Sudan's true displacement figure: 10+ million
Frequently cited estimate of 6 million excludes pre-existing refugees and IDPs
How many people have fled their homes due to conflict in Sudan? The figure consistently cited by aid agencies and media in recent weeks is about 6 million.
But this figure counts only Sudanese who were displaced since April 2023—omitting the more than four million Sudanese displaced by conflicts prior to that date.
The metric is a convenient one for gauging the severity of the humanitarian impact of the recent conflict. But it gives the wrong impression that the humanitarian and political context of the new civil war is completely different from the prior conflicts, when in fact they are closely interrelated.
In many cases, the perpetrators that caused the prior displacement are the same ones causing the new displacement. For example, the militias that previously displaced millions from their villages in Darfur—including the Rapid Support Forces (RSF)—are the same ones who are doing so again, now with renewed vigor.
Likewise, the shelling and aerial bombardments by the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) in Nyala, Omdurman, and elsewhere, which have displaced many thousands, are the same indiscriminate military tactics that they used previously in the Nuba Mountains.
Let’s break down the numbers and look at the situation comprehensively.
New displacement since April 2023
Internally displaced persons (IDPs): 4.6 million people are displaced within Sudan since mid-April 2023, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The majority of these are from Khartoum, who are now living with family or friends in other states, camps, rented accommodations, or schools or other public buildings. Large numbers of people are also displaced within Darfur, and others within Kordofan.
Refugees and returnees: 1.3 million Sudanese and foreign nationals who were refugees in Sudan have fled to other countries since mid-April 2023. The majority of these are Sudanese (65%), but a substantial number are South Sudanese, as well as Chadians and Ethiopians. Sudan was home to over one million refugees prior to the current war. Many have since returned to their home country—where they don’t necessarily have homes or livelihoods—while others fled to third countries.
IOM refers to this combined metric (cross-border flows of returnees + refugees) as “Mixed Cross-Border Movements.” The below charts, published recently by IOM, show the proportion of Sudanese nationals crossing from Sudan into neighboring countries since April. Notice that higher proportions of Sudanese crossed into Egypt and Chad, whereas the migrations into Ethiopia and South Sudan consisted largely of non-Sudanese.
Altogether, the number of IDPs, returnees, and refugees displaced since April 2023 adds up to 5.9 million.
Displacement prior to April 2023
IDPs: Additionally, there were already an estimated 3.7 million IDPs prior to April 2023, according to IOM. The majority were victims of the Darfur genocide that began in 2003, and some had lived in camps for many years.
Another 800,000 Sudanese were living as refugees in neighboring countries such as Chad, South Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia, according to UNHCR. Most of these were victims of the conflicts in Darfur, Blue Nile, and South Kordofan.
Combining the newly displaced persons with those who were already displaced prior to April 2023 results in a total of 10.4 million displaced. (Calculation: 4.6 million new IDPs + 1.3 million new refugees + 3.7 million IDPs pre-dating April 2023 + 0.8 million pre-existing refugees = 10.4 million).
Accounting for some potential overlap between the current and previous IDP figures (some pre-existing IDPs have been re-displaced, particularly from IDP camps around Darfur cities affected by violence, such as Nyala and Zalingei), the number is perhaps closer to 10 million, rather than 10.4 million.
In other words, there are approximately 10 million conflict-displaced Sudanese citizens and residents. This figure is enormous, larger than any previous civil war in Sudan.
South Sudan’s crisis
Lastly, it’s worth briefly considering the two Sudans as a whole.
United Nations agencies track displacement figures separately for Sudan and South Sudan. This makes sense, of course, because South Sudan achieved its independence in 2011, and humanitarian operations in South Sudan are run independently from those in Sudan.
Nonetheless, Sudan and South Sudan still have deep economic, political, and cultural ties, and the conflicts in the two countries have many of the same historic root causes and drivers. Both Sudan and South Sudan are grappling with pernicious legacies of militarism, corruption, slavery, repression, and ethnic violence that continue to make large parts of the two countries violent, impovershed, and uninhabitable.
