Sudan’s Humanitarian Crisis Isn’t Coming, It’s Here

On the 15th of April, fighting broke out in Sudan’s capital city of Khartoum between the military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a government paramilitary group. The fighting comes on the heels of months of tension between the armed groups as they sought to integrate the RSF into the military as a first step towards a transition to democratic rule. Much of this tension boils down to a power struggle between the two men who lead the respective groups, army General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and RSF leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti.

Source: Africa Center for Strategic Studies 

Since the fighting began, over 500 civilians have been killed, though the actual death toll is likely higher, and fighting is threatening to engulf the whole country. Tens of thousands of refugees fleeing violence have made their way to neighboring countries Chad, Egypt, Libya, Ethiopia, and South Sudan creating acute humanitarian challenges in a region already stretched to the limits of its ability to provide relief aid. While much of the media coverage centers around the conflict’s political dimension, the depth of the unfolding humanitarian crisis is often referred to in the abstract, and not enough attention is paid to the precarious situation faced by those still in Sudan and those who have already fled.


The modern political history of Sudan is marked by military coups, genocide, and limited democratic engagement. In 1989, the democratically elected government in Khartoum was overthrown in a military coup led by Omar al-Bashir, who went on to lead the country for the next 20 years. At that time, al-Bashir’s government restricted political engagement and led a military campaign in the Darfur region, which has since been declared a genocide. Between 2003 and 2020, up to 400,000 were killed in the region, with targeted ethnic cleansing, rape, and other crimes against humanity ultimately impacting the lives of three million Darfuris. As a result of this genocide, many in the region have been displaced, and low-level violence and tension persists today.

In 2019, as thousands protested economic and political conditions in the country and called for his resignation, al-Bashir was ousted in a coup led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti). A brief period of democratic transition followed the coup, until in 2021 when al-Burhan and Hemedti once again seized power and consolidated control in the military forces. Since then, negotiations with both generals and members of the international community have been taking place with many hoping for a return to democracy. To that end, a framework agreement was signed last December that called for a transition back to civilian control alongside a plan to integrate Hemedti’s RSF into al-Burhan’s army. What has emerged since is a power struggle between the two men when it became clear that integration would mean Hemedti’s subservience to al-Burhan in contrast with the prior arrangement of equality between the two top generals.

Current situation

Source: UNHCR

Now, with violence in the capital and around the country escalating daily, the threat of nationwide civil war looms with the civilian population caught in the crossfire. UNHCR expects at least 860,000 refugees to flee from Sudan to neighboring countries, with hundreds of thousands of additional Sudanese to be internally displaced. It is estimated that around a quarter million of those expected to flee are refugees that have been hosted by Sudan from other countries in the region. This situation, with hundreds of thousands being displaced for the second or third time, has unfortunately become commonplace as restrictive migration policies and outdated international agreements fail to meet the task of current patterns of human movement.

Before the outbreak of this conflict, one third of Sudan’s population of 46 million relied on international aid.Increasingly widespread food insecurity and runaway inflation in the country have created a precarious humanitarian situation with millions vulnerable to the instability and violence of civil war. In many ways, the discussion of an “impending humanitarian crisis” misses the mark. The humanitarian crisis predates the outbreak of violence, and as a result has the potential to be even more devastating if fighting doesn’t swiftly come to an end.

As the sound of gunfire and airstrikes fill Khartoum, thousands of civilians are trapped in their homes without access to running water or power. Those who have been able to flee the city have done so at large personal and financial cost, with many still in the capital lacking the money needed to escape. The fighting has also impacted access to medical care, and thousands in the city lack access to treatment for chronic or acute health conditions.

Source: AP News

A 29-year-old refugee named Nidal managed to escape Khartoum with her family shortly after the fighting broke out. As she recalls, “The militia was hiding in our building and the Sudanese Army attacked them. We decided to wait for a break of the shooting, grabbed our daughter, a bag with our passports and university degrees, and ran. We left everything behind, our home, our friends, my family, my laptop with all our photos.”

Every civilian in Khartoum has to contest with these decisions, and the situations they can expect to find themselves in after fleeing the violence are similarly difficult. The genocidal actions of government and paramilitary forces in Darfur over the past two decades—with significant participation from both al-Burhan and Hemedti—have created long-standing instability in the west of the country. Considering especially the involvement of paramilitary groups related to the RSF in Darfur, there is growing concern that a reignition of ethnic tensions and rebel activity in the region is likely if the conflict deepens. Displacement due to this history, as well as the large numbers of foreign refugees sponsored by Sudan, have created a humanitarian house of cards. The instability and displacement that predates the current conflict are largely responsible for the quick ignition of dire conditions for those living in Sudan.

International organisations are struggling to maintain aid operations in the face of the violence, and multiple ceasefire agreements for humanitarian purposes have fallen through or been ignored by those fighting on the ground. Refugees in neighboring countries already face a shortage of essential items, access to healthcare, education, and durable resettlement pathways. All of Sudan’s neighboring countries host significant refugee populations and struggle to provide humanitarian support to them. As a result, the Sudanese conflict will further destabilize the region and strain relief capacity in a way that not only harms Sudanese refugees, but also harms those who have been living in refugee camps for years.

Refugee Protection

With regional stability at question, there is also potential for another significant spike in crossing attempts in the central Mediterranean route. As the European Union and its partner countries continue to engage in recklessly inhumane practices in the region, the likelihood of more deaths and pushbacks at sea seem to increase by the day. This is perhaps the most striking example of the failure of the international migration paradigm: not even a decade on from the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis and it is clear that no progress has been made and no lessons have been learned. This situation highlights the fact that the international community, largely led by the EU and US, are not able to stand up to the moral and legal obligations to which they have ostensibly agreed.

There is debate on whether or not the conflict can yet be classified as a civil war, but there can be no debate as to whether there is an ongoing humanitarian crisis or an impending humanitarian crisis. At the center of this crisis are human lives, potentially millions of them. The numbers completely fail to convey the gravity and scope of the tragedy facing those living in Sudan, just as domestic and international political systems have failed to protect them.