Most members of IGAD back a proposal to allow free movement of citizens within the East African bloc – but are facing resistance from South Sudan, where officials remain cool to the measure.
Officials and diplomats from the eight-nation bloc discussed the free movement proposal in Juba this week, along with trade, customs and communications issues.
Abdelrahim Ahmed Khalil, acting head of the IGAD liaison office in South Sudan, says waiving visa fees across the bloc would promote economic growth.
“With this protocol, people will have the opportunity to move freely from country to country, to ... own properties and to engage in other activities,” Khalil told VOA’s South Sudan in Focus.
The EU’s head of delegation in South Sudan, Stefano De Leo, said free movement would unite all IGAD states.
“Imagine, you can work in the biggest cities of the region, being respected as the citizens of the country. Your children may study as the children of citizens of other IGAD countries in the same school with the same rights,” said De Leo.
South Sudanese national Keji Simon, who was raised partially in Uganda, an IGAD member, says getting those rights would make it easier for South Sudanese to live abroad.
“Like in school, we South Sudanese are not considered so much when it comes to things [like] academics, and sometimes when we fall into problems, when you are a foreigner when you’re in that country, you face a lot of problems,” he said.
But officials in South Sudan, which is mired in a conflict between pro- and anti-government forces that has displaced four million people, are less enthused about the proposal.
South Sudan’s ambassador to the African Union and IGAD, David Buom Choat, says open borders raise defense concerns.
“Because when you have the citizen of the region, moving within the region, any country will also make sure that their national interest is [protected] and your national interest will be to protect the national security of your country,” Choat said.
Interior Minister Rier Gatlier said 70 percent of South Sudan’s population would not take advantage of the proposal because they cannot read or write.
“They will not go to Uganda to work, to look for job. They will not go to Kenya, they will not go to Ethiopia, they will not go to Sudan. They will remain in our country. It’s only thirty percent will be engaging with our member states,” he said.
Despite the officials’ reservations, William Barriga, the chief of mission for the International Organization of Migration in South Sudan, insists the free movement proposal makes economic sense.
“A lot of the goods we consume here in South Sudan are imported from the neighboring countries. For these goods to reach us the movements of people who are moving these goods need to be facilitated,” Barriga said.