Protracted displacement is widespread in Sudan, the result of two major civil wars and the Darfur genocide. There were 2.1 million people living in displacement in the country as of the end of 2019. Ongoing violence, particularly in Darfur, and disasters, predominantly flooding, also trigger significant new displacement every year.
Sudan has been in a severe economic crisis since the beginning of 2018. Subsidies have been eliminated and the Sudanese pound repeated devalued, commodities are in short supply and the price of staple foods has increased sharply. Deteriorating living standards triggered countrywide protests which ultimately led to the ousting of the country’s president, Omar al-Bashir, in April 2019. The tense political situation has also had an impact on tribal disputes and relations between communities. More than 83,000 new conflict displacements were recorded in 2019, and around 272,000 new disaster displacements, most of them triggered by floods.
In the first half of 2020, there were 39,000 new displacements associated with conflict and violence. Find out more in our Mid-year Update.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
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 (ICC) 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 2019. 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.
Sudan has faced severe economic challenges since the beginning of 2018, and the price of key commodities such as fuel and bread has increased sharply. Deteriorating living standards triggered countrywide protests that ultimately led the military to oust the country’s president, Omar al-Bashir, one of African’s longest ruling strongmen, in April 2019. He was put under arrest and is in prison awaiting trial. The provisional government does not want to send him to the ICC despite an internal criminal warrant.
Humanitarian agencies in Central Darfur face challenges in accessing physical cash, and border closures have restricted aid deliveries several times since Bashir was forced from office. Differing views of the tense political situation and ever scarcer resources have also had an impact on tribal disputes and relations between communities. Interethnic clashes over resources triggered nearly 10,000 new displacements in East and Central Darfur and White Nile state in May and June 2019.
Sudan is very arid and large parts of the country are 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.
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 2019. There were also 192,000 in South Kordofan and 47,000 in Blue Nile. Sennar state is also probably hosting IDPs, but 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) 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 led to significant displacement in recent years, including the secondary displacement of IDPs living in camps. Flooding triggered 272,000 new displacements across 16 states in 2019.
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.
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. IOM’s displacement tracking matrix (DTM) has been expanding its coverage, registration and reporting efforts, and published its Round 0 report in October 2019. IOM conducts registrations on behalf of international partners, and submits them to the Area Humanitarian Country Team, a steering committee of representatives from NGOs, international agencies and the government, for validation. The data is then shared with OCHA and other partners.
For the states not covered by IOM DTM, such as the Blue Nile, we use data from HAC and OCHA, although this has not been updated since 2017. HAC has the final say on the publication of figures.
IDMC compares IOM DTM and OCHA 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.
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.