Sudan crisis highlights why world’s refugee system needs a reset


Sudan crisis highlights why world’s refugee system needs a reset

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The latest violent chapter of Sudan’s decades-long strife is nearing its first anniversary, following the outbreak of conflict in April last year.
With 25 million people in need out of 49 million across the vast nation, this is our biggest humanitarian crisis. Integral to that is the world’s fastest and biggest forced displacement at about 8 million.
With no abatement in the violence or any credible peace prospects, these records will tumble as we advance through 2024. The number of needy is projected to reach 30 million, while those displaced will top 10 million.
As the state fragments, destruction and insecurity are becoming widespread. Hospitals, schools, water supplies, banking and communications have become distant memories, while citizens are terrorized and abused in their homes and neighborhoods. Hunger and disease stalk the land. Aid access is a matter of luck, even as courageous local groups take extraordinary risks to bring some succor.
It is understandable that humanitarian concern centers on mass suffering inside the country. However, population outflows from Sudan also deserve to be spotlighted because they represent the most awful manifestations of the agony engulfing the nation.
No one flees their country, abandoning all they hold dear, for precarious wanderings in foreign lands unless they are beyond desperate. Sudanese refugees attest to the unmitigated horrors they have endured. Not only violence but also depraved cruelties including sexual violence, torture, disappearances, executions and massacres. These occur nationwide. But when ethnically targeted in Darfur on a grand scale, they echo the genocide of 20 years ago, whose account has never been settled.
Sudan’s history is about the magnification of past errors, instead of learning from them. Its cyclical troubles refine previous horrors through practice, with the current phase being the worst yet in terms of the gratuitous suffering inflicted on people.
That is not all. Those with the strength and means to run away endure incredible obstacles along the way to the border. They are routinely robbed and otherwise exploited, their predators having a keen eye for unaccompanied women, young children and the aged. Crossing the border brings further nightmares. Borders open and close almost on a whim and a refugee’s most vulnerable moment is when waiting for an indeterminate period to cross, perhaps with no documents.
What little dignity a Sudanese refugee may have miraculously retained is dumped at the border as a new struggle commences. Ahead lies the uncertain mercy of strangers. Refugees may be initially welcomed by host communities with a shared history, identity and culture, who have always come and gone across Sudan’s long borders. But traditional migration, influenced by seasonal factors, has been toxified by spreading conflict. Regional solidarity networks have fractured, as today’s refugee flows are seen as a security nuisance.
Global experience is that the well of compassion eventually runs dry and all refugees outlast their welcome, sooner or later. Who can blame Sudan’s neighbors, which are themselves among the most impoverished and unstable states on the planet? Especially as their reluctant guests keep on coming.
Some 1.6 million people have fled Sudan since April 2023. This will probably double over the year. Parsing the statistics reveals the complexity of population flows. A third of those who fled Sudan are not Sudanese but foreign nationals and returnees. Many have been displaced repeatedly. Jumping nimbly from the frying pan into the fire — and back again — is a necessary survival strategy across the region.
Take the 100,000 migrant laborers from Chad in Darfur and also the 70,000 who fled atrocities in Tigray. With their Sudanese havens on fire, do they risk returning to their homes, which do not necessarily offer greater safety or viable living? The 820,000 South Sudanese who had fled north to escape their own troubles confront a similar dilemma as they stream back. For 200,000 Eritrean refugees in Sudan, going home is not an option and they must keep wandering.
The new arrivals swell preexisting Sudanese refugee numbers, such as the 810,000 stuck for many years, mostly in Chad’s desert settlements and the South Sudanese bush.
When destitute survivors find refuge, there is little accompanying help. Underfunded and sparsely-staffed aid agencies struggle to provide basic shelter, food, water, sanitation, healthcare and protection, let alone mental support for the unbearably traumatized.

Scapegoating refugees for all prevailing woes is common, while overlooking the capacities they bring.

Mukesh Kapila

Well-meaning humanitarian reforms have inadvertent consequences. For example, camps are unpopular, as they are said to foster criminality and insecurity, breed inconvenient resistance movements, destabilize neighborly relations and politically embarrass host governments. So, integration into host communities is seen as good practice. But this makes humanitarian provision and protection difficult for the most vulnerable, who cannot easily hustle for livelihoods and who just disappear into the bottomless poverty around them. Out-of-sight refugees rapidly become out of mind and easy prey to further exploitation.
Similarly, the push for localization allows international agencies to retreat. Refugees are left to the mercy of underdeveloped local institutions that may also be hostile or corrupt. Meanwhile, scapegoating refugees for all prevailing social and economic woes is common, while overlooking the capacities they bring. Historically, the Sudanese diaspora has contained doctors, engineers, teachers, scientists and many other skills that enrich their host societies. This is not recognized.
With the physical and material conditions of Sudanese refugees mirroring what they fled from, was it worth leaving?
Some think not after making their own grim calculations. Hundreds are returning to Sudan from Egypt having exhausted life-sustaining possibilities there. Others decide to keep moving and perish along dangerous trails northward through the Sahel and Mediterranean and southward toward South Africa. Their appalling misadventures include being preyed upon by people smugglers, traffickers, enslavers and sexual exploiters, alongside the harassment and humiliation that appears intrinsic to interactions with officialdom anywhere.
There is a myth around refugees returning home. Although Pakistan has recently pushed back 400,000 Afghans, many will creep back — as they did in the past. More generally, only a minority of refugees ever go back, even if they hold close the culture and customs of their origins. When refugee exile extends into decades, as is common now, the context of home shifts permanently.
Therefore, it is better to acknowledge that many Sudanese will not return and should be voluntarily resettled elsewhere — and the sooner the better to rebuild productive lives. The long limbo endured by Palestinians with their refugee status passed on from generation to generation is not to be wished on others.
Meanwhile, the latest UN appeal for Sudan seeks a record $4.1 billion, of which $1.4 billion is for refugees and host communities. On past experience, less than half will be funded. Much suffering will remain unmitigated, even as it increases.
The Sudan refugee problems reflect the growing malaise of an overburdened global humanitarian system. As well as a broken migration framework that has lost focus by lumping together everyone moving for any reason, including those escaping poverty or climate change or just seeking a better life. That is 300 million people. Of course, all have equal entitlements, but among them are just 30 million refugees who lost what little rights they ever had thanks to vicious conflict and persecution.
All migrants must be treated with humanity, but treating them equally means that those who are in desperate need of international protection and asylum must take their chances among the hordes of others who retain more agency. Another 110 million are forcibly displaced internally and deserve assistance, but combining them with refugees produces more muddle.
Why are refugee outflows often dismissed as just one of the many manifestations of a complex crisis and implicitly deprioritized? Why does every refugee exodus turn automatically into an emergency drama? Perhaps because fashionable “mixed migration” strategies dilute the original Refugee Convention of 1950, for which the UN Refugee Agency was specifically created. We may not be able to solve all of the increasingly toxic migration issues we face today, or resolve intractable conflicts, but the genuine refugee dimension is eminently manageable.
With the Sudan crisis set to worsen and parallel crises in Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Ukraine, Afghanistan and elsewhere generating their own outflows, refugee policies and practices warrant a reset. Fixing that will also benefit other types of migrants who deserve their own approaches.

Mukesh Kapila is professor emeritus of global health and humanitarian affairs at the University of Manchester and a former senior official at the UN and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. X: @mukeshkapila

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