By Jim van Moorsel and Ayla Bonfiglio
On June 18th, Sudan’s warring parties agreed to a 72-hour truce, after a deadly airstrike had killed at least 17 civilians in Khartoum. The previous ceasefire had expired on June 5th, after negotiations in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, broke down at the end of May. Reports state that a failure to respect the current truce may further impede the Jeddah talks. The conflict now marks more than two months since fighting broke out on April 15th and displacement figures have grown exponentially. As of June 20th, approximately 1,965,946 Sudanese are displaced internally and 598,883 Sudanese nationals, refugees, migrants and returnees have crossed into Sudan’s neighboring countries. This represents nearly a six-fold increase in displacement since early May.
With the current political stalemate, and fighting igniting longstanding ethnic tensions in Darfur, it is increasingly likely that the conflict will continue beyond 2023. Some reports claim the tensions could lead to another military campaign of ethnic cleansing, with the United States stating the current events should be strongly condemned and serve as a reminder of the genocide committed in Darfur in 2004. It remains essential that refugee and migration stakeholders prepare for longer-term mixed migration consequences. This includes examining secondary internal and cross-border displacement; longer-distance onward movement along migration routes, particularly along the Central Mediterranean Route; critically vulnerable profiles of Sudanese, refugees and migrants trapped in Sudan and shifts in smuggling dynamics through the country. Moreover, while the borders of neighbouring countries remain open, continuous monitoring is essential because of the significant impact that any closure or restriction would have on movement patterns and the needs of those trying to leave the country.
This article is a follow-up to MMC’s first analysis of the mixed migration consequences of Sudan’s conflict, published in early May. It aims to provide a brief update on the current conflict dynamics and assess how mixed migration dynamics have evolved, broken down by different populations on the move, and explore how they might take shape should the conflict continue unabated.
Sudan conflict in brief — latest developments
Conflict erupted on April 15th between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), after escalating tensions between the two groups since the overthrow of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in 2019. The RSF’s refusal to integrate into the SAF and broader questions around the reform of Sudan’s security sector remain key obstacles to reaching any form of political solution. During the conflict’s ninth week, in mid June, intense fighting persists in Khartoum State, North Kordofan and different parts of Darfur. Some analysts have predicted heavy fighting to continue in Khartoum until the SAF recaptures all of the capital from the RSF to gain leverage and “save face” before re-entering negotiations. This is speculated to be the very reason the SAF pulled out of negotiations on May 31st.
In border areas of Darfur, a risk remains of spillover conflicts into neighbouring countries, particularly Chad, the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan. While Chad officially remains neutral in the conflict, the government is aligned with the SAF led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Moreover, the Zaghawa ethnic group, settled on either side of the Chad-Sudan border, has a militia led by an ally of al-Burhan and has longheld hostility towards the RSF owing to past activities of Janjaweed militias. However, the RSF’s leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti), has family ties in Chad, with a cousin who is currently a general in the Chadian army. The current conflict may offer Hemedti an opportunity to interfere into Chadian politics. By contrast, CAR reportedly aligns itself with Hemedti given their shared interests with the Wagner Group and Hemedti’s recruitment of fighters from CAR. Reports of increased forced recruitment in Darfur suggest a rise in militarization at the borders.
Pockets of relative stability remain mostly in the eastern parts of Sudan, in the states of Gedaref, Kassala, Blue Nile and Red Sea, as well as in the White Nile State, where many of those who have left Khartoum, including South Sudanese refugees, have sought refuge. At the same time, many camps and settlements south of Khartoum, particularly in White Nile as well as in Al Jazirah State, are experiencing overcrowding, with humanitarian actors and civil society organizations struggling to provide basic assistance. Al Jazirah, White Nile and Kordofan States are also likely to be hit in the coming weeks by floods during the upcoming rainy season, potentially undermining stability in these regions and in camps hosting new arrivals, and aggravating risks for those on the move.
Furthermore, reports have emerged of GBV, sexual exploitation and abuse while fleeing active conflict and seeking basic needs. Such abuses are occurring in contexts with little to no basic health services and treatment. Both the SAF and RSF have accused each other of perpetrating acts of sexual violence against IDPs.
Migration and displacement figures
At the time of writing on June 22nd, almost 2 million Sudanese have been internally displaced and close to 600,000 individuals have left the country. This represents an increase of almost 300,000 individuals (+18%) who have become internally displaced and over 70,000 (+13%) who have crossed borders in the first weeks of June alone. These figures point towards the overall sentiment that people are not expecting the conflict to stop anytime soon. Although the internally displaced population far outweighs those who have left Sudan, both groups seem to be increasing at a similar rate. Monitoring people’s ability to cross unimpeded into neighbouring countries or move between states in Sudan will therefore remain key to understand how future displacement dynamics unfold. The closure of one country’s borders could have devastating effects for those forced to flee.
