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To and From the Horn of Africa: the Case of Intra-Regional Migration in South Sudan

Botswana, Malaysia, Burkina Faso – these are not our examples. Dubai even Kuwait these are our examples. Rich oil countries where the citizens get an allowance and foreigners do the manual work[1]

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), “comprehensive and comparable official national statistics as well as reliable estimates at the regional and global levels of the economically active migrant population are still largely lacking, and short term migration (i.e. migrating for less than 12 months) remains difficult to capture. Access to essential age and sex-disaggregated data, data on labour market needs, occupations and skills, working conditions and wages, and the social protection of migrants remain very fragmented and unreliable at national, regional and international levels.”[2]

Labour migrants are by definition casual and unskilled workers who move systematically from one region to another offering their services on a temporary, usually seasonal, basis – the true proletariat, with control over nothing but their labour and without a hope of controlling the means of production.  The pattern of labour migration internationally differs significantly from region to region and state to state. While migrants to South Africa, the Middle East, Western Europe and North America are looking to permanently move to new locations for better quality of life and job opportunities; migrants in areas like South Sudan are looking for jobs that allow them to return home relatively quickly.[3]  Although, sufficient research has not been conducted to definitively identify patterns and trends of labour migration in the Horn of Africa, the wave of labour migration to South Sudan was primarily driven by the perceived oil-driven economic boom in South Sudan in a context defined by the near-absence of state regulation and where many labour migrants felt that quick fortunes could be made.

South Sudan is a paradox, a state where the people are fiercely independent, yet the perfect case study for any dependency theorist. Here, where the Arab and African worlds meet, paradoxes are the order of the day. Nowhere is this more the case than when it comes to labour migration and conflict. While statistics are almost impossible to come by or verify, it is estimated that South Sudan with a population of 9 to 11 million, depending on the source used, had anywhere between 500,000 to 1.2 million labour migrants during the 2011-2013 heyday.[4] This would mean that the migrant population could constitute a sizable 4.5%-13% of the population of South Sudan. While numbers have dropped since the outbreak of conflict in December 2013, the overall picture is one where the bulk of the paid wage labour is done by non-South Sudanese. This article seeks to provide the historical context to why the labour migration is so high in South Sudan, outline the current patterns of labour migration in the country and its quite distinct division of labour between various migrant groups and lastly, indicate some possible future implications for relations between migrants and nationals of South Sudan.

Historical Backdrop of Labour Migration in South Sudan

Labour migration, however, cannot be explained only in the context of individual choice and attraction to higher incomes. Several factors such as the socio-economic context, institutional arrangements, political marginalisation, armed conflict, natural disasters and access to and utilisation of resources are motivators for relocation.

In the South Sudanese context, four distinctive phases can be identified as having influenced labour migration trends. These are periods that affected the Sudanese labour market, and arguably explain current patterns in South Sudan[5]:

  • The pre-colonial period, during which migration was connected with trade, nomadism and slavery and when Sudan was a net receiving country of migrants, particularly from West Africa and the Arab Peninsula.
  • The colonial period when wage labour was set free in the form of circulatory internal migration and the influx of additional migrants from West Africa for agricultural schemes such as Gezira and Blue Nile.
  • The period between the mid-1950s and mid-2005s when the wage labour market stabilised and attracted temporary rural-urban migrants besides the seasonal rural-rural ones.
  • The post-Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) period.

During the colonial period, the British introduced a series of restrictions that became known as the Closed District Ordinance Act (1914-1946). The rationale was typically colonialist-segregationist on the one hand and bent on preserving a level of isolation that probably never really existed, on the other. Arabs were barred from participating in trading activities, missionary work and administration in the South. The British policy of cordoning off the South, in spite of whatever intentions were behind it, overwhelmingly contributed to South Sudanese political marginalization, economic exploitation and cultural subjugation after Sudan independence. By 1946, the British-imposed “Closed District” policy towards the South became untenable and was subsequently abandoned, opening the door for the North to administer the South as part of one united Sudan. Southerners were overwhelmingly underrepresented in the government, generally underpaid and largely mistreated at workplaces not just in North Sudan, but also in the South, their own backyard.[6] The South was left isolated and backward and the South Sudanese were ill-prepared politically, economically, educationally and administratively by the time the British left the Sudan.[7]

