September 15, 2023

IntelBrief: Millions Displaced in Sudan as the Prospect of Another Genocide Looms Large

AP Photo/Sam Mednick, file

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Over one million refugees have now fled Sudan, with an additional 4.1 million people internally displaced throughout the country since the war between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces began in April.
  • The ongoing fighting in Sudan has exacerbated an already precarious humanitarian situation in the broader Sahel region, with more than 20 million people in Sudan alone – almost half of the country’s population – facing acute food insecurity and more than 6 million on the edge of famine.
  • Sudanese refugees have recounted hate speech, ethnic killings, massacres, and targeted sexual and gender-based violence in the conflict, leading some human rights groups and experts to warn of a severe risk of another genocide in the Darfur region.
  • The situation in Sudan, including the alleged human rights abuses and war crimes, will be part of the discussions in New York during the UN General Assembly “High-Level Week.”

Over one million refugees have now fled Sudan since the war between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) began in April, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In addition to those who have fled across the border, 4.1 million additional people have been internally displaced in the country due to the conflict, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Most Sudanese refugees – over 700,000 – are currently located in neighboring Chad and Egypt, with thousands of others in South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Central African Republic. In Chad, where the majority of Sudanese refugees have fled, approximately 85 percent of the new arrivals are women and children, with most residing in large, overcrowded, and growing makeshift camps in the eastern village of Adré. After visiting the site last week, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said, “I saw people on the brink of death, including young children…I am shaken – to my core – by the horrors the Sudanese people have endured.”

In the camps, a burgeoning humanitarian crisis is underway, as Sudanese refugees face dire living conditions, including food and water scarcity and a lack of sanitation, shelter, and medical care. In eastern Chad, many refugees are suffering from malaria, malnutrition, and diarrhea, according to reports from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). An MSF emergency coordinator in Adré, Susana Borges, noted many refugees had gone weeks without food rations, with some being forced to feed their children insects, grass, and leaves. Conditions inside Sudan are equally dire, with more than 20 million people, almost half of the country’s population, facing acute food insecurity and more than 6 million on the edge of famine, according to the World Food Programme (WFP). The conflict in Sudan and mass displacement have only exacerbated an already precarious humanitarian situation in the region writ large. According to WFP, the Sahel region, which includes Sudan and Chad, has experienced one of the most severe hunger crises in the world. Over 30 million people across the region are projected to be food insecure, according to estimates by WFP. Such conditions create economic and governance challenges that tend to benefit the Sahel’s extremist groups, which often target disaffected populations for recruitment. Ongoing violence, extreme climate events, and agricultural production drops are only set to worsen hunger and poverty throughout the region.

In an ominous echo, Sudanese refugees have recounted ethnically targeted killings, massacres, and sexual and gender-based violence, particularly in the Darfur region. Neither the 2003 conflict in Darfur nor the alleged genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity facilitated by former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir have faded from the memory of civilians; and human rights groups and other experts have pointed to mounting evidence – based on both the testimony of refugees who have fled the conflict and the monitoring of rights groups – that another genocide in the region may be underway again. Refugees have described persistent hate speech, including language urging the targeting of non-Arab communities based on skin color or ethnicity, and ethnically targeted killings, massacres, and sexual and gender-based violence, according to Human Rights Watch. Witnesses in the camps have also described seeing girls raped by men who appeared to be with the RSF, as well as summary executions and the targeting of groups of civilians traveling from the capital of West Darfur, El Geneina, to the border, either by shooting at close range or opening fire at crowds, according to testimonies in a report by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The report also documents a mass grave discovered outside of El Geneina, containing 87 bodies of people from the non-Arab ethnic Masalit people. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is currently investigating the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Darfur region. On September 6, the U.S. announced it had imposed sanctions on top RSF commanders, accusing the group of committing “extensive human rights violations in Darfur and elsewhere.” The sanctions target Abdelrahim Dagalo, the RSF deputy commander and brother of RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, and Adul Rahman Juma, the RSF’s top general in West Darfur.

Despite efforts to end the conflict, including mediation by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, there has been no substantive movement toward a resolution beyond short-lived ceasefires. Recent developments at the international level have not indicated a settlement in the conflict any time soon, as the UN special envoy to Sudan, Volker Perthes, announced he will step down on Wednesday three months after being declared unwelcome in Sudan. During an open briefing in the UN Security Council on the situation in Sudan on September 13, Perthes warned that the “conflict could be morphing into a full-scale civil war” and that the “conflict is leaving a tragic legacy of human rights abuses.” Although the ensuing debate in the Security Council demonstrated some states' concerns over the conflict’s impact on civilians and the desire for a settlement, a path forward does not seem clear. Further, as the conflict continues, fatigue among the international community has settled in, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. With other conflicts, such as the war in Ukraine, as well as numerous pressing humanitarian situations in places like the Mediterranean, Syria, and West Africa, the conflict in Sudan and the mounting human rights abuses are receding from headlines and prioritization among some member states. Yet, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield vowed recently to keep the spotlight on Sudan and to bring the parties of the conflict together to discuss solutions next week during the UN General Assembly “High-Level Week,” where heads of state and top diplomats will be in attendance in New York. However, previous short-lived ceasefires and attempts at mediation, coupled with general fatigue and fading interest in the conflict, indicate such efforts face formidable challenges.