The majority of those internally displaced originate from Khartoum State (over 65%) and have moved towards White Nile State, Northern State and River Nile State, in search of immediate safety and/or to prepare to cross into neighbouring countries, primarily Egypt and South Sudan. High internal displacement has also been observed in West, South and Central Darfur.
The largest numbers of cross-border arrivals — including Sudanese and third-country refugees and migrants who were in Sudan — have been recorded in Egypt (255,565), Chad (155,015), South Sudan (120,677), Ethiopia (50,213), CAR (15,219) and Libya (2,194). The composition of profiles among arrivals differs substantially per country. Egypt and Chad are receiving mostly Sudanese refugees, while the majority of arrivals in South Sudan and Ethiopia consist of nationals of those countries. Arrivals in CAR are mixed. Additionally, thousands (8,455) comprising more than 111 nationalities have arrived in Saudi Arabia after having boarded ships in Port Sudan bound for Jeddah. These figures give an image of the situation in the first weeks of June; they continue to be updated daily, illustrating the dynamic situation at border crossings.
Impact on the ‘mixed migration landscape’ in Sudan
Impact on Sudanese
This section gives an update on the migration consequences for Sudanese affected by the conflict, divided into five major groups similar to MMC’s previous article, to understand how the migration situation is evolving.
i. Involuntarily immobility
Active fighting diminished — though never halted — during brief periods of consecutive ceasefires from May 20th — June 5th, giving some trapped civilians the opportunity to move away from their locations. We can therefore say that some involuntary immobility eased during these times. The ceasefires were intended to allow for access to humanitarian assistance, restoration of essential services and the discussion of a potential longer-term extension of the ceasefire. If a lull in the fighting were to provide safe corridors out of hard-hit areas of conflict, skyrocketing prices, especially for transportation and fuel, have meant that most now do not have the means to flee, especially across borders. Fuel costs have tripled since the start of the conflict. However, with the SAF’s withdrawal from the talks in Jeddah on May 31st, and no genuine cessation of hostilities, many Sudanese will continue to be involuntarily immobile.
ii. New internal displacement
As mentioned above, as of June 20th, close to 2 million people are displaced internally within Sudan since the outbreak in conflict. This aligns with earlier analysis that internal displacement will far outweigh international movements. In addition, the number far exceeds UNHCR’s initial planning figures of 600,000 new IDPs by May.
Besides continued clashes raging on in West Darfur, internal displacement continues within and from Khartoum and Omdurman, and the cities of Nyala (South Darfur), Zalingei (Central Darfur), El Fasher (North Darfur) and El Obeid (North Kordofan), where contexts are extremely volatile and where everyday law and order has reportedly disappeared. As of June 6th, the majority of IDPs are leaving from Khartoum (66%), West Darfur (19%), South Darfur (7%) and Central Darfur (6%), as well as North Darfur and North Kordofan states. Most (65.3%) are fleeing to urban areas and are seeking shelter with relatives and host communities (75%). With conflict increasingly fueling ethnic fault lines, particularly in Darfur, internal displacement is likely to grow.
iii. Existing population of IDPs
In West Darfur’s regional capital, El Geneina, all 86 IDP gathering sites were reportedly destroyed by May, after which as many as 85,000 individuals had to engage in secondary internal displacement. In mid-June, it is likely that many more IDPs have had to engage in secondary displacements, with reports stating most are moving from Khartoum State and West Darfur. Continued movements of vulnerable IDPs out of states with heavy fighting should be expected. At the same time, given the scale of violence in Darfur, we should anticipate an increase in former IDPs moving across borders, particularly from West Darfur into Chad, and becoming refugees.
iv. Sudanese cross-border movement
The number of Sudanese refugees abroad was already substantial before the conflict, particularly in South Sudan (290,000), Chad (410,000), Ethiopia (50,000) and Egypt (60,000). Updated figures now reveal over half a million Sudanese refugees in Chad, whereas in Egypt, new arrivals have contributed to a more than four-fold increase (up to 275,565). On May 17th, UNHCR launched the Sudan Regional Refugee Response Plan covering the May — October period “to support refugees, returnees and host communities” in Sudan’s neighbouring countries.
