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Cordaid NL
Humanitarian Aid Sudan

The forgotten refugee crisis in the Sudanese desert: “Their stories are shocking”

Sudan has had its fair share of political turmoil and conflict in the past decades. Because the neighbouring regions occasionally struggle with even larger crises, the country in the northeast of the African continent also hosts about 1.1 million refugees, mostly from South Sudan.

Since civil war broke out in the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray in November 2020, a new refugee crisis arose in this unforgiving arid land. Many Tigrayans who fled the violence became internally displaced, but over 70,000 people have been estimated to have crossed the border into Sudan.

They are now stuck in the desert, where the days are sizzling hot, the nights are freezing, the lack of hygiene facilities creates a breeding ground for diseases and the absent infrastructure impedes access to the crisis area.

Just like in other refugee settlements in the region, various aid organisations collaborate to respond to the needs of the thousands of people who have left their homes, sometimes with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing at the time.

Unique collaboration

The emergency response for the Tigrayans in Sudan is the fruit of a unique collaboration between two global faith-based networks, the Catholic aid confederation Caritas Internationalis, of which Cordaid is a founding member, and the protestant ACT Alliance. Of the latter, Cordaid was invited to become a member after joining forces with ICCO in 2021.

The English Caritas member CAFOD and ACT Alliance representative Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) have teamed up in the desert of east Sudan to aid the refugees with water, sanitation, sustainable energy and psychosocial support.

“They see their current situation as utterly degrading.”

Remote and rough

“There is nothing here. Nothing”, Patriciah Wairimu says through an online call with a continuously failing connection. Patriciah is based in the small town of Al Qadarif and leading NCA’s response in the field. “The Sudanese government has selected a very harsh location for the settlement. The organisations have trouble getting their staff accommodated here, because of the lack of infrastructure.”

Tigray refugees Sudan
Staff of Norwegian Church Aid at work in the refugee settlement in Sudan. Image: NCA

If finding yourself in such a remote and rough landscape wouldn’t already pose enough challenges as is, Patriciah also describes the atmosphere in the settlement as complex and quite tense. “This is not only a conflict between the Tigrayans and the Ethiopian government. There are also clashes with a different tribe in the region. Some of them have fled to Sudan as well, but they cannot share a settlement with the Tigrayans, as that would create too much tension. But most shocking are the stories I hear from the refugees. Stories about the violence they have experienced and how sad they are now. They see their current situation as utterly degrading.”

Safe spaces

To help the traumatised population deal with their experiences, NCA and CAFOD are running safe spaces for professional mental health support. “There we focus mainly on women, who not only face the violence of civil war but in a crisis also have to deal with more gender-based violence.”

Stephen Mwalo works for CAFOD and was based in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum for four years, managing institutional grants and collaborating with NCA on fundraising. “Despite all the challenges, I was also touched by the results we have been able to achieve”, Stephen says. “For example, we have built 400 latrines, reaching more than 20,000 refugees.”

“Every dollar counts, to feed a family, to save lives. We need all the support we can get.”

Sharing important values

Going by the results, the shared history of the ACT Alliance and Caritas Internationalis in Sudan could potentially set an inspirational example for collaboration in other crisis areas. Patriciah: “It feels perfectly natural to work together with Caritas member CAFOD. The additional funding we can generate by cooperating is extremely welcome in these challenging times. But it’s not just that. We share important values and when you join those, you become more effective.”

Stephen Mwalo agrees: “There has been a lot of great collaboration, in sharing information and preventing duplicate roles. We also worked together well on the technical aspects of the implementation.”

The emergency continues

Unfortunately, the near future for both Sudan and Tigray is looking rather bleak. The emergency continues and the political situation does not seem to be stabilising in either country.

“A lasting crisis like this could lead to donor fatigue”, Patriciah Wairimu warns. “Right after the emergency starts, there are a lot of funds available, but after a while, you start to see a decrease, while the needs remain high. Every dollar counts, to feed a family, to save lives. We need all the support we can get.”