This week, Southern Sudanese voters have cast their ballots in the long-awaited referendum which will confirm the independence of South Sudan. So far, the process has been greeted with cautious optimism. Despite widespread pessimism just a few months before, there has not yet been widespread bloodshed.
There are many excellent analyses of the Southern Sudanese march towards independence. But one story which caught my attention, below the headline reports from the streets of Juba, were the polling stations opened in eight countries — including the UK — allowing the Southern Sudanese diaspora to vote from abroad.
I’ve written elsewhere in a more research-based context about the role of out-of-country voting in post-conflict reconstruction. It’s certainly important not to over-exaggerate the impact or the participation — of the diaspora in the referendum vote itself. Yet the Southern Sudanese independence process seems to me to also demonstrate a very simple political point. Asylum works — not just as sanctuary, but as the essential precursor to a solution.
The Southern Sudanese diaspora have gained enormously from their time in exile — in terms of education, political organization, financial capital — and it is this diaspora that have the capacity build a new South Sudan. Many have returned — or are planning returns in the near future
Yet the long road to a peaceful and prosperous independence for Southern Sudan isn’t fully travelled yet. There are prophecies of war: political stability is not assured. Poverty is certain. It’s here that asylum — and the eventual dual citizenship that often follows — play a crucial role in giving Southern Sudanese professionals the confidence to commit to reconstructing Sudan — because it makes it a choice to return.
Sitting in a small office in Kampala a few months ago, I heard stories about the Southern Sudanese officials preparing for government — while revising for their Dutch citizenship tests, or securing a home in Uganda. These are the ‘just in case’ stories. Given South Sudan’s recent history, it’s hardly surprising that even the architects of the new state make their back-up plans. After all, UNHCR has kept its camps in northern Uganda open in preparation for a post-referendum influx.
My point is that it’s the choice — the mobility — that migration and dual citizenship have brought to many Southern Sudanese that will help to make possible its development. Would you return to a country emerging from crisis — even if it was your country — without an exit route?
Yes, those without diaspora connections may resent the South Sudanese who return with ‘a hand on their foreign passports’, just as in Afghanistan. And yes, the return of a wealthy, educated diaspora with political connections can spell trouble — just look at Rwanda. But it also spells hope.
This is why we should protect asylum — and defend it from those who argue it’s too generous, too susceptible to abuse. A few decades of hospitality seems a small price to pay for a stable, secure Sudan. If South Sudan is successful, much of that success will rest upon the shoulders of many South Sudanese who are also Britons, Americans, Australians, Germans…
Let us hope that Southern Sudan might offer a rare instance of refugee protection successfully offering the means to a hoped-for end: a sustainable and safe return from one “home” from the sanctuary offered by another.