In Egypt, the plan aims to assist 350,000 Sudanese refugees. As of early June, the number of Sudanese arrivals already represents 46% of the planned figure. Thus far, 8,520 individuals have formally registered with UNHCR to seek asylum in Egypt. An increasing number of relatively economically disadvantaged Sudanese have become stranded at the Sudan-Egypt border, and in Port Sudan, while they are trying to make their way out of the country. Steep increases in transportation fees and fuel, as well as very high fees charged by smugglers, may lead to increasing involuntary immobility and high humanitarian needs in key locations of departure out of Sudan. Moreover, on June 10th, Egyptian authorities reversed an earlier policy to provide a visa exemption for children, women and people over the age of 50, introducing an entry visa required for all Sudanese. It remains to be seen if this new policy will affect the number of arrivals in Egypt, and if Sudanese who had intended to move to Egypt may now engage in other, arguably more dangerous routes to North Africa, including to Libya.
In Chad, the number of mainly Darfuris (including former IDPs) has more than quadrupled from an estimated 30,000 in early May to 149,383 in early June. Pre-registration data indicate that women aged 18-59 comprise 25% of all arrivals and are among the most vulnerable. New arrivals report being forced to pay to cross the border into Chad, indicating heightened risks of exploitation as well as increased immobility in Darfur. It is unclear if fleeing populations have had to pay authorities or armed groups to cross, or if they are relying on smugglers to facilitate cross-border movements. With no cessation of hostilities and extreme violence taking place in West Darfur and other pockets of Darfur, arrivals in Chad are expected to steadily grow in numbers.
In Metema, Ethiopia, increasing numbers of Sudanese are reportedly stuck due to tightened border controls carried out by ”unsympathetic Sudanese immigration officials and suspicious security police”. It is alleged that officials have lists of names of high-profile individuals who would not be granted entry into Ethiopia, and have seized the belongings of some attempting to cross the border. While Ethiopia is allowing all Sudanese entry, it has not revised its immigration and refugee policies since the onset of the conflict, still requiring that every Sudanese pays 80 USD for a visa to enter the country, regardless of their situation. On another note, the United States as well as the UN’s World Food Programme have recently suspended all food aid to Ethiopia after widespread concerns over alleged diversion of supplies. Paired with a continued increase in arrivals in Metema, leading to overcrowding at transit sites, it is highly likely that emergency assistance and the provision of basic services in Ethiopia to those fleeing Sudan will not be able to meet the scale of needs.
v. Onward movements of Sudanese
It is anticipated that an increasing number of Sudanese may decide to travel onwards, particularly from Egypt or Chad, towards Libya, Tunisia and across the Mediterranean, however, Sudanese do not currently feature among the top nationalities of arrivals in Italy. This may be linked to greater time and resources needed to make the journey across the sea, the decision of some Sudanese to ‘wait and see’ whether the two sides can reach some form of negotiated peace, the need to reunite with family who may have fled Sudan at different times or the need for Sudanese who initially fled to neighbouring countries to recover from their initial flight and recoup some of their resources spent on their exit.
Moreover, the small number of direct arrivals in Libya (2,194) since the beginning of the conflict seems to hint towards the difficulties Sudanese are facing to enter Eastern Libya and move onwards. The Libyan National Army, under the command of General Khalifa Haftar and his Tobruk-based government, have been accused of providing weapons and monetary support to Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces, and are therefore actively taking sides in the conflict. While this accusation was denied at the end of April, Sudanese fleeing Sudan may continue to perceive Libya as an active participant in the conflict, and not a viable place of destination or transit. A potential scenario could be that Chad becomes a more prominent country of transit from Sudan towards Libya. Research on mixed migration dynamics in locations of transit in Chad would be key to better understand if those who cross continue or plan to move onwards.
Thus far, there are no official statistics on Sudanese moving towards East African capitals like Nairobi and Kampala. Limited assessments carried out by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and MMC in Uganda reveal small numbers of Sudanese and South Sudanese arriving in Uganda from Sudan and registering in refugee camps in the north of the country. Moreover, an MMC enumerator in South Sudan noted that some arriving from Sudan are trying to access information in Juba and other urban centres about opportunities and access to protection and services in third countries, notably Uganda. Access to information may therefore further determine and inform their onward movement intentions and aspirations.
Impact on refugees and migrants in Sudan
By May, most Western countries, as well as countries in the region, including Chad, Egypt, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania and Uganda had ensured that their foreign diplomats, aid and private sector workers and other citizens were evacuated from Sudan. The Government of Ethiopia reported it had helped up to 61 countries to evacuate their citizens over land and through Ethiopian airspace. As mentioned in MMC’s first article, however, such arrangements often do not exist for refugees and migrants, leaving them at high risk of being caught up in conflict.
