UNMISS relocates thousands of IDPs from Tomping Camp to UN House in Juba UNMISS relocates thousands of IDPs from Tomping Camp to UN House in Juba Photo credit: Isaac Billy/UN Photo
Protection of Civilians sites: a new type of displacement settlement?
by Damian Lilly September 2014

Humanitarian crises frequently give rise to new kinds of settlements for internally displaced persons (IDPs). In the Balkans in the 1990s, humanitarian actors provided assistance in ‘collective centres’ – pre-existing buildings such as schools and churches – which subsequently received increased attention. I wrote an article in this magazine about the ‘tent villages’ set up following the earthquake in Pakistan in October 2005. The conflict in South Sudan since 15 December 2013 has arguably produced yet another type of IDP settlement to add to the humanitarian lexicon: ‘Protection of Civilians (PoC) sites’. These settlements have hosted more than 100,000 IDPs within UN premises for several months, and look set to continue for the foreseeable future. This article provides an initial assessment of the lessons learned from these PoC sites.

Not entirely a new phenomenon

PoC sites are not the same as the ‘safe havens’ established in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Rwanda in the 1990s, which were on a far larger scale and constituted preplanned, designated areas where civilians could be protected, albeit with often terrible consequences. In contrast, PoC sites refer to situations where civilians seek protection and refuge at existing United Nations bases when fighting starts. Although most UN peacekeeping missions have encountered this phenomenon at one stage or another, the creation of PoC sites on such a scale at the bases of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is arguably unprecedented in UN history.

Since the start of the UNMISS mandate in July 2011, the mission has frequently provided refuge to civilians seeking temporary protection. For example, between October 2012 and November 2013 more than 12,000 civilians sought protection at UNMISS bases on 12 separate occasions. In one incident, from 19–21 December 2012, 5,000 civilians were sheltered at the UNMISS base in Wau in the west of the country. Based on these experiences guidelines were developed for managing such situations, outlining the roles and responsibilities of the actors involved, including coordination with humanitarian agencies. The guidelines state that providing protection for civilians at UNMISS bases should be a last resort and a temporary solution before more sustainable protection and assistance can be provided.

Each UNMISS base was required to develop (within existing budgets) contingency plans to prepare for such eventualities. However, the mission did not foresee the scale at which this phenomenon would manifest itself when fighting between factions of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) broke out in the capital, Juba, on 15 December 2013. As the fighting spread to other major towns, thousands of civilians poured into UNMISS bases across the country. Because of the ethnic dimension of the conflict – between South Sudan’s two main ethnic groups, the Dinka and the Nuer – it quickly became apparent that displacement would not be temporary, and civilians would require protection and assistance for weeks, if not months.

What’s in a name?

As the response to the crisis has evolved several different terms have been used to describe the settlements developing within UNMISS bases. The primary concern of UNMISS was to implement its protection of civilians mandate while resisting the creation of IDP camps within its bases. UNMISS therefore proposed and has used the term ‘protection of civilians (PoC) sites’ as opposed to ‘IDP camps’. Humanitarian actors agreed with this terminology because they also hoped that providing assistance on UNMISS bases would be a short-term phenomenon, before business as usual resumed.

There are several implied consequences of the term ‘PoC sites’. In theory, they should only provide refuge for civilians ‘under threat of physical violence’, rather than the broader definition of IDPs who are forced from their homes due to conflict. In reality, though, there was little difference between the status of IDPs sheltered at UNMISS bases and those in other settlements elsewhere. There was concern that the PoC sites could act as a magnet for some of the 800,000 IDPs in other parts of the country. Because it was envisaged that the PoC sites would be temporary, humanitarian actors did not provide the same level of assistance that they might have done in a typical response in more traditional IDP camps.

Civil-military coordination

UNMISS and humanitarian actors have been compelled to work together in unusual and exceptional ways in the PoC sites. A division of labour and roles and responsibilities were quickly established. UNMISS’ primary task was to provide defence from external threats and ensure security within the PoC sites, while helping to facilitate the work of humanitarian actors by providing logistical support. The actual humanitarian response was coordinated by humanitarian actors, who called upon UNMISS to provide what help they required. Parallel (albeit overlapping at times) coordination mechanisms for protection on the one hand and assistance on the other were established. The camp management cluster was activated, which acted as the main operational interface between the parties.

While these were the preferred roles and responsibilities, a certain degree of flexibility was required. UNMISS had no intention of providing humanitarian assistance, but because humanitarian actors frequently chose to relocate their staff due to insecurity, the mission had to assume such a role on a number of occasions. At least at the beginning of the crisis, it was not uncommon for UNMISS military, police and civilian personnel to conduct food distributions, establish site management arrangements and even build latrines and water points. Overall UNMISS made a significant contribution to the humanitarian response. For example, by the end of July 2014, 20 UNMISS health clinics had provided medical care to 19,986 sick civilians, including treating 2,682 injured civilians for gunshot wounds.