The relative economic underdevelopment of South Sudan inherited from the colonial period worsened when it was part of the larger Sudanese state. Among several factors, political marginalization of the South coupled with negligible investment in services, education and the economy not only led to the civil war but also further exacerbated the socio-economic situation in the South. At the time of independence the South lagged behind not only the rest of Sudan, but the rest of the world in terms of value-added laborers and market penetration, to the point that the state had to become a net importer of labour.

Segmented Labour Migration Patterns in South Sudan

Currently, South Sudan’s labour migrants occupy largely distinct segments of the political economy.  The majority of migrants are from the neighbouring IGAD states, with Uganda, followed by Kenya and Ethiopia topping the list; Eritreans, Sudanese and Somalis are the next most common migrants. While it might be overly simplistic to outline what migrants do in South Sudan, it is clear that there is some division of labour.

Somalis tend to work in the fuel industry, managing logistics, fuel stations and sales to NGOs in South Sudan. A large portion of government officials in Juba also get their fuel from Somali middle men that truck it in from Kenya. The Somalis are some of the few migrants that have set up some kind of roots in South Sudan, with many bringing their families to the Somali quarter in the outskirts of Juba town.

Some Sudanese in South Sudan have been there since prior to the 2011 independence. Many relatives of army officers, civil servants and petty traders moved to South Sudan during the Southern struggle for independence.  The Jallaba bringers as traders from Northern Sudan are known, were petty traders and still operate a large number of the DukAn (small shops) throughout South Sudan but particularly in Juba.

Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants to South Sudan dominate the same niches in the South Sudan economy. While Eritrean migrants are mainly driven by flight from oppressive laws and the desire to escape the long military service in Eritrea, Ethiopian migrants on the other hand are mainly driven by economic motives either seeking employment, or as investors in the services and construction sectors. Most migrants make their way to the Sudan, where the choice is north to Europe or south to Kampala. While the majority choose the north seeking to travel on to Europe, a large number choose to try their luck in Kampala, a growing hub for Eritreans in Africa.  From Kampala many travel to Juba to work in one of two industries: the hotel service sector for women and the water and sanitation transportation sector for men. With a large number of hotels owned or co financed by Eritreans the hotel industry provides steady employment for thousands of young Eritrean accountants and waitresses.  The vast majority of Ethiopians in South Sudan occupy the same segment of the labour market as the Eritreans.

The Kenyans in South Sudan make up a large chunk of the white-collar workers dominating the banking sector and service sector. The Ugandans occupy most of the blue-collar jobs, mechanics, market traders, fruit sellers and street peddlers.

Much of this differentiation in the labour market has more to do with skill sets that migrants arrive with, than with opportunities in South Sudan. Military training as drivers and logisticians served the Eritrean migrants well as they operate heavy-duty trucks in South Sudan.  The Somalis who in many cases hold Kenyan nationality and have business in Kenya, possess connections in both states that allow them to traverse the border and bring in fuel. While bribes and coercion are still an issue, connection to power brokers in Kenya and South Sudan shield much of their operations. The lack of opportunities in Uganda renders even petty trade ventures with incredibly low margins not only a viable option, but also an attractive alternative to unemployment in Uganda.

International Non-Governmental Organisations as facilitators of labour migration

Today South Sudan is home to over 250 INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organizations) operating in different locations. The role of INGOs in the labour market is largely understudied. INGOs attract skilled labour and act as intermediaries in the migration of labour across borders.   Non-South Sudanese occupy much of the skilled labour in the sector and though there are a number of South Sudanese in all agencies, they are often low ranking staff. The paucity of skills coupled with the flight of educated South Sudanese has meant that much of the high-paying jobs sit with foreigners.

