Sudan gives long-term residents just days to quit the country for the South

Written by Rebecca Tinsley with Olivia Warham of Waging Peace. Originally appeared in  The Guardian

Imagine that everyone living in Britain who had an Irish grandparent was given nine months to leave and return to Ireland. Imagine that people with Irish grandparents were summarily fired from their jobs, and had to scramble to sell their homes and possessions – and that hundreds of thousands faced expulsion from their homes and were forced to settle in an unfamiliar country that some had never visited.

Up to 700,000 southern Sudanese people living in Sudan do not have to imagine – this is the frightening situation that confronts them. Twenty years of civil war between President Bashir’s regime and the south caused many southerners, who are largely Christian, to flee the fighting in search of security and settle in the north. As jubilant crowds in South Sudan celebrated the birth of the world’s newest country last July, the regime in Khartoum prepared to strip the citizenship of their country from anyone they deemed a southerner. They were given just nine months to quit the only country many had ever known or register as foreigners under a regime that often violently oppresses non-Muslims and non-Arabs.

Now, there are just a few days to go before they lose their right to live as citizens of Sudan. Undoubtedly, many may want to go to South Sudan – some have already gone. But many others have no desire to. Many have lived most of their lives in the north, with jobs, houses and families. Some were born there and have known nothing else. They should have a legitimate claim to Sudanese citizenship. Instead, they are being forced to apply for South Sudanese citizenship – but the South Sudanese embassy in Khartoum cannot physically issue the necessary documentation in time. Families are telling us they fear being discriminated against, losing their jobs, being targeted by security forces, detained or even expelled – unsurprising, given President Bashir’s record. Since a coup brought him to power in 1989, he has been ethnically cleansing the country, committing the 21st century’s first act of genocide – in Darfur – and now, if it is left to run its course, possibly its second, in the Nuba mountains.

Even if a mass exodus were to take place, the logistics of nearly 1 million people packing up their homes and moving in just a few weeks would stretch any country. But the combination of creaking or non-existent infrastructure and the imminent arrival of the rainy season means that journey options are extremely limited. Thousands have already been trapped for months in bottlenecks just north of the border.

Since June 2011, conflict along the border has made travel from north to south dangerous. In the past few days, fierce fighting has erupted, with Sudan bombing southern territory, plunging relations to new lows. Sudan is once more on the verge of civil war. Again, caught in the middle are innocent men, women and children, particularly those who may have to move south.

As a result of this man-made political chaos, we are on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. The Sudanese people are no stranger to that – nor to our inadequate response, which is at least true to form: warnings have been ignored; attention is negligible.

Concerted international action is urgently required, starting with pressure on Khartoum to recognise that the April deadline for southerners to move is simply impossible and should be extended. But we need more than a temporary bandage. Sudan should not just presume that all Sudanese people who may have originated in the south would like to be citizens of the new country, to which they have no ties. Instead of arbitrarily stripping them of northern citizenship, it should allow them to apply for Sudanese citizenship, regardless of ethnicity.

A few weeks ago, Juba and Khartoum signed a framework agreement that would give nationals of each state the freedom of residence, movement, economic activity and property. Official recognition of this agreement would demonstrate a commitment on both sides to the idea that Sudan and South Sudan can co-exist peacefully – just as southern Sudanese in the north and their neighbours had done until this completely avoidable disaster. The agreement was due to be signed this week but, as is so often the case with Bashir, he has reneged on his promises, jeopardising the security and human rights of another sector of his population who do not fit in with his vision of an Islamist all-Arab state.


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