A year ago, Sudan’s capital city Khartoum, though not without its troubles, was a sanctuary of sorts for refugees fleeing neighbouring states, and a few from further afield. Sudanese NGOs in the city worked alongside the authorities and UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, to look after about 300,000 asylum seekers – from South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Chad, the Central African Republic and even Syria.
Since April, however, when it suddenly became a battleground for rival factions in the ruling elite, Khartoum has bred a whole new generation of refugees. UNHCR suspects the conflict could soon drive 800,000 of them – the majority Sudanese citizens – to neighbouring countries.
Absorbing them is a challenge few capitals in the region are equipped to handle. In Chad, where refugee camps have been overcrowded for the past 20 years, relief workers have documented Sudanese refugees sleeping under trees. And Ethiopia, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and Libya all have their own ongoing conflicts or economic crises (or both). By far the most stable option is Egypt, where tens of thousands of Sudanese who could afford to get there have already gone.
For most of the refugees who were hosted in Sudan before the latest round of violence began, however, there are no good options. The dangers that drove them to seek shelter in Sudan in the first place have hardly diminished, and the ones they face from being forced to return home prematurely must be taken seriously. Staying in Sudan, for many, means suffering the trauma of displacement all over again. More than half of the 300,000 refugees who were living in Khartoum before the conflict have had to leave the city.
Worst of all, the networks that had been built up in Sudan to support refugee populations are being quickly eroded. There are concerns that the degraded security situation could lead to more instances where refugees are exploited or otherwise harmed; the Sudanese government says it has ordered its border officers to be on the lookout for any increase in human trafficking.
The violence, moreover, has forced UNHCR to relocate its staff from Khartoum to Port Sudan, 850 kilometres away on the Red Sea coast. This makes the 150,000 refugees who remain in the capital particularly vulnerable.
“If the fighting continues,” a UNHCR spokesperson told The National on Sunday, “our ability to access some of these vulnerable people is greatly constrained.”
The conflict in Sudan has proved tricky to solve – negotiators from Europe, America, Africa and the Gulf have all tried vigorously to get the country’s warring factions to put down their weapons. And the longer it drags on, the more intractable it is likely to get.
But the international community cannot afford to wait for a political settlement in Khartoum before it starts putting in the resources required to start taking care of Sudan’s refugees. Parties to the violence must be reminded by interlocutors that among the highest priorities are securing safe routes for those fleeing violence and the protection of the relief workers looking after them. And countries that wish the best for Sudan and its neighbours must respond to the UN’s latest calls for greater funding with as much enthusiasm as possible.
If there is one lesson the region’s woeful state of affairs offers, it is that wars flare up and die down, but the refugee crises they create linger for generations.