The UN estimates as many as 800,000 refugees may flee from Sudan into neighboring countries as fighting continues. Millions of children face grave risks to their health, safety and well-being. UNICEF is there.
Conflict in Sudan triggers new refugee crisis
In the Sudanese town of Tandalti, as battles raged just a few miles away, thousands of refugees, mostly women and children, crossed the border on donkeys, horse and by foot into Chad from West Sudan, one of the worst hit areas outside Khartoum.
By late April tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees were sheltering in a makeshift camp spread out about half a square mile in the Chadian border village of Koufroun. They arrived with few possessions, hungry, exhausted and suffering the effects of the ruthless desert heat.
Now the UN is projecting that the conflict could force as many as 800,000 people to flee as battles continue between warring groups.
Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands wounded since fighting broke out between the Sudanese army and paramilitary forces on April 15.
"I don't know where to find my mother and my father. When the fighting began, they weren't at home, I've had no news," Hinit Issack Abakar, a weeping 17-year-old refugee, who escaped with her brother and sister, told a reporter. "It's very hard to live in a refugee camp without parents."
UNICEF is providing cooking utensils, blankets and mats, drawing from an emergency stockpile. But getting the supplies through to those who need them inside Sudan has been a challenge.
"Today, I have no food for my children and no means of work — my sewing machines were taken by the attackers," Mahamat Hassan Hamad, a 52-year-old tailor, said. Hamad is sheltering from the extreme heat with his wife and 11 children in a makeshift room he made with straw, adding a roof of plastic sheeting held up by branches.
The attacks began early in the morning, Hamad said. "They set fire to our homes and destroyed everything in their path. I took my children to cross the border."
Ikhram, 16, and her older sister Isra, were able to collect emergency items being distributed by UNICEF and partners to refugees arriving in Koufroun, Chad. The sisters fled Tandalti, a village on the border between Sudan and Chad, with their parents and five siblings when their village was attacked and their house was burned down.
“We have been sleeping here, under a tree,” Ikhram says. "I would love to go back to my country, but only if we are safe there. My younger siblings do not understand why we are here, even if they have witnessed the attack. I can't scare them and tell them we're here because of the war, so I tell them we have come here for a vacation."
Humanitarian needs already at record levels in Sudan before fighting started
Humanitarian needs across Sudan had already reached record levels before the conflict erupted. UNICEF's slate of programs, detailed in its 2023 appeal for the country, remains severely underfunded, at about 12 percent.
“Even before the escalation in violence, humanitarian needs in Sudan were higher than ever,” UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said. Now, she added, "many families are trapped in the crossfire, with little or no access to electricity, terrified about the fighting and the possibility of running out of food, water and medicine."
Reaching those in need with humanitarian supplies inside Sudan has become increasingly challenging due to security risks, fuel shortages and looting at warehouses.
Critical services under threat
In Khartoum, home to almost 5.3 million residents, every school in closed, and 16 of the city’s 34 hospitals have been knocked out, while others have compromised functionality.
Lifesaving treatment services for an estimated 50,000 severely acutely malnourished children, who require on-going, round-the-clock care, have been disrupted. Access to safe water remains one of the main challenges in Khartoum and other affected states.
The fighting also puts at risk the cold chain in Sudan, including over $40 million worth of vaccines and insulin, due to the breaks in the power supply and the inability to restock generators with fuel, Russell said.
Malnutrition rates in children are expected to rise due to displacement and shortage of food. While sufficient nutrition supplies to last untill the end of June have already been prepositioned in the field locations, replenishment will be needed due to widely reported looting across several states.
"The perilous security situation across the country makes it very difficult to collect and verify information," Russell said, "but we know that while fighting continues, children will continue to pay the price."
UNICEF is working to ensure the safety and security of personnel and civilians, mapping access and logistical routes to facilitate a quick response amid a shifting battlefield and newly emerging humanitarian needs.
Preparing for increase in need for mental health and psychosocial support
An increasing number of children and parents are expected to require mental health and psychosocial support to cope with trauma resulting from the crisis. UNICEF is establishing safe, child-friendly learning spaces in schools and in refugee camps and other locations designed to ensure that children's well-being and safety are prioritized, and providing counseling and other necessary interventions to those who need them.
UNICEF is also working with partners to ensure essential supplies for children in detention and in care institutions, and to provide support to identified unaccompanied and separated children. Sixty community volunteers have been deployed in Khartoum, Bahri and Omdurman to provide mental health and psychosocial support.
Access to and within the country remains a challenge. With the main international airport in Khartoum shut down, all air shipments have been diverted, most critically for vaccines. Some supplies are stranded at transit points.
UNICEF will continue to engage in high-level advocacy for continuous humanitarian access, which is currently restricted, and the protection of children’s rights.
In Chad, UNICEF is working with local partners to support refugees as well as children and families in need in refugee host communities. These efforts include contracting local entrepreneurs to dig new boreholes in Koufron, Midjeguelta and Dize Berté villages to serve 1,500 people, hosts and refugees both.
Prior to the conflict there were already half a million Sudanese refugees in Chad, which shares a porous 800-plus mile long border with Sudan and is one of the poorest nations the world.