoC site, many IDPs express fear of what lies beyond the confines of the PoC site. “Life in the PoC is dangerous. [Lack of] peace is the only thing preventing us from leaving. Outside, killing can be random at any time,” according to Both, a youth leader in the Bentiu PoC site.


Despite these challenges, the ongoing insecurity, rising hunger and expanding humanitarian needs indicate that the PoC sites are likely to remain a fixture of the humanitarian response in South Sudan for the coming years. The follow recommendations represent continuation and expansion of ongoing efforts that can help alleviate the suffering of IDPs, extend aid in surrounding areas and encourage steps towards social cohesion and resilience.

  • Where security conditions allow, scale up efforts to provide humanitarian aid in areas of relative security.
    • Despite insecurity, the Beyond Bentiu Response provides lifesaving aid to thousands in communities outside of the PoC site. Further, these interventions help connect communities inside and outside of the PoC sites.
  • Support local initiatives aimed at improving trust among communities and empowering IDP voices.
    • In Bentiu, IOM is undertaking projects, similar to My Voice Matters, to connect communities inside and outside of the PoC site. Through existing youth structures, the projects aim to promote dialogue on peace while at the same time improving and linking livelihoods in and among the two communities.
    • In Wau, where political divisions are less severe, camp management is looking to coordinate with UNMISS and local authorities to bridge the gap between the authorities and IDPs and help rebuild trust, by, for example, support and handover of camp management to national organizations. Humanitarians must tread carefully not to become involved in the political peace process. However, while UN and NGOs are the primary providers of protection and aid in the PoC sites, responsibilities become blurred.
  • Engage the youth in a meaningful and purposeful way to mitigate tensions inside the PoC sites. 
    • Exercises, such as My Voice Matters, reveal how well informed and willing the youth are to participate in the peace process. In addition, common spaces, such as youth centres and a library, provide youth a safe space to express themselves and spend productive hours. Communities stress the importance of having peace among themselves in their PoC community as both their primary goal and one that they feel empowered to enact change.


Ashley McLaughlin is the Media and Communications Officer at IOM South Sudan. Priscila Scalco the Camp Coordination and Camp Management Programme Coordinator at IOM South Sudan.


[1] Arensen A. (2015) If We Leave We Are Killed,

[2] Lilly D. (2014) ‘Protection of civilian sites: a new type of displacement settlement?’, Humanitarian Exchange No. 62, pp. 31-33,

[3] IOM, NRC, UNHCR (2015) Camp Management Tool Kit 2015,

[4] According to the Agreement of the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS), signed in August 2015

[5] Shelter NFI Cluster South Sudan (2017) Key Housing, Land and Property (HLP) Issues in Urban Areas of South Sudan