What Is the Extent of Sudan’s Humanitarian Crisis?

In Brief

What Is the Extent of Sudan’s Humanitarian Crisis?

More than a year into the civil war in Sudan, over nine million people have been displaced, exacerbating an already devastating humanitarian crisis.

Sudan has been engulfed in civil war since fighting erupted on April 15, 2023, between the nation’s military, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), and a paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The violence shattered Sudan’s fragile peace and worsened an already precarious humanitarian situation, driving the spread of mass-starvation conditions. Meanwhile, neighboring countries have taken in more than one million refugees, risking broader destabilization across the Horn of Africa and Sahel regions.

What’s driving the conflict in Sudan?

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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. Fighting has been concentrated in and around the capital, Khartoum, and the western Darfur region.

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International efforts to broker peace talks or establish a caretaker government have 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 2023 established humanitarian corridors and a framework for political dialogue, but it did not resolve the conflict, and both warring parties have hindered the delivery of aid. Meanwhile, the Sudanese government has cut ties with the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a bloc of East African countries, over its outreach to RSF leader Hemedti, and has banned several foreign media outlets from the country. Today, negotiations remain at a standstill. Washington has announced plans to resume mediation efforts alongside Riyadh, though some experts are skeptical that this round can overcome the issues of previous talks.

A map of Sudan showing the capital, Khartoum.

How bad is the humanitarian situation?

Sudan was already experiencing a grave humanitarian crisis before the conflict broke out, with more than 15 million people facing severe food insecurity and an estimated 3.7 million internally displaced persons. The country was also hosting some 1.3 million refugees, the majority from South Sudan.

Sudan is “on the precipice of a horrifying humanitarian disaster,” CFR Africa expert Michelle Gavin warns. According to the UN refugee agency, more than 9.3 million people have been forcibly displaced since April 2023. Of them, more than seven million are internally displaced, and nearly two million are refugees who have fled to neighboring countries. As of May 2024, more than sixteen thousand people had been reported killed in Sudan’s conflict, though the actual figure is likely to be considerably higher.

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The conflict is destroying Sudan’s infrastructure. Air strikes and shelling have hit hospitals, prisons, schools, and other facilities in dense residential areas. The fear of disease is particularly acute, and health authorities have warned that cholera, dengue fever, and malaria are circulating in several states as health conditions continue to deteriorate rapidly and millions of people lack access to safe drinking water. At the same time, rising food and fuel costs are exacerbating food insecurity, which currently affects nearly eighteen million people, and several parts of the country are on the verge of famine. The World Food Program says Sudan could become the site of “the world’s largest hunger crisis” without a cessation of hostilities. In total, some twenty-five million people, or more than half of Sudan’s population, need aid and protection, according to UN estimates.

Where are refugees going?

More than 608,000 people, or roughly 46 percent of all new refugees, have headed west to Chad. Another more than 561,000 refugees are South Sudanese who had previously fled to Sudan and have since returned to their home country due to this conflict. The remaining refugees have fled to the Central African Republic, Egypt, and Ethiopia, all of which have sizable refugee and internally displaced populations of their own.

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UN experts say that Sudan is experiencing the world’s largest internal displacement crisis, and that the total number of refugees will keep growing as fighting continues. The majority of refugees are women and children, who are more vulnerable to sexual assault and gender-based violence. There have also been reports of ethnically driven mass killings and weaponization of sexual violence against the Masalit people, particularly in the West Darfur city of El Geneina. Both the SAF and RSF have been accused of war crimes; the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation.

A map of Sudan showing the number of refugees and displaced persons

How have neighboring countries responded?

Many of Sudan’s neighbors are still struggling to handle the influx of refugees on top of their own domestic headaches. “The consequences of the war in Sudan will not be contained within its borders,” Gavin writes. 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. 

Sudanese refugees cook outside makeshift shelters near a relocation camp close to Adre, Chad.
Sudanese refugees cook outside makeshift shelters near a relocation camp close to Adre, Chad. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

In addition, concerns over foreign interference have grown as the conflict escalates. Egypt has close ties to the SAF, while Russia-backed Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar has sent military supplies to the RSF. Sudan’s deputy leader also made a trip to Russia earlier this year to draw up a port-for-arms deal. The Sudanese army and U.S. lawmakers have also publicly accused the United Arab Emirates of providing military supplies to the RSF, which Abu Dhabi has denied. 

The crisis has also presented a looming threat to regional economic cooperation on Nile River water resources and several major oil pipelines that cross through Sudan. Climate change has contributed to devastating drought and floods, heightening migrant displacement and upping the pressure on access to natural resources. The country’s ports along the Red Sea are also in a precarious position amid increasing attacks on vessels by the Iran-backed Houthi rebel movement in Yemen. The SAF has reportedly benefited from using Iran-made drones, though both Tehran and Khartoum deny having any direct connection. 

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 immediately after fighting broke out but continues to aid refugees that make it across, though Chad itself is suffering from a lack of food aid. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that Washington was pushing the UN Security Council to set up an aid delivery operation to Sudan through Chad. Egypt’s border remains open, but crossings are often delayed for days, and migrants there face immense challenges, which reportedly included the threat of deportation and mass arbitrary detentions. 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 years. In the first four months of 2024, the United Nations and its humanitarian partners provided life-saving assistance such as food, water, and medical services to more than five million people across the country, with the goal of reaching close to fifteen million people by the end of the year. Several other organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and various Islamic relief agencies, are also supplying aid, in addition to the work being carried out by local Sudanese aid groups.

The conflict has forced the United Nations and aid organizations to temporarily halt or scale back in-country operations. The RSF captured the capital city of Wad Madani in Gezira state, a critical aid hub, in December 2023, further hampering aid delivery. That same month, the World Food Program suspended assistance in Gezira due to escalating violence, though the agency has since resumed its work. Other organizations, such as the International Rescue Committee, have found it difficult to reach those in need in areas that are experiencing heavy fighting, such as the city of al-Fashir in North Darfur. 

Meanwhile, funding shortfalls persist. The United Nations’ 2024 appeal for $2.7 billion worth of aid for Sudan is only roughly 17 percent funded; last year’s appeal fell far short of the $2.6 billion requested. In April 2024, France hosted a humanitarian conference that collected more than $2 billion in pledges of additional international aid. But experts say it isn’t enough. “If the fighting were to stop tomorrow,” Gavin writes, “the rebuilding would take generations.”

Will Merrow created the graphics for this In Brief.

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