Far from the world’s spotlight, an expanding war in Sudan is triggering new waves of displacement among millions of people from Khartoum to Darfur, intensifying the refugee burden on the impoverished countries on its borders.
Frustrated aid workers say the world is ignoring the deepening refugee crisis in Sudan as the global focus shifts to the Israel-Hamas war. As many as 10 million people in Sudan have been forced from their homes by recent conflicts, including nearly six million since the latest war began in April, and the crisis has become one of the worst humanitarian disasters in the world, they say.
“A lot of the world, including governments, are just scandalously silent,” said Dominique Hyde, a Canadian aid worker who is director of external relations at UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.
“It’s shameful that the atrocities that were committed 20 years ago in Darfur can still be happening today with such little attention,” she told The Globe and Mail in an interview this weekend. “People are looking away. They’re forgetting Sudan.”
The war in Sudan was briefly the centre of global attention in April when Canada and other Western governments sent airplanes into the country to extract their own citizens. But after the foreigners were evacuated, the Western world seemed to lose interest.
Two funding appeals by the UN, seeking a total of US$3.6-billion for the humanitarian crisis in Sudan and neighbouring countries where the refugees have found shelter, have reached less than 40 per cent of their targets so far.
The brutal feud between the Sudanese military and its former ally, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, exploded into violence in mid-April and has grown steadily worse. As the war intensifies, the RSF has been sweeping across Darfur in recent weeks, capturing city after city, and has wrested control of much of the capital, Khartoum, forcing huge numbers of people to flee their homes.
Aid agencies say their work in Sudan is hobbled by a lack of resources. Refugee camps are enormously overcrowded and have suffered outbreaks of cholera and other diseases.
In White Nile state, in southern Sudan, there are so many displaced people from Khartoum and other places that the population has soared by nearly 50 per cent. Many are sleeping in schools and local homes. One elderly widow has allowed 60 people to sleep in her home every night, Ms. Hyde said.
One of the state’s largest camps for displaced people, Alagaya, has seen its population double to about 60,000 recently. Across the state, about 1,200 children under the age of 5 have died of a combination of measles and malnutrition since May, partly because of the war and the destruction of health centres.
The exodus of Sudanese refugees to neighbouring South Sudan, meanwhile, is increasing dramatically. At one border crossing, Renk, a transit centre built for 3,000 people now has about 20,000 refugees in it.
“The water and sanitation situation is just waiting for a cholera outbreak,” Ms. Hyde said. “There are people everywhere you walk, and the situation is getting worse and worse. I’ve been in this work for 30 years and this is probably one of the worst I’ve seen.”
Relief agencies are trying to help the refugees but simply lack the resources, she said. “In South Sudan and Sudan, the humanitarian system is completely overwhelmed. The numbers are just staggering. Our staff are working night and day. The support is simply not keeping pace.”
The work can be dangerous and arduous. At least 45 aid workers have been killed or detained in Sudan over the past seven months, the UN says. Looting of aid trucks and offices has been common. And access to Sudan is often difficult. More than 200 international aid workers were still waiting for visas to enter Sudan at last count.
South Sudan, one of the poorest countries in the world, is among several neighbouring countries struggling with a massive number of Sudanese refugees. Chad, Ethiopia, Central African Republic and Egypt have also received large numbers.
In eastern Chad, the humanitarian group Médecins Sans Frontières reported on Friday that more than 1,000 refugees had crossed from Sudan in a single day – the number that normally arrives in a week. Many are arriving with diseases or malnutrition because of poor conditions in Sudan, it said in a social media post.
With little hope of jobs or income in the camps, some of the refugees and displaced people are so desperate that they have returned to the war zone, where some have been killed, Ms. Hyde said.
Others are moving onward to Libya and Tunisia, where they get on flimsy boats in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Before the latest war, Sudanese were rarely seen in the Mediterranean refugee boats, but this is becoming increasingly common, she said.
Meanwhile, as the RSF continues its advance across Darfur and Khartoum, there are growing reports of atrocities and abuses, including civilian deaths, arbitrary arrests and sexual violence.
“We are deeply alarmed by reports that women and girls are being abducted and held in inhuman, degrading slave-like conditions in areas controlled by the RSF in Darfur, where they are allegedly forcibly married and held for ransom,” UNHCR spokesperson Liz Throssell said on Friday.
“Some sources have reported seeing women and girls in chains on pick-up trucks and in cars.”