Will Sudan’s violence cause a wave of refugees?

Humanitarian organisations say they’re ready to respond to the looming refugee crisis – but the conflict has halted operations.

People wait for a bus to flee from southern Khartoum on April 18, 2023 as fighting between the army and paramilitary forces led by rival generals rages for a fourth day
People wait for a bus to flee from southern Khartoum on April 18, 2023, as fighting between the army and paramilitary forces led by rival generals rages for a fourth day [AFP]

Germain Mwehu has been getting non-stop calls from people in need for the last few days as violence in Sudan between rival forces continues and civilian casualties rise.

Mwehu, who works for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the capital, Khartoum, recalls one call he received on Monday evening.

It was from a Khartoum University student who told Mwehu she was sick and had disabilities, before pleading for the ICRC’s help to return to her home. The young woman has been stranded at the university since Saturday when the conflict broke out.

“But we can’t do anything,” Mwehu told Al Jazeera.

“We can’t move, we can’t go out,” he pressed, adding that the university lies close to the army’s headquarters, where fighting is rife.

That is the deadlock humanitarian organisations are finding themselves in as fighting between Sudan’s army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) continues for a fifth day.

So far 185 people have been killed and a further 1,800 injured, according to the United Nations.

But the death toll is likely to be higher as airports, homes, hospitals and power stations have not been spared from aerial bombardment.

The situation could potentially trigger a looming refugee crisis, humanitarian organisations say, in a country already hosting refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs), and which is a neighbour to other nations also stricken by conflict.

Small children playing at a refugee camp
South Sudanese refugee children play in the refugee camp in Sudan’s White Nile state where they live, in September 2021 [File: Ashraf Shazly/AFP]

Currently, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) does not anticipate a movement of people outside Sudan, but rather within its borders.

“I don’t expect that it will be just a massive movement of refugees outside Sudan, because if you look at the conflict, it’s so localised in Khartoum now and Darfur,” Eatizaz Yousif, IRC’s Sudan country director told Al Jazeera.

“What I’m expecting to see is an internal displacement from those two states to safer states,” she added, saying that the IRC is already seeing that movement take place.

Still, the possibility of refugee flows has other organisations on standby.

While Mwehu says the ICRC has not yet seen a movement of people leaving Sudan, as a humanitarian organisation, they are ready to support and respond as needed.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has also not yet received reports of the movement of refugees to neighbouring countries, the group said in a statement on Monday.

At the moment, few humanitarian organisations are operating fully in Sudan. The World Food Programme suspended operations in Sudan on Sunday after three employees were killed in the western Darfur region. The ICRC also halted its work on Monday due to the conflict.

The killing of the aid workers “compromised everything”, Karl Schembri, the regional media adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), told Al Jazeera.

“As we speak, all of my colleagues are in hibernation mode. It is too unsafe to get out,” he said.

The IRC, meanwhile, continues to operate in eastern Sudan and the Blue Nile state but has suspended operations in Khartoum. Yousif said ongoing fighting in the capital, however, would affect its operations elsewhere as the group’s supplies are mainly stored there, or pass through the city.

The organisations fear that with continued fighting, refugees and people already displaced within Sudan will continue to be at risk.

These populations, mostly concentrated in the Darfur region, depend on humanitarian assistance every day for things such as food and water, Mwehu said.

“[Refugees] left the country because of a situation similar to what is happening nowadays in Sudan,” Mwehu said, explaining that they fled neighbouring countries like South Sudan, Chad, and Ethiopia, among other places. “So it’s a dilemma to them.”

Yousif speculates that the only place outside the country refugees may move to would be up north to Egypt, given conflict elsewhere.

People who fled and became IDPs did so due to conflicts such as intercommunal violence, Mwehu said.

“So now if they have to move again, it’s a very, very tough thing,” he said.

As for civilians like the university student Mwehu spoke to, it is a matter of how long they will be able to take the fighting, he said. Many people remain stranded in places like their homes, markets and the airport with no food and water, while the sick at hospitals are not getting medical assistance, he said.

The ICRC’s plea, Mwehu said, is for the warring factions to remember their “obligation to protect civilians” and their “obligation to facilitate the work of humanitarian organisations”.

On Tuesday, both sides to the conflict agreed to a 24-hour ceasefire, but fighting raged on despite it.

Humanitarian workers are sceptical of the duelling generals’ promises to honour such ceasefires. An earlier ceasefire on Sunday was also widely ignored.

Yousif pressed that negotiations to end the conflict need to pick up pace, otherwise “the human cost” will be too high.

Source: Al Jazeera