Sudan has reached the brink of civil war after fighting erupted on April 15 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 while neighbouring countries have taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees, experts say prolonged conflict could destabilise the region.
What’s driving the conflict in Sudan?
The two warring parties were previously allies, having joined forces in 2019 to overthrow 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. The RSF has a sizable presence in Darfur and has seized towns across the country while fighting continues for control of the capital, Khartoum.
Peace talks sponsored by the United States and Saudi Arabia have so far resulted in both sides promising safe passage for civilians and relief workers, as well as several temporary cease-fires , all of which have been unsuccessful. Still, a lasting resolution remains elusive, and some experts say neither side has much incentive to compromise.
How bad is the humanitarian situation?
Sudan was already experiencing a 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.
The renewed violence has created a “catastrophic ” situation, says UN Secretary-General António Guterres. According to the UN refugee agency, more than one million people have been newly displaced since April. Of that, more than 843 000 are internally displaced, while over 255 000 are refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries. As of May 16, at least 705 people have been killed and 5 287 have been injured, though the actual figures are likely to be considerably higher.
The conflict is destroying Sudan’s infrastructure, especially in and around Khartoum. Air strikes and shelling have hit hospitals, prisons, and other facilities in dense residential areas.
The fear of disease is particularly acute, and health authorities warned of a biohazard risk after one of the warring parties seized control of a laboratory that held various disease samples, including of cholera and measles. Tens of millions of people lack access to clean water, and rising food and fuel costs are likely to exacerbate food insecurity, which is projected to afflict nineteen million people in the next three to six months. Already, the United Nations estimates that twenty-five million people, or more than half of Sudan’s population, need aid and protection.
Where are refugees going?
More than 113 000 people, or 44 percent of all new refugees, have headed north to Egypt. Another nearly sixty-five thousand are South Sudanese who previously fled to Sudan and have since returned to their home country. The remaining refugees have fled to the Central African Republic, Chad, and Ethiopia, all of which have sizable refugee and internally displaced populations of their own.
With refugee numbers increasing rapidly, UN experts say that the total could surpass one million if fighting continues. The majority of refugees are women and children, who are more vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence, though there have been reports that civilians of all ages are suffering human rights abuses.
How have neighbouring countries responded?
Many of Sudan’s neighbours are scrambling to handle this refugee influx 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. Additionally, countries are concerned about spillover conflict and potential foreign interference; Egypt has close ties to the SAF, while Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, reportedly backed by Russian mercenaries, has sent military supplies to the RSF. The crisis could also threaten regional economic co-operation on Nile River water resources and several major oil pipelines that cross through Sudan.
UN experts say Sudan’s neighbours 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 but continues to aid refugees that make it across. Meanwhile, Egypt’s border remains open, but reports say crossings are often delayed for days, and there are worries about the country’s ability to absorb refugees.