According to UNHCR in May, the situation of Eritrean refugees trapped in Sudan was increasingly worrying. Pre-conflict, there were around 137,000 Eritrean refugees residing in Sudan, particularly in Khartoum and Eastern Sudan. While other nationals may have returned or have been repatriated by their respective governments, Eritreans remain in Sudan since returning to their country of origin is not an option and would likely incur high protection risks and detention upon arrival. Some sources have reported that an increasing number of Eritrean refugees have gone missing in Kassala, close to the Eritrean border, and were allegedly captured and/or kidnapped either by the Eritrean authorities or by human traffickers. The Government of Eritrea has been accused of forcibly repatriating more than3,500 Eritrean refugees in Sudan since the start of the conflict. For those who are not willing to return to Eritrea and have crossed the border into South Sudan, resources are overstretched after the entrance of 60,000 people into the country. IOM noted an increase in cross-border movements through the disputed Abyei area into South Sudan of particularly Eritreans. In addition to an increase in Sudanese moving along the Central Mediterranean Route (CMR), we might see an increase in Eritreans formerly in Sudan along the CMR, especially given the large Eritrean diaspora in Europe.
Out of the 800,000 South Sudanese refugees present in Sudan pre-conflict, it is estimated that close to one-eighth have now been forced to return, and many others have fled Khartoum to refugee camps in White Nile, where an estimated 75,000 arrived by mid-May. Although many South Sudanese had planned for long-term integration in Sudan as part of durable solution efforts, they now see themselves confronted with no other alternative. The arrivals of high numbers of South Sudanese fleeing into South Sudan (117,179 by June 20^th^) will have repercussions on the assistance available, stretching humanitarian capacity and resources, and open discussions around the sustainability of their return in a country still suffering from conflict itself. Therefore,** the earlier predicted scenario of a massive humanitarian challenge unfolding in South Sudan remains.** Similarly, but in smaller numbers, 4,701 Central Africans have so far returned to CAR, according to UNHCR.
News reports focus on how Ethiopians, particularly those who fled the war in Northern Ethiopia, may now find themselves ”between two wars”. Particularly Tigrayans, with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) being the main opponent of the Ethiopian Federal Government, may feel afraid to return home, and therefore are becoming increasingly vulnerable and at risk of falling victim to human trafficking. As of June 20th, UNHCR reported it had officially registered only 279 Ethiopian refugees returning to Ethiopia, although the overall number of Ethiopians returning is likely larger. It remains to be explored to what extent the pre-conflict Ethiopian refugee population (50,213) in Sudan, including Tigrayans residing in camps in Gedaref, have so far remained or engaged in onward movements.
Lastly, in Egypt, the aforementioned Sudan Regional Response Plan (RRP) anticipated the arrival of 10,000 third-country refugees and migrants. Two weeks after the RRP launch, in early June, the number of third-country arrivals had already reached 55% of planning figures. Given the rapid rate of arrivals, we should anticipate exceeding planning figures before the end of the summer.
While the focus remains on understanding the trajectory of the now protracted Sudan conflict, figures on internal and cross-border movements continue to be updated weekly, at the same time that humanitarian actors attempt to grapple with the large scale of displacement and needs in-country and neighbouring states. The emergency situation unfolding in South Sudan is becoming untenable, with now around 15% of the pre-conflict South Sudanese refugee population in Sudan having already ‘returned’, despite having ”nothing to return to” and despite many not perceiving their flights as ‘returns’. Concrete actions from international humanitarian actors as well as the international community will be needed to mitigate the already full-blown humanitarian crisis as a consequence of the rippling effects from conflict in Sudan. Civil unrest may also develop in Chad, where new arrivals may compete with vulnerable host community members for the little assistance available.
The first signs of the impact of the conflict in Sudan on neighbouring countries are therefore becoming increasingly visible. If tensions across borders mount further, options to leave the country for those in search of protection and assistance could become scarce and compromised, potentially followed by shifting movement patterns or higher levels of immobility. Together with continued fighting across the country, alongside ethnic violence in Darfur, this provides a grim outlook for the stability of Sudan and the wider region. Sudanese and third-country refugees and migrants may no longer see a viable future for themselves in Sudan or its neighbours, and be increasingly compelled to engage in risky journeys farther afield if they perceive it as the only option out of longterm instability and humanitarian crisis.