Africa

Dispossessed: the South Sudanese without a nationality

  • 6 April 2012
  • From the section Africa
Fatna Khamis Bilal outside her house

"I'm living outside, I'm hungry, and I want to go to South Sudan," says Fatna Khamis Bilal.

She is one of an estimated half a million South Sudanese in Sudan who are running out of time.

A grace period for them to regularise their status in what was once their country comes to an end on 8 April.

Unless there is a last-minute intervention, almost all will no longer be legal residents of Sudan and many fear what could come next.

Ms Bilal took me to see her home-made shelter - little more than a brightly coloured sheet - on a patch of waste ground in Wad el Bashir in Omdurman, just across the River Nile from the capital, Khartoum.

More than 500 South Sudanese have assembled here, as they wait for transport to take them to their country.

Some are sleeping on the floor, and the walls of their new "houses" are bags and cardboard boxes containing all their possessions.

Many were born in Sudan, or have lived here for decades.

When South Sudan seceded in July 2011, Sudan decided all those it considered South Sudanese would lose their Sudanese nationality - giving them until 8 April to sort out their papers.

But South Sudan has not yet started issuing identity documents for its nationals in Sudan, and many South Sudanese say they have been turned away when they approached Sudanese officials about work permits.

Statements from officials have got many South Sudanese worried.

'Four freedoms'

The governor of Sinnar state has reportedly said his state will expel South Sudanese on 9 April.

Just last month it seemed as though a solution had been found.

Sudanese and South Sudanese negotiators initialled a document, which was the first step in giving citizens of both countries the "four freedoms" in the other state - the freedom to go there and live there, the freedom to work, and to own property.

The four freedoms would allow South Sudanese - once they have proper documentation from the new state - to live and work in Sudan, and it would allow Sudanese groups like the Misseriya who live near the border to move freely into South Sudan with their cattle, as they have always done each year to seek water and pasture.

The next step was getting Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir and South Sudan's Salva Kiir to sign the agreement at a summit in Juba.

But Sudanese hardliners heavily criticised the deal - chief among them al-Tayyib Mustafa.

His Intibaha newspaper, which is extremely critical of South Sudan, has the biggest circulation in the country, and Mr Mustafa's influence is strengthened by the fact he is President Bashir's uncle.

He believes the four freedoms will allow South Sudan to infiltrate spies and military men into Sudan.

He thinks an influential group of South Sudanese politicians, named Garang's boys after former southern rebel leader John Garang, still want to bring down President Bashir.

'Backlash'

Mr Mustafa maintains the four freedoms would be a disaster for his country.

"[The South Sudanese] should go, they should go to their country," he told the BBC.

South Sudanese men, including chief Carlo Musa
Many South Sudanese lack the money to travel to South Sudan, and have no form of identification

"The government should differentiate between those who support the SPLM [South Sudan's governing party], and ordinary South Sudanese. I don't have any problem with them. But I think we should take care because they have their own plan to destroy Sudan, and to occupy Sudan."

This backlash, followed by days of fighting near the disputed border between Sudan and South Sudan's armies, lead to a postponement - or cancellation - of the Juba summit.

It now seems unlikely the four freedoms will be agreed on - in the short term at least.

In this climate many South Sudanese believe they have little choice but to leave.

Relatively well-off South Sudanese have been booking flights and travelling overland.

"I am going before April 8th," says John, "I have no choice."

The land route through Southern Kordofan has become very dangerous though - and 1,600 South Sudanese would-be returnees were held up by the recent fighting there.

Others have been trying to leave for months, without success.

Thousands are living rough - like Ms Bilal in Wad el Bashir - as they have given up their homes.

'Risk of deportation'

Carlo Musa is a chief of the South Sudanese in Wad el Bashir. He's been in Sudan for 43 years, and worked as a tailor. No longer.

"Nobody is working here. We've been out of our homes for three months. We're going to South Sudan, but we need the help of the two governments to return to our country."

South Sudanese children
The UNHCR believes that South Sudanese in Sudan may face a risk of deportation

The good news is separation doesn't seem to have led to problems between the Sudanese and South Sudanese citizens, at least in Wad el Bashir.

"Between the two peoples I think there is no trouble, we are living, we go to market, there is nothing between the people," says Mr Musa.

But the South Sudanese he is responsible for are suffering.

"The people here are very tired. The men have no work, no food, that is our situation."

He and others say they don't have the money to travel to South Sudan, and in particular to transport all their worldly goods.

Others - like those who worked as civil servants or soldiers - are waiting around until they get their pensions, and in some cases, pay arrears.

Many fear that they may be forced to leave, once the grace period expires.

The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, is concerned.

Following the expiry of the grace period, South Sudanese in Sudan will be considered as foreigners and so may "face a risk of deportation," says UNHCR's head of protection in Sudan Philippa Candler.

"At the moment we are optimistic there will not be large-scale deportations, but it is a risk for individuals because of their lack of legal status."

She says an extension of the transitional period would enable people to get the documents they need, and that the four freedoms would be very beneficial for South Sudanese.

But both of these seem unlikely to happen, and half a million South Sudanese find it impossible to predict their immediate future.

Around the BBC