In a rash attempt to remedy the above situation, South Sudan passed a number of poorly written and ill-designed pieces of legislation in 2013 and 2014; the most notorious being Circular No. 007/2014. The country’s foreign minister said that the policy was designed to favor local workers, but only when they were qualified for the jobs.  In the end, the decree proved unworkable and was recalled less than a month later.[8]

On a smaller scale, the economic gains through employment in INGOs and the UN system of South Sudanese educated abroad are often resented by the South Sudanese who “stayed and fought”. The business people from neighbouring countries who prospered during the economic reopening of the country during the CPA period also appear to face growing resentment for failing to recruit and train local staff.

Those who have gained least economically from the CPA and independence that ensued include uneducated rural youth. It is those areas most deficient in resources (infrastructure, education, farming or grazing land, water, etc.) or where the exploitation of resources (oil) has had locally negative economic consequences that have been the most affected by conflict in 2011–2012. Price rises and scarcity of goods has been felt disproportionately in states most distant from new supply routes through Kenya and Uganda. They have also been most affected by the arrival of returnees and refugees.

However, these economic stresses do not seem to have precipitated significant ill-will or violence against recent migrants.[9] So far, there have been only been a few isolated incidents of violence against labour migrants from the Horn of Africa. A key factor that explains this situation is that the vast majority of South Sudanese do not operate in the market economy. This can be understood as an outcome of a past history of socio-economic neglect under both colonial rule and later in the period when South Sudan was part of the larger Sudanese state. The civil war only exacerbated this state of affairs. This has led to a situation in the post-CPA period where economic competition between locals and migrants is limited to the small number of South Sudanese working mainly in the NGO sector. Few South Sudanese engage in trade, and while the numbers are growing, few work in the service sector. In effect, the formal sector of the economy has by default become the sphere of migrants from neighbouring states in the Horn of Africa.

Future scenarios

The large numbers of labour migrants in South Sudan and their preponderance in the formal sector of the economy seems set to continue in the foreseeable future. In so far as South Sudan’s political economy is a product of history, structural changes will take time. The current conflict in South Sudan and how it unfolds will however have important ramifications for the migrant population in South Sudan.

In the event that the conflict escalates and worsens, a greater number of migrants may decide to flee the country. This does not necessarily, however, imply that they will be making the decision to return to their countries of origin. Other African countries or journeying on to Europe might seem like more viable options for many. Peace and its attendant reconstruction, or a scenario where the conflict evolves into a continued stalemate, on the other hand, may lead to a situation where even more migrants head to South Sudan.

Whilst all attention, in the short-term, should be placed on the South Sudan peace process and securing immediate peace, there are a number of issues that need to be considered for the sustainability and consolidation of peace of the country and its relations with its neighbours in the region. Among such issues is the necessity, in the longer-term, for caution and foresight (and the dangers of complacency) both on the part of the authorities in South Sudan and the governments of neighbouring states on how to coherently deal with the issue of labour migration in South Sudan given its precarious political economy. Incremental shifts in the socio-economic structure is likely to lead to growing economic competition between native South Sudanese and migrant workers which, over time, might also translate to increased tensions between the citizens and migrants in South Sudan.


Kwesi Sansculotte Greenidge was formerly with the ACCORD (African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes) and currently is the ‎Program Manager Africa, at The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD Centre).He can be reached on
This article relies primarily on the author’s observations and impressions during the period October 2011 to March 2014 when he was based in South Sudan as the Sudans Programme Coordinator for African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD).The lack of references to written sources reflects the absence of written sources on recent labour migration to South Sudan.

[1] Senior South Sudan government official 2013



[4] Conversation with GoSS official 24.08.2015


[6] Robert, Collins. 2007. Southern Sudan in Historical Perspective. Cornell University Press, lthaca.

[7] Lazarus Leek Mawut. 1983. Dinka Resistance to Condominium Rule, 1902-1932. Graduate College, University of Khartoum,



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