Sudan stands on the brink of yet another civil war sparked by a confrontation between two generals: the head of Sudan’s Armed Forces, General Abdelfatah El-Burhan, and the head of the Rapid Support Forces, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.
The conflict, currently unfolding in the capital, Khartoum, has created a widespread humanitarian crisis. Thousands of people, trying to escape the violence, are crossing into neighbouring countries. International law and refugee expert Cristiano d’Orsi tells us what his biggest concerns about the situation are, and what needs to be done to address them.
What are your biggest concerns with the refugee situation?
In Sudan, the situation is particularly worrying because of the huge number of refugees that will be moving. People are leaving from many parts of the country. Though the conflict’s epicentre is in Khartoum, it has spread.
At least 100,000 people have already arrived in neighbouring countries, including Chad, Egypt and South Sudan. Contingency plans are being put in place for about 860,000 refugees. As an expert on the legal protection of asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants, I’m interested in seeing how these vulnerable groups will fare.
The numbers are high partly because Sudan hosted 1.1 million refugees, one of the largest refugee populations in Africa. South Sudanese represented more than 70% (800,000) of the refugees in Sudan, followed by 126,000 Eritrean refugees (11%). Most of these refugees, about 60%, lived outside camps – in towns, villages and areas just outside Khartoum.
The refugees hosted by Sudan are now fleeing violence in Sudan. Neighbouring countries will have to treat them as asylum-seekers or refugees because they cannot be returned to a situation of conflict. Some will also face the difficult decision of returning to their home countries. For instance, there are reports that Eritrean men who escaped military service and fled to Sudan are already being detained upon their return.
Another big concern I have is the challenges facing aid efforts.
With Khartoum under attack, aid efforts – to support both refugees and the wider public – will require a new operational hub. Port Sudan – a city and port on the Red Sea in eastern Sudan – has become a hub for evacuations, and looks set to become an operating base for the UN and aid groups.
Given the current insecurity, getting relief to people in need will be a massive hurdle. Depending on how the conflict unfolds, aid may need to move across front lines or across national borders.
In addition, last year the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that Sudan’s aid groups, including those looking after refugees, only received around half of the nearly US$2 billion they requested from donors – a shortfall that other relief missions are also facing.
The crisis places huge, new demands on the international community to increase funding. UNHCR alone will need at least US$445 million to support the displaced until October 2023.
How long it will take for donor funding to materialise remains to be seen. In the meantime, frontline communities and mutual aid networks are acting as first responders, from hosting displaced families to coordinating relief in Khartoum and beyond.
What’s the international response been like?
There has been some international action. From what I’ve seen, for now, it’s mostly been the United Nations, European Union and a handful of individual countries.
The African Union has condemned the violence and called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. It has also pledged to coordinate international action on Sudan.
A regional refugee emergency response, led by UNHCR, is underway. And the International Medical Corps has launched a regional response to meet the needs of internally displaced persons and refugees.
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has provided critical water, sanitation and hygiene support to hospitals in Khartoum and Darfur. UN Women is providing financial and technical support to young Sudanese women who are using app technology to keep themselves safe. They’re able to find food, medicine and safe routes away from the fighting. The UN is also tracking cases and allegations of gender-based violence and taking measures to support victims.
The European Union has allocated Ꞓ200,000 (about US$220,000) for immediate relief and first aid assistance to those injured or exposed to high risk. This will support the Sudanese Red Crescent Society with first aid, evacuation services, and psychosocial support.
The Arab League has been holding emergency meetings to find a real solution to the clashes and stop the bloodshed.
What more needs to be done?
The root causes of refugee flows need to be addressed. The most obvious solution to end Sudan’s refugee crisis is to make efforts to reach a peace agreement.
While attempts to mediate the conflict are underway, for instance by the Arab League, there are several factors that must be respected.
First, the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and returnees must be respected and protected. All of Sudan’s neighbours have a duty under law to do this. Five of Sudan’s neighbours are party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, so they’re obliged to protect refugees on their territory.
Even though Libya and Eritrea aren’t party to the convention, the principle of non-refoulement – whereby people aren’t allowed to be returned to situations of harm – has today become a principle of customary international law. This means they can’t force people to return to Sudan, while it’s still volatile. The UN, the AU and UNHCR typically supervise this.
UNHCR has called on states to suspend the forcible return of nationals and stateless people residing in Sudan.
In addition, countries that people are fleeing to must suspend issuance of negative decisions on applications for international protection, until the situation in Sudan has stabilised.
Finally, all countries must allow civilians of all nationalities fleeing Sudan non-discriminatory access to their territories. These include those who do not have documentation or passports.
Next, Sudan will need stronger aid infrastructure. This includes improved security analysis and better coordination mechanisms between civilian and military actors.
Finally, funding for relief efforts will also need to increase substantially. Key to this is accountability. Donors are more likely to base their own policies on recipient priorities if donors act together.
Cristiano d’Orsi, Senior Research Fellow at the South African Research Chair in International Law (SARCIL) and Lecturer, University of Johannesburg