Bureaucratic Mess in Juba Puts Millions on Path to Statelessness

By Sarnata Reynolds

The ongoing conflict between the Sudans affects daily life for everyone here, whether through fuel shortages or price inflation. But beyond the conflict zone itself, few have been more affected than the hundreds of thousands of southern Sudanese returning from the north.

Just a few weeks ago, the two governments were poised to sign a “four freedoms” agreement, which would have permitted nationals of either country to live, work, move, and own property in both countries. Slated for approval on April 3rd, the agreement went unsigned as conflict between the two nations quickly escalated into the occupation of Heglig and regular bombing of other border locations. 

Up to 700,000 southern Sudanese living in the north have been declared foreigners, with targeted attacks against them increasing and a persistent threat of deportation and mass expulsion. Because Khartoum stripped away the nationality of all southern Sudanese upon the creation of South Sudan in July 2011, they are at an exceptionally high risk of statelessness unless and until they can acquire a nationality certificate in South Sudan. This, however, will not be easy.

Only one nationality office exists in South Sudan: in Juba, the nation’s capital. Long lines outside the office – some days-long – attest to the desire of these people to acquire their new nationality. However, most who need it will not be able to afford the application fees. Moreover, to be eligible for a nationality certificate, a person must first pay for photographs, a blood test, and a birth certificate – none of which are affordable in a country where poverty is deep and nearly universal. (If a birth certificate is not available – which is often the case – the person must pay for an “age assessment”, basically an evaluation based on physical features.)

A witness from the same tribe as the applicant must be willing to wait with them for the hours or days it takes to submit the paperwork. These fees and the time required to obtain documents create significant barriers for the people who most need nationality.

Today, my team observed nationality officers reviewing applications in Juba. Because there are no instructions as to how to fill out the forms, people inevitably make minor mistakes and must submit their applications all over again. Out of four applicants RI observed, three were sent back for further processing due to technical glitches. While one person was able to submit a corrected application, the others were required to obtain even more documentation from their communities. One would have to go to court to have at least two forms amended, which would require two more witnesses. Magnify these cases by a million – and that figure is no exaggeration – and you will have a sense of the bureaucratic and logistical nightmare looming in Juba.

It is critical that the government of South Sudan takes three steps to ensure that those eligible for citizenship have the opportunity to apply. First, instructions on how to fill out a nationality application, and what supporting documents are needed, must be clear and widely available. Although many applicants will not be literate, some remaining knowledge gaps can be filled by word-of-mouth. Second, application fees should be waived in for those who cannot pay but are otherwise eligible.

Third and finally, more nationality offices should be opened, with at least one in each of South Sudan’s 10 states. Already, there are concerns that nationality officers in Juba are creating obstacles for people from remote areas or minority groups - if only because the officers do not know they exist. Locating nationality offices in each state increases the likelihood that officers will be aware of most local tribes or ethnic groups.

If these steps are not taken, millions of South Sudanese may never become citizens at all, dooming them to lives without rights or legal protections. In a world where 12 million people are already stateless, adding millions more in South Sudan would be a shameful failure. The government of South Sudan, its foreign backers, and the United Nations must not allow that to happen.