What Is the Extent of Sudan’s Humanitarian Crisis?

In Brief

What Is the Extent of Sudan’s Humanitarian Crisis?

After months of civil war, Sudan is at risk of collapse. Close to eight million people have been displaced by the conflict, exacerbating an already devastating humanitarian crisis.

Sudan has been engulfed in civil war since fighting erupted in April 2023 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 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, the North and West Kordofan provinces, 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 established humanitarian corridors and a framework for political dialogue, but did not resolve the conflict. 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. Negotiation efforts are now at a standstill. 

A map of Sudan with important data points such as population (49 million)

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 more than 3.7 million internally displaced persons. The country was also hosting some 1.3 million refugees, the majority from South Sudan.

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Now, the situation is “one of the worst humanitarian nightmares in recent history,” says Martin Griffiths, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator. According to the UN refugee agency, more than 7.8 million people have been displaced since April 2023. Of them, more than six million are internally displaced, while over one million are refugees who have fled to neighboring countries. As of January 2024, at least thirteen thousand people had been killed and more than twenty-six thousand injured, though the actual figures are likely to be considerably higher.

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. Millions of people lack access to clean water, and rising food and fuel costs are exacerbating food insecurity, which currently affects nearly eighteen million people; the World Food Program says that parts of Sudan are at a high risk of experiencing “catastrophic hunger conditions” without additional food assistance. The United Nations estimates that almost twenty-five million people, or more than half of Sudan’s population, need aid and protection.

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Where are refugees going?

More than 540,000 people, or 48 percent of all new refugees, have headed west to Chad, while more than 195,500 have relocated within Sudan. Another more than 425,000 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.

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 the surging rates of 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, which a UN fact-finding mission is formally investigating.

A map showing that there are 6 million internally displaced persons in Sudan

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. 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 fleeing conflict in the Darfur region cross the border between Sudan and Chad.
Sudanese refugees fleeing conflict in the Darfur region cross the border between Sudan and Chad. Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

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. 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.

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. Egypt’s border remains open, but crossings are often delayed for days, and migrants there face immense challenges. 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 April and November 2023, the United Nations and its humanitarian partners provided life-saving assistance to about five 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. However, the United Nations announced it will withdraw its political mission in Sudan in February 2024, citing a failure to meet its mandate for a peaceful political transition.

The conflict has forced the United Nations and aid organizations to temporarily halt or scale back in-country operations. The RSF captured the city of Wad Madani in Gezira state, a critical aid hub, in late 2023, further hampering aid delivery. In December 2023, the World Food Program suspended assistance in Gezira due to escalating violence. Other groups, such as the International Rescue Committee, have been forced to relocate their staff to safer areas. Meanwhile, funding shortfalls make it difficult to meet refugees’ needs. The United Nations’ 2024 appeal for $2.7 billion worth of aid for Sudan is only 3 percent funded; last year’s appeal fell far short of the $2.6 billion requested.

Will Merrow created the graphics for this In Brief.

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