Migration and displacement – Sudan

As the refugee and IDP crisis escalates, COVID-19 is bringing new woes

Emily Bauman

Despite the best efforts of humanitarian actors in Sudan, refugees, migrants and other displaced people in the country are struggling amidst the dual effects of the coronavirus and renewed violence. For the 1 million displaced by armed violence in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, the pandemic is making it even harder to find a safe haven within an insecure, resource-scarce landscape.

A significant number of these are now seeking sanctuary in Sudan: according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), by the end of April 2021 more than 63,000 Ethiopians had crossed into Sudan since the outbreak of civil conflict in November 2020.

In addition to the new Ethiopian arrivals from Tigray, the context of forced displacement and COVID-19 in Sudan also features the ongoing crisis in Darfur and urban refugee populations in major cities. According to data published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is providing humanitarian assistance in the region, in less than four months of 2021 close to 237,000 people were displaced by conflict in Darfur – more than four times the number (53,000) who were displaced by conflict during the whole of 2020. In a world of limited capacity, partners and resources that would otherwise be available to assist with the more general humanitarian response are instead focusing their efforts on COVID-19 emergency programming.

For example, of the 250,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Darfur in need of health care services, only about 65,000 people were able to access them as of May 2021. General practitioners and many hospitals are dedicated exclusively to managing COVID-19 cases, leaving other life-threatening conditions largely untreated. For pregnant refugee and displaced women in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan, this often means that pre-natal check-ups or skilled care during and after deliveries are simply unavailable. Meanwhile, amidst the oncoming third wave of the pandemic in Sudan, the security situation in Ag Geneina town, Darfur, is tense and unpredictable. The situation in gathering sites in Ag Geneina is critical because of insecurity due to armed clashes, and overcrowding and unsanitary conditions which further raise infection rates. Unsurprisingly, Sudan’s already weak health care system has been struggling to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, especially in its conflict-affected regions.

The pandemic has also put pressure on already strained inter-communal relations. Refugees arriving in Sudan from Tigray and IDPs in Darfur often seek refuge in sites near communities which are dealing with their own struggles, such as limited access to water and increasing tensions over shrinking grazing areas for their cattle herds: the friction between these host communities and those living in the camps or informal sites has worsened in the wake of COVID-19. The risk of potential unrest is now elevated by rising anxiety among host communities that the incoming refugees and displaced are bringing the virus to their doors.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates 7.1 million people are severely food insecure in Sudan, including about 2.5 million internally displaced persons and 1.1 million refugees.

Pre-existing causes of instability and vulnerability, namely the lack of services, unemployment, environmental degradation, economic crisis and inadequate government investment have been accentuated by the influx of potentially Covid-infected Ethiopian refugees to eastern Sudan. Because of the cultural and ethnic differences between the two groups and pre-existing conditions, there is a risk that long-standing causes of instability are by proxy attributed to the influx of refugees by the host community. For example, tensions over fears of disease outbreaks or environmental degradation (such as cutting of trees for firewood) have already been reported, further driving negative perceptions of refugees by the local communities. As a result, humanitarian agencies must redouble their efforts to raise funding and execute communication campaigns that foster peace, mitigate inter-communal tensions and spread correct information about COVID-19, while also creating projects that directly address the socio-economic impacts of refugees during a pandemic.

For urban-based refugees, migrants and IDPs in Sudan, the lockdown measures imposed in response to the pandemic created a lack of mobility that brought work in the informal economy to a standstill. Given that many urban refugee and displaced households rely on small informal jobs for their day-to-day survival, food insecurity for these and other migrant communities in Sudan soared from the onset of the pandemic. In a city like Khartoum, the inability to work in informal economy jobs due to COVID-19-related lockdowns placed hundreds of thousands of refugee, internally displaced and migrant households at risk of starvation in 2020. According to the latest estimates from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), overall about 7.1 million people are severely food insecure in Sudan, with some 2.5 million internally displaced people (IDPs) and 1.1 million refugees, mainly from South Sudan and Ethiopia, facing substantial humanitarian needs.

Organizations like IOM are evolving quickly to meet the additional complex needs of refugees and displaced people fleeing violence amidst the virus. Multiple creative solutions are being used to overcome the compounded challenges, and social cohesion programmes are more vital than ever. The support and interventions of the international community are pivotal to alleviate the pressure of refugee and IDP influxes on host communities and increased tensions due to perceived spread of the pandemic by refugees, and to enhance their inclusion and participation in the socio-economic recovery of the localities where they live. Promoting solidarity and defusing possible future tensions over limited basic services, natural resources, health and infrastructure remain imperative, while also continuing to support refugees and displaced people with critical services.

Awareness-raising campaigns in camps, settlements and cities about preventing the spread of COVID-19 have become a core part of the work for the Sudanese government, humanitarian agencies and their partners. This has become an important element of information and training sessions that were previously focused on issues such as human trafficking and migrant rights. Humanitarian agencies have switched from in-person to virtual meetings, and to bilateral instead of round-table formats for coordination meetings where possible. Land lines and cell phones have come back into play. In remote areas like Darfur, where internet-based calls are not possible, emergency assistance teams resort to telephone calls for information sharing with migrants and to offer services like psychosocial support or coordinating assisted voluntary return to the migrants’ home countries. Hotlines for COVID-19 assistance and essential services are being set up across Sudan.

Providing support to refugee and displaced leaders, as well as migrant community focal points, has been recognized as more essential than ever to meet the unprecedented challenges of responding to crisis situations during a global pandemic. IOM trains community leaders in Sudan to identify cases in need of protection amidst their constituents, to help spread awareness about COVID-19 prevention, further disseminate information, provide referrals to hospitals and other services, and identify those most at risk, including the most food insecure, for emergency intervention.

While creative solutions are being found, the impact of the coronavirus is creating a silent yet unprecedented challenge to humanitarian operations. Aid workers – often specialists who are difficult to replace quickly – are also contracting the virus in the field and becoming incapacitated for weeks or months at a time. So when an emergency response operation in remote areas of Sudan hinges on the expertise, community relationships and health of a few people, usually working around the clock, but who are then themselves infected and out of commission, it affects the lives of hundreds, often thousands, of refugees, IDPs and host community members. This is particularly critical in settings where multiple overlaying emergencies are ongoing at once, such as famine and historic levels of flooding that have further jeopardized the health and security of tens of thousands of people.

In the context of the Tigray crisis and Darfur, there is currently a race against time. The international aid effort requires adequate staffing and urgent coordination, with over a dozen agencies currently building thousands of latrines and shelters, as well as helping to construct roads before the rainy season brings floods and makes access to the refugee and displaced sites impossible. Whether this daunting feat will be possible amidst the myriad factors of the emergency response and the added complexity of the coronavirus remains to be seen.


Credit: Ethiopians who have just crossed a river from Ethiopia to Sudan to flee from the Tigray region, walk towards the Hamdeyat refugees transit camp, which houses refugees fleeing the fighting, on the border in Sudan, December 1, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner.