Sudan has been engulfed in civil war since fighting erupted on April 15 between the nation’s military, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The violence has worsened an already precarious humanitarian situation, and while neighboring countries have taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees, experts say the conflict has the potential to destabilize the Horn of Africa and Sahel regions.
What’s driving the conflict in Sudan?
The two warring parties were previously allies, having joined forces in 2019 to overthrow dictator Omar al-Bashir, who ruled for three decades before his ouster. The SAF’s leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, replaced him as de facto head of state. Burhan was backed by RSF General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, in orchestrating a second coup in 2021 that toppled Sudan’s interim government. But amid international pressure to transition to a civilian government, a push to integrate the RSF into the national army triggered a violent revolt from Hemedti in mid-April 2023. The RSF has a sizable presence in Darfur and has seized towns across the country while fighting continues for control of the capital, Khartoum.
International efforts to broker peace talks have so far been unsuccessful. These have included negotiations sponsored by the United States and Saudi Arabia, which resulted in at least sixteen failed cease-fires, as well as unsuccessful peace plans proffered by the African Union and other regional blocs. An Egypt-led conference with Sudan’s neighbors in July established humanitarian corridors and a framework for political dialogue, but that arrangement has not managed to resolve the conflict. The slew of failed peace talks have prompted calls for a caretaker government.
How bad is the humanitarian situation?
Sudan was already experiencing a humanitarian crisis before the conflict broke out, with more than 15 million people facing severe food insecurity and more than 3.7 million internally displaced persons. The country was also hosting some 1.3 million refugees, the majority from South Sudan.
The situation is now “spiraling out of control,” says the United Nations. According to the UN refugee agency, more than four million people have been newly displaced since April. Of that, more than three million are internally displaced, while over 914,000 are refugees who have fled to neighboring countries. As of July 11, at least 1,105 people have been killed, including at least 435 children, and 12,115 have been injured, though the actual figures are likely to be considerably higher.
The conflict is destroying Sudan’s infrastructure, especially in and around Khartoum. Air strikes and shelling have hit hospitals, prisons, and other facilities in dense residential areas. The fear of disease is particularly acute, and health authorities have warned of a looming catastrophe as deteriorating health conditions contribute to a rise in disease outbreaks. Tens of millions of people lack access to clean water, and rising food and fuel costs are exacerbating food insecurity, which is projected to affect nineteen million people by the end of the year. Already, the United Nations estimates that some twenty-five million people, or more than half of Sudan’s population, need aid and protection.
Where are refugees going?
More than 279,000 people, or 39 percent of all new refugees, have headed north to Egypt. Another 203,000 are South Sudanese who previously fled to Sudan and have since returned to their home country. The remaining refugees have fled to the Central African Republic, Chad, and Ethiopia, all of which have sizable refugee and internally displaced populations of their own.
UN experts say that the total number of refugees is likely to keep growing as fighting continues. The majority of refugees are women and children, who are more vulnerable to the surging rates of sexual assault and gender-based violence, though there have been reports that civilians of all ages are suffering human rights abuses.
How have neighboring countries responded?
Many of Sudan’s neighbors are struggling to handle the influx of refugees on top of their own domestic headaches. Five of the seven countries bordering Sudan have recently suffered internal conflict, and refugees who previously fled violence and famine in Ethiopia and South Sudan are now returning to their home countries alongside Sudanese nationals. Additionally, countries are concerned about spillover conflict and potential foreign interference; Egypt has close ties to the SAF, while Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, reportedly backed by Russian mercenaries, has sent military supplies to the RSF. The crisis could also threaten regional economic cooperation on Nile River water resources and several major oil pipelines that cross through Sudan.
UN experts say Sudan’s neighbors need far more assistance. The Central African Republic has called for more aid, as its own internal conflict has rendered it ill-equipped to handle incoming refugee flows. Chad closed its land border with Sudan but continues to aid refugees that make it across. Meanwhile, Egypt’s border remains open, but reports say crossings are often delayed for days, and there are worries about the country’s ability to absorb refugees. Several countries in the Horn of Africa and Sahel regions—including Chad, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Kenya, and South Sudan—have participated in peace negotiations in hopes of stemming these issues at their source.
What have international organizations done?
A constellation of agencies, funds, and programs, collectively known as a UN Country Team (UNCT), has been in Sudan for more than a decade. Between January and September 2022, the United Nations and its humanitarian partners provided assistance to more than nine million people across the country, including food, water, and medical services. Several other organizations, including CARE International, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and various Islamic relief agencies, are also providing aid.
But the conflict has forced the United Nations and aid organizations to temporarily halt or scale back in-country operations. The World Food Program suspended its operations for two weeks after three of its employees were killed in the fighting; it has since resumed its work but said it lost $13–$14 million worth of supplies due to looting. Other groups, such as the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Vision International, have likewise reported their facilities broken into and supplies stolen; homes, shops, and warehouses have also been targeted. Meanwhile, the United Nations’s $2.6 billion appeal for aid to Sudan, up from $1.8 billion at the end of 2022, is only 26 percent funded.
Will Merrow created the graphics for this In Brief.