Humanitarian actors had some misgivings about operating on UNMISS bases, given the negative impact doing so could have had on their perceived neutrality and independence. Prior to the crisis, the Humanitarian Country Team (HCT) had drafted Guidelines for Coordination between Humanitarian Actors and the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. In view of the unusual circumstances these guidelines had to be implemented with a degree of pragmatism, and the humanitarian imperative was so great and the security situation so unpredictable that working in and staying on UNMISS bases became unavoidable for many humanitarian actors, including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Providing physical protection

One of the main principles of the UNMISS guidelines on civilians seeking protection at its bases was that the mission should only offer protection if it had the military capability to provide physical security. This was the tragic lesson learnt by the UN in Srebrenica in 1995. However, on 19 December 2013 two UNMISS peacekeepers were killed along with several civilians when the UNMISS base in the town of Akobo was overrun by 2,000 armed Nuer. In another incident, on 17 April 2014, more than 50 civilians that had sought refuge at the UNMISS base in Bor were killed in an attack on the PoC site. UNMISS was forced to extract civilians from other bases and reinforce its military presence. On three occasions fighting near the UNMISS base in Malakal resulted in casualties in the PoC site. On 24 December 2013, Security Council Resolution 2132 increased UNMISS troop levels to 12,500, with an additional 5,500 troops, not all of whom have as yet arrived. The police component was also increased, to 1,323.

Lack of civilian character and security concerns

As with other displacement contexts, maintaining the civilian character of the PoC sites has been a major challenge. A significant proportion of the people seeking refuge were former combatants. By relinquishing their weapons and uniforms they became civilians and eligible for protection. However, there was always the risk of these individuals rejoining the fighting, and UNMISS was criticised by both sides in the conflict for harbouring potential adversaries. A clear ‘no arms on UN premises’ policy was implemented. While screening was conducted by UN police at entry and exit points to ensure that weapons did not enter the PoC sites, this was not foolproof and some weapons were brought in. UNMISS conducted searches for firearms, ammunition and other weapons in each of the PoC sites.

With such large numbers of people from different ethnic groups living in congested conditions, security within the PoC sites also became a major issue. ‘Ground rules’ were established with community leaders that outlined appropriate conduct and behaviour for IDPs sheltering on UN premises. UNMISS police conducted patrols throughout the sites daily and addressed security incidents. Meanwhile, UNMISS and humanitarian actors supported community-led informal mitigation and dispute resolution mechanisms.

Crime is a problem in most IDP settings, and the local authorities are usually responsible for policing settlements and dealing with crime. Given that the PoC sites were on UNMISS premises, however, the UN had a responsibility to investigate security incidents in the first instance, and then work with the local authorities to try to ensure that the perpetrators were brought to justice. Dealing with security incidents in PoC sites raised many legal dilemmas about the appropriate role of the UN in such circumstances, as well as human rights concerns.

Maintain minimum humanitarian standards

Under the original UNMISS guidelines on civilians seeking protection at its bases it was agreed that humanitarian actors would not provide humanitarian assistance on UNMISS bases in order to maintain their distinctive role. Only in extremis was it agreed that they would hand over relief items to UNMISS to provide minimum levels of assistance. For its part, UNMISS had no intention of providing more than medical assistance and water for civilians seeking protection at its bases, given that it did not have a mandate to provide humanitarian assistance and that such circumstances were only ever meant to be temporary.

However, within the first few days of the crisis it quickly became apparent that the IDPs seeking protection would require long-term assistance, and that humanitarian actors would have to provide a response in the PoC sites to avert a major humanitarian crisis. As a result the initial guidance was set aside. At the same time, the PoC sites rapidly became congested, and maintaining minimum humanitarian standards was extremely difficult. For example, in the Tomping PoC site in the Juba UNMISS base there were ten times as many people as there should have been according to the Sphere standard of 45 square metres per person of living space. Congestion presented major health and protection risks. Outbreaks of cholera and other communicable diseases were averted, but insufficient sanitation facilities have increased mortality among children, and measles outbreaks were confirmed in two sites.

Transitional and durable solutions

It became apparent from the onset of the crisis that the PoC sites were only ever going to be suitable as a temporary refuge for IDPs. The sites were not appropriate from a site management perspective. That some of the sites were located within UNMISS bases and intermingled with buildings in which UN staff lived and worked was particularly problematic from the perspective of the safety and security of UN personnel. The immediate priority, therefore, rapidly became building new PoC sites adjacent to UNMISS bases as a transitional option. Durable solutions for the IDPs, including their return to places of origin or resettlement in other parts of the country, were initially distant prospects, but became the main concern with the onset of the rainy season by June, which made conditions in existing sites extremely problematic. By July UNMISS and humanitarian partners had begun to relocate IDPs to more sustainable PoC sites.


Protecting more than 100,000 civilians for several months and providing adequate humanitarian assistance to avert disease has been a significant achievement for UNMISS and humanitarian actors. However, the PoC sites were not created by design but by default in an extremely challenging situation brought about by a quick-onset crisis. They do not represent sustainable settlements for IDPs and should remain an option of last resort, or ideally avoided altogether. Nevertheless, given that most UN peacekeeping operations now have protection of civilians mandates, they must be prepared for such eventualities, and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations is considering developing generic guidance for such situations. For humanitarian actors, it would also be useful to include PoC sites in the next iteration of camp management guidelines and other humanitarian standards.

Damian Lilly was the Senior Advisor on the Protection of Civilians for UNMISS until March 2014. He has worked for a number of different UN entities and NGOs. This article has been written in a personal capacity and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the UN.