It has been nearly three months since fighting broke out in Khartoum between two forces vying for power within Sudan: the Rapid Support Forces under the leadership of Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo (also known as Hemedti); and the Sudanese armed forces under Abdul-Fattah Al Burhan. As the violence spread out from the capital, especially to Darfur region, hundreds of thousands have sought to escape across the borders into neighboring countries like Chad, South Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia.
Since the fighting started, around 645,000 people have left Sudan and sought sanctuary elsewhere, and a further 2.2 million people have been forcibly displaced within the country. These numbers include not only Sudanese nationals, but also people who themselves had been refugees within Sudan, having fled conflicts in their own countries, now forced to move once again in the face of violence.
Alongside the individual human tragedies of people being forced to flee with what few belongings can be quickly packed and loaded into a car (for the lucky few), a crowded bus for others, and carried by those having to march long distances to safety, there are wider implications for regional security and the humanitarian system as a whole.
Even before this latest crisis, the humanitarian system was at breaking point. Numbers of those requiring assistance are growing rapidly, while at the same time the gap between funding pledged and that required is widening.
When there is already a $22 billion overall gap between UN calls for assistance and what has been provided, its call for $3 billion to be made available this year to provide support for the hundreds of thousands on the move in and out of Sudan looks very unlikely to be met. The key donors are distracted. Europe is focused largely on the crisis in Ukraine and to a lesser extent (in the south) on how it responds to migration across the Mediterranean. Countries in the Middle East are coping with the millions who fled have Syria over the past decade. Turkey, a key regional player, is now also coping with its own tragedy, the February earthquake. The United States is increasingly distracted by the campaigning for the 2024 presidential elections, the outcome of which will determine how far it responds to crises and disasters outside areas of its own economic interest.
The countries to which the majority of refugees have fled – South Sudan and Chad – must therefore bear the costs of responding to their needs from their own limited and stretched humanitarian resources. Rains are making the border areas where many have temporarily settled less accessible. The large numbers of refugees and others requiring humanitarian assistance are making this challenge harder. These countries were already struggling with their own humanitarian crises. Chad hosts more than a million refugees, and in South Sudan the UN had estimated that 9.4 million people would required humanitarian assistance this year, even before the latest refugee influx.
Without new funding and support, there is a very real danger that humanitarian organizations and host countries will not be able to cope, leaving thousands of already vulnerable people alone and without support.
Large-scale movements of people fleeing conflict already have a long legacy of creating new tensions and potential flash points for conflict in the region. Tensions raised by the economic impact of hosting large numbers of forcibly displaced persons if donors fail to step up, will be compounded by the increased competition for scare resources (land, water, funds), especially coming as it does after one of the most serious and prolonged droughts in the region’s recent history.
The region is home to some of the world’s poorest countries, whose land-locked economies are already facing disruption in the vital access they need to Sudan’s ports. Now that they are being forced to bear the burden of supporting large numbers of new arrivals, there is a very real risk that the refugee crisis will create new tensions, which could escalate regional insecurity far beyond Sudan’s own borders.
At the global level, any large-scale movement of people, especially if the crisis is not ended soon, risks undermining the international norms and conventions around the treatment of refugees and forcibly displaced persons.
We have already seen this in action, with the closing of borders and policing of seas in response to the conflict in Syria. As larger numbers attempted to flee that violence from 2011, European countries and institutions erected tougher physical and legal barriers, undermining the responsibilities governments hold for responding to the needs of those trying to escape harm. The result has been the rise of a populist politics openly challenging international laws; and the increase in migrant boat tragedies including the sinking of a boat off the Greek coast last month, which killed hundreds of people seeking a better life.
There is a real danger that, should those fleeing violence in Sudan, come up against the hard borders of Europe, its politicians will seek to undermine and change the 1951 Refugee Convention and subsequent international laws. In the US, a Republican Party still under the sway of Donald Trump and his nationalist politics could use this crisis and the calls for significant funding to demand further cuts to overseas aid budgets (including humanitarian).
With a system already threatened by under-funding and efforts to evade and redefine responsibilities, the hundreds of thousands made vulnerable in this latest crisis, and those who will follow in subsequent ones, will be left more vulnerable, more marginalized, and more subject to the violence they are seeking to escape.
Michael Jennings is a professor in global development at SOAS University of London, where he works on issues related to global health and the politics and history of global development. Twitter: @mikejennings101