May 26, 2023

A Looming Disaster: Sudan’s Refugees Face Dire Humanitarian Conditions in Chad

(AP Photo/Sam Mednick)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Nearly 100 thousand people have recently fled Sudan for neighboring Chad, according to the UN, adding to the 400 thousand Sudanese refugees already in the country after fleeing previous conflicts.
  • This latest wave of refugees, 90 percent of whom are women and children, face dire conditions, as many shelter in open, makeshift encampments and experience severe food insecurity.
  • The impending rainy season threatens to cut off critical supplies to refugees and wipe out makeshift encampments, which could result in further widespread humanitarian disasters.
  • Failed ceasefires and ethnic divisions risk creating a protracted conflict in Sudan, which could exacerbate complex humanitarian challenges and negatively impact regional stability.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 330 thousand refugees have crossed into neighboring countries since the armed conflict in Sudan broke out in mid-April. An additional 843 thousand have been internally displaced within the country by the fighting, and the refugee crisis is still in the early stages. UNHCR says it is preparing for the conflict to create more than 800 thousand total refugees. Nearly 100 thousand refugees of the conflict have fled to neighboring Chad alone, according to UNHCR. Although Egypt has taken in the most refugees from the current conflict so far, already hosting over 150 thousand, the situation in Chad is particularly concerning given the country’s limited capacities to provide the refugees with reliable food, shelter, or other humanitarian services. Chad’s new arrivals, approximately 90 percent of whom are women and children, have added to the roughly 400 thousand Sudanese refugees already in the country after fleeing previous conflicts.

Reports from the Sudan-Chad border region depict dire conditions and a burgeoning humanitarian crisis. Due to strained resources and a lack of housing, many Sudanese refugees are sheltering out in the open, sometimes under trees and in makeshift structures, where they are exposed to the elements. Even before receiving this latest wave of Sudanese refugees, Chad was already grappling with one of the world’s highest hunger levels. According to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), the Sahel region, which includes Chad, has experienced one of the most severe hunger crises in the world. As of March 2023, approximately 13 million people across the region were projected to experience extreme hunger, creating economic and governance challenges that tend to benefit the Sahel’s extremist groups, which often target disaffected populations for recruitment. WFP projects that 1.9 million could experience severe hunger in Chad by June, with ongoing violence, extreme climate events, and agricultural production drops worsening hunger and poverty across the country. The fighting in Sudan has also sent food prices soaring, compounding the already devastating levels of hunger. Earlier this month, the United Arab Emirates sent a plane of food supplies to the Sudanese-Chad border to help refugees; the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has pledged $100 million to Sudan and the countries supporting those who have fled the conflict.

Chad’s impending rainy season will further complicate relief efforts, turning swathes of desert into rivers and endangering deliveries of food and other supplies to refugees. According to a senior official with the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Sudanese refugees are arriving in Chad so quickly that it will be impossible to relocate them all to safety before the start of the rainy season. IFRC and other aid organizations have flagged the risk of a major humanitarian disaster. In 2022, unprecedented torrential rains caused catastrophic human and material damage and the loss of livelihoods for a significant portion of Chad’s population, according to the IFRC. In addition to the immediate threat of such weather events, flooding creates a high risk of water-borne diseases and outbreaks in the aftermath, as well. These conditions often disproportionately impact refugees and displaced persons and leave them at extreme risk. UNHCR seeks to move refugees from the border areas to pre-existing refugee camps in Chad and plans to establish five new camps. Yet, with failed ceasefires and the influx of refugees, getting all refugees to safety in time will be a formidable, if not impossible, feat.

Despite several attempted ceasefires, including one that went into effect Monday evening (May 22), fighting has continued in several areas of Sudan. The latest seven-day ceasefire, the first truce signed by both parties to the conflict, was brokered by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to facilitate humanitarian delivery and restore essential services. Yet witnesses reported hearing heavy bombardments in the capital Khartoum, combat in the north of the city, and air strikes east of the capital even after the ceasefire went into effect. Volker Perthes, the UN’s envoy to Sudan, during a May 22 briefing to the UN Security Council said that fighting and troop movements had continued in the lead up to the ceasefire, despite pledges by both sides to the contrary. Signs of growing tribal mobilizations and heightened communal tensions risk further conflict between communities. At least 16 were killed during ethnic clashes in Sudan’s southern White Nile state earlier this week, according to Sudanese media reports. The UN envoy to Sudan warned in his briefing of an “ethnicization” of the conflict, which “risks engulfing the country in a prolonged conflict, with implications for the region.”

Ethnic killings have also been reported in West Darfur, as have attacks on government buildings, markets, schools, and camps of internally displaced persons. Neither the 2003 conflict in Darfur nor the alleged genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity by former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir have receded from the memory of civilians – including the many refugees who fled the conflict – or armed groups in the region. The 2020 Juba Peace Agreement could not halt violence in the region even before the ongoing fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). An “ethnicization” of the recent fighting risks not only creating a protracted conflict but also bringing a new round of humanitarian suffering to civilians in the region. Moreover, as many of the 400 thousand Sudanese refugees living in Chad before the recent conflict had fled the decades of violence in Darfur, a prolonged and violent conflict in Sudan will undoubtedly impact the region writ large, potentially for years. UNHCR has estimated that without a cessation of the hostilities, more than 800 thousand refugees may end up fleeing Sudan. This would not only exacerbate current humanitarian challenges and strain limited resources but would also pose a risk to regional stability.