Sudan conflict straining fragility of its neighbors

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The conflict between Sudan’s rival military factions is triggering massive population displacements that are stressing the region’s already fragile coping systems.

The conflict between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) commanded by General Abdel Fattah al Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) headed by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo has thrown into turmoil a region that was already straining under record levels of humanitarian stresses. Even prior to the outbreak of conflict in Sudan, there were more than 13 million people in Sudan and its 7 neighbors who were refugees or internally displaced (IDP). More than 40 million people in these countries were facing acute food insecurity. Resources to assist these populations will now be even further stretched.

This reality underscores that each of Sudan’s neighbors is currently or was recently struggling with their own conflict or political instability. It also highlights the compounding effects that each of the region’s crises are having on one another.

Sudan had already been hosting over 1 million refugees from its neighbors, as well as 3.7 million of its own internally displaced (out of a population of 45 million). Almost 30 percent of the refugees in Sudan were living in Khartoum and are now trying to evade the fighting there. The majority of IDPs were in camps in Darfur in the west of the country, which has been a renewed focal point of conflict and further displacement.

Since the Sudan conflict erupted, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that an additional 300,000 Sudanese have been internally displaced while more than 100,000 have fled to Egypt, Chad, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and Central African Republic (CAR)—countries that are facing their own stressors. These figures are surely an undercount as humanitarian access and communications with much of the country have been cut. UNHCR warns that 800,000 people could flee Sudan because of the conflict.

Egypt

Egypt has been a major route for Sudanese refugees escaping from Khartoum, receiving 42,000 people so far according to UNHCR. These numbers are expected to increase substantially as many busloads of Sudanese are waiting at the border. Egypt is a major transit and destination point for migrants leaving hardship elsewhere in Africa, hosting nearly 9 million economic migrants. Egypt has been engaged in a prolonged dispute with Ethiopia over management of Nile River water access stemming from the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), further adding to regional tensions.

Chad

“Chad has almost 400,000 IDPs due to its own instability. With a long legacy of autocracy under Idriss Déby, Chad has faced perpetual instability.”

Despite border closures, some 30,000 Sudanese have already crossed the border into Chad and tens of thousands more are expected. Chad already hosts almost 600,000 refugees, 400,000 of which are from Sudan’s Darfur region. In addition, Chad has almost 400,000 IDPs due to its own instability. With a long legacy of autocracy under Idriss Déby, Chad has faced perpetual instability. When Déby was killed in battle with an armed opposition group in 2021, the military bypassed the constitutionally mandated succession plan and installed his son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby, as president. Violent crackdowns against peaceful protesters calling for a restoration of constitutional order in October 2022 have generated another wave of refugees and internally displaced from this strategically important Sahelian country linking West, North, East, and Central Africa.

South Sudan

Nearly 30,000 Sudanese refugees are reported to have crossed the border into South Sudan. For most of its 10 years of existence, South Sudan has been in a civil war. More than a third of the population has been forcibly displaced—2.2 million as IDPs and 2.3 million as refugees. About 810,000 had fled to Sudan. Of the remaining 8 million South Sudanese in country, 7.8 million are facing acute food insecurity including 43,000 facing famine—virtually all of which is attributed to conflict. South Sudan remains in a state of persistent crisis.

Ethiopia

Host of the third largest community of refugees in the region (after Uganda and Sudan) with almost 900,000, Ethiopia has since 2020 been embroiled in internal conflict, primarily involving the Tigray region, which borders Sudan. The number of internally displaced in Ethiopia is around 3 million, though accurate figures (particularly for the Tigray region) are not available. An estimated 20 million Ethiopians are facing acute food insecurity. Ethiopian refugees in neighboring countries total close to 145,000. This includes many Tigrayans who fled to Sudan when the Ethiopian conflict started in November 2020. Despite the escalation in clashes in Sudan, very few Ethiopians have returned (750) and few Sudanese have crossed into Ethiopia (about 900). Instead, it is mostly migrants from other countries (about 7,300) that have taken advantage of the Ethiopian border to flee Sudan.

CAR

More than 6,000 Sudanese have fled to CAR. They were joined by 400 refugees from CAR who had previously escaped the fighting there. About 500,000 Central Africans are internally displaced and 750,000 have fled conflict into neighboring countries, including more than 24,000 into Sudan. Almost half of the population (some 3 million) of this sparsely populated country is facing acute food insecurity primarily due to conflict.

Libya

While Sudanese refugee figures going into Libya are currently unavailable, this is likely because of the difficultly of accessing these border areas. Libya has long been a key transit country for migrants and refugees fleeing conflicts and repression from the western Sahel and other parts of Africa. An estimated 667,440 migrants are in Libya, many of whom are subject to abuse by human traffickers. Libya has also been facing an extended political conflict as militias linked to the eastern-based warlord, Khalifa Haftar, have repeatedly tried to undermine and overthrow the UN-backed government in Tripoli.

Eritrea

There are few, if any, reported Sudanese refugees fleeing to Eritrea, which is itself a major country of origin. More than 336,000 Eritreans have escaped the country of 3.6 million. Forced military conscription, arbitrary arrests, disappearances, and torture are among the many abuses against its citizens attributed to the Eritrean government by the UN. Eritrea was also a combatant in the neighboring Tigray region’s conflict with the government of Ethiopia.

Written by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies and republished with permission. The original article can be found here.