Blog post by Dyogo Duncan Dickson, Research and Advocacy Specialist on Peace and Conflict in the Horn of Africa with a passion for displaced populations and social justice.

On 15 April 2023, the outbreak of war in Sudan marked the beginning of a new era of suffering for refugees who had sought safety in the country. These refugees, mostly from neighbouring countries, had fled conflict, persecution, and violence in their homelands, seeking protection in Sudan. Prior to the war, there were approximately 1.1 million refugees in Sudan, primarily from South Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.


Sudan was a safe haven for refugees, and ranked second after Uganda in the whole of Africa. The war has forced these refugees to flee again, seeking safety in other parts of the country or neighbouring states. Many have sought refuge in Chad, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Egypt, where they face challenges in accessing basic necessities like food, water, and shelter. Others have fled to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and other urban centres, where they struggle to find safety and adequate living conditions. Tragically, some have been forced to return to their countries of origin against their will, including:

  • Over 100,000 South Sudanese refugees who have been forcibly returned to South Sudan, where they face renewed violence and displacement.
  • Nearly 5,000 Eritrean refugees who have been forced to return to Eritrea, where they risk persecution and indefinite military service.
  • Hundreds of Ethiopian refugees who have been returned to Ethiopia, where they face ongoing conflict and instability.

In contrast, the statistics on Sudanese refugees paint a stark picture. Over 1.8 million Sudanese refugees have sought safety in neighbouring countries, with 6.6 million internally displaced and 17.7 million facing acute food insecurity – making Sudan have the largest displacement crisis in the whole world. The situation is dire. Women and children are particularly vulnerable since the first 100 days of war, facing gender-based violence, exploitation, and abuse with rape being used as a weapon of war by the militant groups. The psychological trauma caused by the conflict has had a devastating impact on refugees and civilians mostly on children, with many suffering from anxiety, depression, and PTSD.

Rethinking Refugee Protection in Conflict Zones

The crisis in Sudan highlights the need to rethink refugee protection in conflict zones. The traditional model of refugee protection, which relies on camps and borders, is no longer sufficient in today’s complex conflict landscape. Instead, we need to move towards a more flexible and adaptive approach that prioritises the safety and dignity of refugees.

This requires a number of changes, including:

  • Integrating Conflict Early Warning Systems into refugee protection programs to inform the suitable course of action which may include but not limited to deploying peacekeepers in gazetted refugee centres, or relocating them to other neighbouring countries to minimise securitising protection where refugees are denied access to a third country which often leads to refoulement.
  • A shift towards community-based protection, which recognises the critical role that local communities play in supporting refugees.
  • The use of innovative technologies, such as biometric registration and cash transfers, to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of aid delivery.
  • A greater emphasis on self-reliance and livelihoods support, to enable refugees to rebuild their lives and regain their dignity.
  • A more robust and coordinated international response, which addresses the root causes of conflict and supports sustainable peacebuilding.

The Role of International and Domestic Actors: A Complex Dynamic

The response to the refugee crisis in Sudan has been marked by a complex interplay between international and domestic actors. On one hand, international organisations like the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and foreign governments have provided critical assistance, including food, shelter, and healthcare. On the other hand, domestic actors like the Sudanese government and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have played a crucial role in responding to the crisis, despite facing significant challenges.

The Sudanese government has established refugee camps and provided some assistance, but its efforts have been hampered by limited resources and a lack of capacity. CSOs, on the other hand, have been instrumental in providing humanitarian aid and advocacy, but they face significant restrictions and challenges in accessing affected areas.

The international community must prioritise the protection and support of both Sudanese refugees and refugees in Sudan, providing safe passage, adequate living conditions, and essential services. Meanwhile, the international community’s response has been inadequate, with funding shortfalls and access restrictions hindering aid efforts. Refugees in Sudan are in urgent need of assistance, including food, shelter, healthcare, and protection. It is imperative that the global community takes immediate action to address the humanitarian crisis in Sudan and works towards a lasting and inclusive civilian-led peace process.

Theoretical Perspectives: Liberal Peacebuilding, Local Ownership, and Human Security

The response to the refugee crisis in Sudan reflects different theoretical approaches to conflict response. The liberal peacebuilding approach, which emphasises the importance of international intervention and state-building, has been criticized for ignoring local contexts and capacities. The local ownership approach, which prioritises the role of domestic actors and local capacity-building, has been advocated for by some as a more sustainable and effective approach while the human security approach, which focuses on the protection of civilians and their needs, has been largely absent in the response to the crisis.


The crisis facing refugees in Sudan is a complex issue that requires a nuanced and context-specific approach. The international community’s response has been inadequate, and there is a need for more effective coordination and cooperation between international and domestic actors. The Sudanese government must also take responsibility for protecting refugees and addressing the root causes of the crisis.

To address the challenges facing refugees in Sudan, it is essential to adopt a more sustainable and effective approach that prioritises local ownership and human security. This can be achieved by:

  • Strengthening partnerships between international and domestic actors, including CSOs, to enhance coordination and capacity-building.
  • Supporting local ownership and leadership in responding to the crisis, while also ensuring accountability and transparency.
  • Prioritising human security and the protection of civilians, including vulnerable groups, and addressing their specific needs and concerns.
  • Rethinking refugee protection in conflict zones, and adopting a more flexible and adaptive approach that prioritises the safety and dignity of refugees.

By adopting such an approach, we can move towards a more sustainable and effective response to the refugee crisis in Sudan and elsewhere in the world. The approach prioritises the needs and dignity of refugees and host communities alike.


The plight of refugees in Sudan is a crisis that requires immediate attention and action. The international community must work together with domestic actors to provide adequate assistance and protection to refugees, while also addressing the root causes of the crisis. By rethinking refugee protection in conflict zones, we can hope to mitigate the suffering of refugees in Sudan and foster a more stable and peaceful future for all.

In the words of the UNHCR, “refugees are not just numbers, they are people with hopes, dreams, and aspirations.” It is our collective responsibility to ensure that these hopes, dreams, and aspirations are not crushed by conflict and violence, but are instead nurtured and supported through a more sustainable and effective approach to refugee protection.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.