Following two major civil wars and the Darfur genocide, protracted displacement is widespread in Sudan. Ongoing violence, particularly in Darfur, and disasters, predominantly flooding, also trigger significant new displacement every year.
In the first half of 2019, about 29,000 new displacements were recorded, 21,000 by conflict and 8,000 by disasters. Find out more about displacement in Sudan and other countries in the Mid-Year Figures Report.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
What causes displacement?
Sudan has a long history of internal displacement. Conflict and violence have plagued the country since the year before its independence in 1956, driven by the economic, political and socio-cultural marginalisation of southern Sudan, the Darfur region and South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. Disasters, particularly flooding, are also devastating in areas where housing is not built to withstand such events.
The first Sudanese civil war began shortly before Sudan obtained independence from Britain and Egypt in 1956 and continued until 1972. It was the result of conflict between the central government and marginalised parts of the country, particularly the south, which is different from the north in terms of culture, language, ethnicity and religion.
The second Sudanese civil war, from 1983 to 2005, was largely considered a continuation of the north-south struggle, but also spread to the Nuba mountains in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. It was one of the longest and deadliest civil wars on record. A Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005, which paved the way for South Sudan’s succession in 2011, but tensions remain high. The conflict in South Kordofan and Blue Nile was also covered by the CPA but core issues were not addressed. Instead the two states were assigned vaguely worded “popular consultations”. The status of the southern territory of Abyei is still disputed.
Conflict broke out in Darfur in 2003, when rebel groups began fighting the government’s oppression of the region’s non-Arab populations. The government responded with a campaign of ethnic cleansing which the International Criminal Court has since qualified as genocide. The conflict in South Kordofan and Blue Nile was reignited in June 2011 and became linked with the war in Darfur when rebels in both regions formed a lose union dedicated to overthrowing the central government. Both conflicts are ongoing and continue to cause displacement.
Sudan’s successive conflicts gave rise to one of the world’s largest displacement crises, which peaked in 2005 at 6.1 million IDPs, including people displaced in areas that are now part of South Sudan. The number of people living in displacement has decreased considerably in recent years, but the country was still home to at least 2.1 million IDPs as of the end of 2018. This reflects the continued conflict in many parts of the country and the many obstacles people face in their pursuit of durable solutions. The figure is also likely to be a significant underestimate, given the many challenges in obtaining data.
Deteriorating living standards have triggered countrywide protests since mid-December 2018. Sudan has faced severe economic challenges since the beginning of 2018 but dramatic price increase of key commodities such as fuel and bread sparked protests. On 11 April, Al Bashir, one of African’s longest ruling strongmen, was ousted by the military. He was put under arrest and is held in prison awaiting trial.
The situation remains tense as of mid-June. Humanitarian agencies in Central Darfur are facing a challenge in accessing physical cash and humanitarian deliveries have been restricted several times due to border closures since the ousting of Al Bashir. The tense political situation has had an impact on tribal disputes and relations between communities due to scarce resources and differing political opinions. In May and June 2019, nearly 10,000 people were displaced as a result of tribal fighting and fighting over resources in East and Central Darfur and White Nile state.
Sudan is also very arid and more than 69,000 square kilometres of the country is considered drought-prone. This has had devastating humanitarian consequences because more than 82 per cent of people live in rural areas and are largely dependent on rain-fed subsistence agriculture and animal husbandry for their livelihoods. These climatic conditions have overlapped with conflict and economic and political instability to create extremely high levels of food insecurity. Displacement associated with slow-onset phenomena such as drought is likely to have occurred, but its scale has yet to be determined with any accuracy.
Most of the disaster displacement recorded has been linked to flooding, including flash floods in arid areas and riverine flooding. The latter is particularly common in eastern and south-eastern states through which the Blue Nile, White Nile and Gash rivers flow. Flooding tends to happen between August and September, at the height of the rainy season.
Where and how do people move?
The majority of people displaced by conflict live in South, North and Central Darfur states, which were hosting about 1.5 million IDPs as of the end of 2018. There were also 185,000 in South Kordofan and 47,000 in Blue Nile. The presence of IDPs in Sennar state is probable, however, no organisation nor the government assess the situation there. Displacement in areas outside government control is not recorded at all.
Most of the new conflict displacement recorded in recent years has taken place in Darfur, particularly in the Jebel Marra mountains at the intersection of Central, South and North Darfur. It has been linked to violence between herders and farmers, and the targeting of IDPs and other civilians by militias associated with the Sudanese military such as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
Return movements have also been noted in Darfur as IDPs and refugees attempt to re-establish themselves in their areas of origin. It is very difficult to assess the sustainability of these returns, but many are likely to have been unsuccessful given ongoing insecurity. Returnees in some areas have reportedly faced violent intimidation by new settlers.
