South Sudan’s diaspora in Australia: coping with war, criminalisation, trauma and citizenship

Rebecca Lorins and Gabriel Kiir at the University of Juba.

This commentary was co-authored by the research team, Freddie Carver, Dr Santino Atem Deng, Dr Nicki Kindersley, Gabriel Kiir, Dr Rebecca Lorins and Dr Sara Maher. It offers initial reflections on an ongoing research project; the full report will be released in early 2018.

Australia’s roughly 30,000 South Sudanese residents are currently faced with crisis on all sides. Especially since the so-called ‘Moomba riot’ in March 2016, South Sudanese Australians are being criminalised by the Australian media and political classes, are subject to the highest levels of discrimination of any migrant group in Australia, and increasingly face the risk of physical violence from neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups, who are threatening vigilante action against black people in public space.

As new black migrants in Australia, the South Sudanese community face alienation and disenfranchisement; and they are also struggling — on the other hand — with the violent collapse of South Sudan since civil war broke out in December 2013. As the South Sudanese Pound (SSP) collapses and inflation escalates, many of their relatives at home are increasingly reliant on money sent from their international relatives. This is placing intense strain on the financial, personal, and psychological resources of Australian South Sudanese people, as they support their friends, relatives, and the wider community with basic needs including food and rent, healthcare and education, funeral costs, and the emergency costs of fleeing from South Sudan’s spreading conflict.

Now that people can’t return to South Sudan safely, they are struggling to support families and extended communities who depend increasingly on them for basic survival, the education of their children, and mental support. As famine back home escalates, and friends and relatives flee for their lives into refugee camps, families are becoming dislocated and disconnected; an estimated 14,000 unaccompanied children are currently resident in refugee camps in Uganda alone. The costs and emotional support of this community disaster are falling heavily on those living in refuge abroad. The personal and psychological stress of this burden is immense.

Together, with the Rift Valley Institute, a group of South Sudanese, Australian, US and UK scholars have addressed the relationship between Australian South Sudanese communities and their friends and relatives at home in Juba, the capital of South Sudan. The project has brought students and staff of Monash and Juba Universities together to highlight this largely hidden part of this small community’s daily lives in Australia. Our data paints a bleak picture: Australian South Sudanese residents struggle to access trusted information about events in South Sudan, and struggle to build trust in a community fragmented by the civil war back home. The continuing violent events in South Sudan are deeply traumatic and provoke highly emotional responses that are exploited by political partisans on all sides of the conflict: this is working to fragment the South Sudanese community at home and in Australia at a time when solidarity and mutual support is desperately needed.

RVI’s research is unpacking these complex sets of reciprocal personal, familial, wider kinship and political obligations, and how conflict continues to affect those in places of refuge, and how it shapes their responses to the situation they left. As conflict worsens, and this impacts directly on diaspora communities through personal tragedy, economic commitments or growing ethnic division, the pressure to act increases, but the actual effect — both in reality and perception — of these actions can be hard to control. Often relying on kinship and ethnicity networks, they can be easily interpreted as playing into existing conflict fault-lines, and concerns easily arise that diaspora actors, perceived as having greater access to resources, are stoking the conflict.

This perception is exacerbated by the fact that it is South Sudanese elites, those most implicated in driving the current conflicts, who can most easily leverage transnational networks to their advantage, since they have the resources to move themselves, their families, and their assets back and forth most easily. Indeed, many of the South Sudanese elites — on all sides of the conflict — have dual citizenship themselves, a source of serious consternation to those who face the impact of conflict in South Sudan and who have no means of escape.

The current Australian debates over racial tensions and immigration — as with many other refugee and immigrant hosting countries — generally fail to recognise the combined pressures that these communities face. But this is a vital part of any discussion with this community of their needs and problems. South Sudanese communities worldwide are struggling to manage the immediate burdens of civil war, while trying to forge new paths to peace for their troubled nation. This is vital work, but it cannot be done in a climate of intense public criminalisation and exclusion — but only through a sense of common humanity, collaborative engagement, and collective support.

New Project Launch: South Sudan Diaspora Impacts

South Sudan’s civil conflicts, economic crisis and political fragmentation continue. Diaspora communities around the world – numbering in the hundreds of thousands – are engaged on a daily basis with this situation: via social media, remittances for family and funding of organisations, and through regular visits or work in the region. This engagement appears to financially and practically underpin the survival and organisation of many families, civil organisations, and armed groups.

1d6ce30The Rift Valley Institute’s Diaspora Impacts Project (DIP) aims to fill a vital knowledge gap on the networks and systems of this diaspora. It focuses on the Australian South Sudanese community, and the mechanisms through which they may influence South Sudan’s current civil war. The impact, credibility and use of this digital, financial, and practical engagement within South Sudan are very poorly understood. The project builds on a scoping study that was commissioned early in 2017 by the Australian Embassy to Ethiopia and South Sudan.

Working with the Universities of Juba and Monash, the research project is designed to provide grounded knowledge of the real impacts of Australia-based diaspora engagement within the country. It actively engages the Australian-South Sudanese community both in Juba and in Melbourne in research and reflection. The project is run through a network of South Sudanese researchers, graduate student bodies, highly experienced regional and diaspora researchers. The research is led by Nicki Kindersley (University of Cambridge); Rebecca Lorins (University of Juba) and Sara Maher (Monash University).

In early 2018, the RVI will disseminate findings of the research in a series of events and publications. The project aims to provide an evidentiary basis with direct implications for policy on emergency aid, conflict mitigation/de-escalation actions, mediation and peace-building planning, and transitional and post-war justice issues within both the diasporic and international communities.

South Sudan: a political economy analysis

Written for the Norwegian Government’s major policy review with Øystein Rolandsen of PRIO, this report sets out a survey of the state of South Sudan, examining its military-political structures, government and popular economies, regional conflicts and rebel movements. The study involved extensive research in South Sudan and Uganda. The full PDF can be downloaded here: NUPI-PRIO Political Economy Report.

Workshop: Beyond the statistics: Examining the lived-experience of South Sudanese displacement

Location: National Museum of Uganda, Kampala

Date: 26th May 2017

South Sudan’s current conflict has again forced hundreds of thousands of residents out of their homes and across borders. The scale, speed, and complexity of the crisis has reinforced the popular use of statistical descriptors, explanations of ‘inter-ethnic violence’, and counter-intuitively impersonalised stories of ‘victims’. The advocacy of this explanatory industry – whilst based on good intentions – often silences and flattens local experience. Despite wide scholarly criticism, it is often generalised narratives that continue to shape how global publics conceive of African refugees in war.

This one-day workshop aims to bring together South Sudanese communities, scholars and activists to discuss other ways of seeing this long and painful history of displacement. Together we aim to historicise and deepen our perspectives on the current crisis and conflict in South Sudan, exploring the practical, intellectual and emotional politics and history of displacement.