Sudan crisis spirals as international attention fades

Makeshift shelters set up by Sudanese who fled the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region, in Adre, Chad, 20 July 2023. (Keystone/Reuters/Zohra Bensemra)

Violent clashes coupled with a surge in disease and hunger threaten to cause a humanitarian catastrophe in Sudan and beyond.

A little over four months after fighting broke out between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), around four million people have been displaced inside the country and across borders, while millions more need humanitarian assistance, aid organisations warned on Friday.

As humanitarians continue to struggle to reach people in need and aid funds run dry, they warn the crisis could push the whole region over the edge.

“This viral conflict – and the hunger, disease and displacement left in its wake – now threatens to consume the entire country,” United Nations under secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, Martin Griffiths, said in a statement.

What’s happening

Heavy fighting that has so far been concentrated in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, and Darfur, has now spread to other places such as South and West Kordofan in the southern part of the country of 48 million people.

In Kadugli, the capital of South Kordofan, food has run out, Griffiths said, as road blockages and clashes prevent aid workers from getting in.

Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters at a briefing in Geneva that roadblocks and bureaucracy impediments were hindering access by the UN, calling such hurdles “stupid obstacles” to getting life-saving aid to those that needed it.

Month-long processes to grant visas to humanitarian staff waiting to access Sudan were also further slowing down the response, he added.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said at the briefing that cases of severe malnutrition, as well as dengue, measles and acute watery diarrhoea had been reported in various states, with the ongoing rainy season bound to drive the surge of water-borne and vector-borne diseases.

Meanwhile, only a third of hospitals and medical centres in the areas affected by fighting were running.

Nearly two million children have been forced to flee, according to the UN children agency, Unicef, and 20 million people are expected to be food insecure between July and September, half of which are children.

The combination of malnutrition and the lack of clean water and healthcare would be a “death sentence” to these children, James Elder, Unicef’s spokesperson, said at the press conference.

Neighbouring countries were also being impacted. Around 380,000 Sudanese have crossed into eastern Chad from west Darfur, where attacks from the paramilitary Rapid Response Forces (RSF) were particularly brutal, according to Médecins sans Frontières (MSF). Refugee camps are being set up around Chad’s border town of Adré, but the needs in terms of shelter, food and healthcare are fast outpacing the aid the organisation is able to provide.

“I saw people digging holes, including children and women, to find water,” said Susanna Borges, outgoing MSF emergency coordinator in Adré, who was in the area two days ago.

Borges warned that unsanitary conditions in the camps increased the risk of cholera or dengue outbreaks, and threatened local communities who have welcomed Sudanese refugees.

Attention fading

In 2022, ahead of the current conflict, Sudan was already one of the world’s top neglected humanitarian crises, with one third of the population in need of humanitarian assistance as of last year.

Laerke said Sudan was “not getting the international attention it deserved”. Only 26 per cent of the $2.6 billion UN’s humanitarian appeal for Sudan this year has been funded, according to Laerke, who said that was “unacceptable”.

The fighting in West Darfur has receded for now after leaving a trail of ethnic violence reminiscent of the genocide that scarred the region two decades ago. In El Geneina, life has almost gone back to normal, according to MSF’s Borges. Markets are open and inhabitants are working together to keep certain services such as hospitals still running.

But the emergency is far from over. Pharmacies are empty, vaccines are severely lacking and fuel prices have skyrocketed, she added. Some 2,000 people continue to cross into eastern Chad every day, adding pressure to local communities.

“What concerns me is that these people will be forgotten, and they will still remain there without any kind of support,” said Borges.

MSF’s head of emergency response, Trish Newport, stressed the organisation was calling on donors as well as UN and other humanitarian organisations to scale up the response “or else the emergency that exists today is going to deteriorate into something even bigger”.

Calls for action ahead of human rights meet

The UN Human Rights Council, which will reconvene on 11 September, is set to discuss the situation in Sudan, offering an opportunity to raise the level of political attention. The Geneva-based body held an emergency debate in May and agreed to monitor human rights violations closely.

Read more: Sudanese activist: ‘We told them this will not work, but they did not listen to the people’

But civil society organisations have been calling for stronger action as calls on warring parties to respect ceasefires, spare civilians and allow safe passage for aid go unheeded.

“The Council should establish, without further delay, a commission of inquiry with a mandate to document and expose the crimes committed in Sudan by all parties, and to identify perpetrators,” Nicolas Agostini, Geneva representative for the African NGO DefendDefenders, told Geneva Solutions.

He said such a commission “would go a long way towards sending the signal to all parties that they will face consequences for their actions against the Sudanese people”.