There is also a substantial risk that Sudan’s war could severely impact South Sudan’s own security and economy. This would exacerbate South Sudan’s existing displacement crisis. According to OCHA, the UN Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are already 2 million South Sudanese displaced within their country (IDPs), and 2.3 million who are living in other countries as refugees.
In total, therefore, approximately 4.3 million South Sudanese are displaced. This a shocking number for a country with an estimated population of just 11 million.
Together with the 10.4 million people displaced from and within Sudan, the two crises account for approximately 14.7 million displaced. That figure dwarfs the displacement figure for all other crises in the world, including Ukraine and Syria.
Yet Sudan and South Sudan receive only a small fraction of the humanitarian aid, political prioritization, and media attention that are lavished on other conflicts. Refugees in eastern Chad, for example, have barely received any assistance and face shortages of water, food, and medical care. Many are survivors of recent mass atrocities and sexual violence in Darfur.
Beginning of Jeddah talks
Without a ceasefire and an eventual political solution to the conflict, these displacement numbers will continue to grow. Negotiations between the two warring parties, the Rapid Support Forces and the Sudan Armed Forces, have been on hold since June, and fighting has continued unceasingly.
Yesterday, however, the Foreign Ministry of Saudi Arabia announced the resumption of talks between the two sides in Jeddah. Saudi Arabia and the United States facilitated prior rounds of failed negotiations. The facilitation team now also includes representatives of the African Union and the East African bloc IGAD.
The Saudi statement added:
“The talks will focus on the following:
Facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid.
Achieving a ceasefire and confidence-building measures.
The possibility of reaching a permanent cessation of hostilities.
The talks will not address issues of a political nature. With the agreement of the Sudan Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces, the facilitators will be the sole joint spokesperson for the talks and establish the rules of conduct that have been agreed upon by both parties that will guide the talks.”
The statement went on to list the members of the respective SAF and RSF delegations. Notably, Ambassador Omar Mohamed Ahmed Siddig, a member of the SAF delegation whom the RSF had objected to including, was listed not as an official delegation member but rather as an “expert” accompanying the delegation, along with one other expert. Likewise, the RSF listed two expert members alongside their delegation. All the remaining SAF delegation members are military officers.
This arrangement appears to have been the result of a compromise, perhaps proposed by the facilitators. The RSF’s objection to the participation of Ambassador Siddig may have been the cause for a three-day delay in commencement of the talks. Originally, the Jeddah talks were expected to resume on October 26.
Thanks for reading Sudan War Monitor.
Statement by UN Relief Chief on the Jeddah talks
Martin Griffiths, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, issued the following statement yesterday about the resumption of the Jeddah talks:
The Jeddah talks cannot have started soon enough.
More than six months since the start of the crisis in Sudan, the humanitarian tragedy in the country continues to unfold unabated.
Thousands of people have been killed or injured. One in nine people has fled their homes. Nearly one-third of the population could soon become food insecure. The health system is in tatters, with the specter of disease outbreaks, including cholera, looming. A generation of children risk missing out on a full education. We are billions of dollars short of the funding we need.
The humanitarian community has done its utmost to meet these ever-skyrocketing needs. Since mid-April, we have reached 3.6 million people with some form of aid—but this is just 20 per cent of people we are hoping to help.
Aid workers are hamstrung by fighting, insecurity and red tape, making the operating environment in Sudan extremely challenging.
This is why these Jeddah talks are critical: We need the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces to break the bureaucratic logjam. We need them to fully adhere to international humanitarian law. We need them to secure safe, sustained and unhindered access to people in need, be it in Darfur, Khartoum or the Kordofans.
In light of the colossal humanitarian crisis in Sudan, my office, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, will facilitate the humanitarian track of these negotiations.
I welcome the resumption of these talks and am grateful to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States for co-hosting them.
These talks are a decisive opportunity to let the people of Sudan know that they are not forgotten, that we take our international responsibilities seriously, and that we are committed to ensuring they receive the care, protection and life-saving assistance that they need.
Thanks for reading Sudan War Monitor! You can support our work by signing up for a free or paid subscription.