The UN-African Union mission in Darfur (UNAMID) meantime is being downsized and there are plans to close displacement camps in some areas. This could have devastating consequences for the safety and security of their inhabitants. In other areas, there are plans to turn camps into residential areas, with implications for the continuation of humanitarian aid.
Widespread flooding during the rainy season has caused significant displacement in recent years, including the secondary displacement of IDPs whose camps were flooded. In 2018, 121,000 new displacements were recorded due to flooding that affected 14 states.
What is life like for IDPs and communities hosting them?
Many IDPs in Sudan live in protracted displacement. Some of those living in camps in Darfur have been displaced since the onset of fighting in 2003. Continued insecurity has heightened their vulnerability and prevented them from achieving durable solutions. Humanitarian actors have struggled even to meet IDPs’ basic needs. Some of the main challenges include food security, health, and water and sanitation.
Lack of access to land for agriculture and other livelihood opportunities, periods of drought and unusually heavy rain and extremely high food prices have pushed many people into chronic food insecurity. Overcrowding and a lack of adequate water and sanitation has led to outbreaks of disease, including cholera in 2017. Around 1.9 million IDPs are thought to be in need of food, water and sanitation assistance nationwide, and about two million health assistance. Displaced children, who account for around 60 per cent of camp inhabitants, are particularly vulnerable.
Around 1.6 million IDPs are also thought to be in need of protection assistance. Armed groups and militias regular attack IDPs, in some cases burning down their shelters and stealing their livestock, forcing them to flee again. Gender-based violence is also pervasive, both within camps and host communities and when women venture out to collect firewood or other resources.
Where does the data on displacement come from and what are the main challenges?
Obtaining internal displacement data in Sudan is a challenge. Many humanitarian organisations are present and focus their assistance and protection programmes specifically on IDPs, but accessing the people in question and conducting needs assessments is often difficult, whether because of insecurity or red tape. Humanitarian organisations have to be authorised by the government’s Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) before undertaking operations, and HAC representatives are present during all activities.
Estimates of new displacements and the overall number of IDPs nationwide are nevertheless produced regularly, but they should be considered significant underestimates. OCHA releases consolidated estimates several times a year, using information provided by various organisations including WFP, UNHCR, and IOM DTM. HAC has the final say on the publication of figures.
IDMC compares OCHA’s estimates of new displacements with information from media outlets such as the Sudan Tribune and Radio Dabanga to triangulate the information. Both organisations are based abroad and provide valuable information for areas where press freedom is severely curtailed.
IDMC’s estimate of the total number of IDPs in Sudan is based on an analysis of data from IOM DTM’s August 2018 report, which covers the five Darfuri states and South and West Kordofan, data published by the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) and OCHA’s figures for Blue Nile state. Sennar state, where IDPs are reportedly also living, is not covered, meaning that IDMC’s figure is an underestimate.
IDMC’s estimate of the number of new displacements in 2018 is based on data from OCHA and local media reports and covers Jebel Marrah at the intersection of South, North and Central Darfur.
IDMC categorised all IDPs reported as having returned as unverified solutions because of the lack of tangible information on their conditions. The estimate is based on data collected by IOM and published in June 2018. Given that it only accounts for registered returnees for part of the year in the abovementioned states, the actual number of returnees is likely to have been much higher than reported.
What are governments currently doing to prevent and respond to displacement?
The Sudanese government officially recognises IDPs’ rights and specific needs. A national policy on the matter was adopted in 2009, and HAC includes a dedicated unit for IDPs. The 2011 Doha Document for Peace in Darfur addresses the causes of displacement and refers specifically to compensation and the return of IDPs and refugees. The government signed the Great Lakes Pact in 2006, but has not signed or ratified the Kampala Convention.
Efforts have also been made to mitigate the impacts of the most commonly recurring natural hazards and the risks posed by climate change. A national adaptation plan published in 2016 provides vulnerability assessments for different states and outlines strategies to integrate implementation into all levels of government decision-making.
There is also growing recognition of the interrelated nature of violence, instability, disasters, poverty and entrenched vulnerability. Sudan and six other countries published a multi-year humanitarian strategy in 2017, which is designed to improve long-term planning and cooperation between organisations working on development and humanitarian issues.
Significant gaps remain, however, in the financing and implementation of these policies and legal frameworks, and access restrictions make it difficult to implement assistance and protection programmes for IDPs.