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More than a Side Effect: Internal Displacement in Sudan | North Africa |

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More than a Side Effect: Internal Displacement in Sudan

Ahmed Gamal Eldin

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Sudan is one of the countries with the highest number of internally displaced people worldwide. What are the causes of displacement within the country?

Sudanese refugee children carry wood in Yida, South Sudan (2018). Already in the 1990s, Sudan had become the country with the largest internally displaced population in the world. (© picture-alliance/AP)

Sudan is among the countries with the largest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) – though internal displacement has decreased in recent years. While most of these displacements are triggered by civil conflicts, natural disasters and expansions in commercial agriculture and (in the last years shrinking) exploration and extraction of oil, their underlying causes are rooted in state formation and modernisation processes, widespread poverty and the socioeconomic and political marginalisation of peripheral populations. The policies of successive governments in Sudan have failed to effectively respond to the plights and needs of the IDPs. Instead, government policies have often deliberately caused or triggered various forms of displacements or denied the existence of the displacement crisis and sought to manage displacement through re-displacement and relocation of the IDPs. An estimated 2,1 million Sudanese are currently forcibly internally displaced across Sudan.

Sudan and its society are a product of a long history of migration and displacement. Post-independence Sudan , in particular, has witnessed numerous waves of voluntary as well as forced internal displacement of people, especially from the country’s peripheries towards the central, mostly riverain, areas and from the rural areas into urban centres. Over the last three decades, Sudan has witnessed unprecedented magnitudes and patterns of internal population displacement. With the outbreak of the conflict in Darfur in 2003, the number of IDPs in the country reached 5.4 million people (17 percent of the total population). With the escalation of the conflict in Darfur and other forms of displacement remaining unresolved, the number of IDPs peaked in 2005 with 6,1 million, including people being displaced in areas that now belong to South Sudan. Already in the 1990s, Sudan had become the country with the largest internally displaced population in the world and some scholars referred to it as "the cradle of displacement". However, the number of IDPs has significantly declined in recent years so that according to the UN's Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Sudan, at the end of 2018, "only" ranked number ten on the list of countries with the largest IDP populations in the world.

Patterns, Triggers and Magnitudes

While the underlying causes of internal displacement in Sudan are rooted in the process of state formation, the modernisation of the Sudanese economy and the management of peripheral populations, the different patterns of protracted displacement that the country has experienced have largely been triggered by four factors:

The first and long standing trigger is rural poverty and the socioeconomic and environmental shocks that regularly hit impoverished rural farmers and force them to move to other areas in search of better incomes, permanent or seasonal employment and/or better services. The exploitative socioeconomic relations that accompanied the process of state formation in Sudan have shaped the national economy which is based on the reliance of the centre on the peripheries, the modern sectors on the traditional sectors and the commercial agricultural sector on a reservoir of cheap and exploitable wage labour from the peripheries. Within this context, the seasonal or permanent more or less voluntary displacements of peripheral populations have become an integral part of the process of maintaining a reservoir of cheap and exploitable wage labour, without which the country’s large-scale and partly-mechanised commercial agriculture could not survive. The majority of movements in this context is depicted in official discourse as "seasonal circular migration" (SCM). They have historically been dominated by young single men who seasonally and circularly move between their villages, commercial farms in the mechanised farming or irrigated sectors and/or rural informal sectors. This pattern started to disappear in recent decades, especially following the collapse of the rural economies in many parts of the country in the mid-1980s, the deterioration of commercial agriculture and the emergence of the so-called naziheen era.

The second, and often least understood or recognised form of internal displacement is the forced displacement and relocation of people by successive Sudanese governments to pave the way for what officials refer to as "national development projects". Commercial agriculture schemes, dam construction, oil exploration and extraction, and urban re-planning were often used as a "legitimate" justification by governments to forcibly move whole communities from their traditional lands and relocate them as an allegedly inevitable and necessary sacrifice for achieving modernisation and economic development. Most significant in these patterns was the horizontal expansion of commercial agriculture and mechanised farming in the 1960s and 1970s which led to the displacement of large sections of rural populations. The so-called "scorched earth policy" which started in the mid-1990s in the oil exploitation zones in the Muglad Basin and Abyei area at the borders between Sudan and what is now the Republic of South Sudan and aimed at (forcefully) clearing these areas of residents, is another example of the brutality of this pattern of displacement. The most recent forms of internal displacement triggered by developmental goals can be associated with the mining of gold in various parts of the country including Darfur, South Kordofan and the northern and eastern regions of Sudan. Although gold mining in Sudan started over 15 years ago, the secession of the South in 2011 and its associated loss of oil revenue led to the rapid expansion of this industry – with a devastating impact on local populations. Militias fighting over gold mines and the removal and relocation of local people to clear areas were gold was found were among the main reasons why the mining of gold led to internal displacement.

The third, and probably main factor in terms of the number of people displaced, was the civil wars (from 1955 to 1972 and from 1983 to 2005) in the south of Sudan, the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile state and, more recently, in Darfur (where the conflict peaked in 2003/2004). The conflict between the government in Khartoum and rebel groups in southern Sudan started with Sudan’s independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule in 1956 against the background of uneven development and cultural differences between the Arabo-Islamic dominated north of Sudan and the African-Christian dominated south. The unsuccessful military campaigns by various regimes to crush the rebellions and integrate the war zones into the socio-economic and political system of the central government in Khartoum resulted in the displacement of millions of civilians. Although the war in the south, the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile state was officially ended by a peace agreement in 2005, when the whole southern region voted to secede and effectively became independent in 2011, violent conflicts in Blue Nile state and the Nuba Mountains erupted again.

In 2003, the historic marginalisation of Darfur and the resistance of some Darfurians to the exploitative policies of the central government and its allies led to the eruption of one of the most violent conflicts in the history of the country. It resulted in the well-documented genocide, war crimes and the almost total de-population of rural areas in the Darfur region. More than three million civilians were displaced within and outside the region. To this day, the conflict is smouldering. Over the last few years inter-communal and tribal conflicts, especially in Darfur and Eastern Sudan have escalated and have led to further displacement.

The fourth trigger of internal displacement have been periods of drought, desertification and famines that have regularly hit the western regions of Darfur and Kordofan since the 1970s. The environmental impact of these natural disasters and the failure of the government to effectively respond to them resulted in the famine of 1983/84 in Darfur and Kordofan which killed over 250,000 persons and displaced more than two million others.

While post-independence displacements in the country were largely slow building and dominated by the movement of young people and small numbers of families, the intermarriage of the civil wars, drought and famine in the 1980s resulted in unprecedented magnitudes of displacement. Not only individuals and families but whole communities where displaced. Most of them moved to large officially recognised camps at the outskirts of urban areas. This new pattern of displacement led to the emergence of the term naziheen in the Sudanese discourse to refer to these displaced persons and their dire situation. By the mid-1990s Sudan became host to the largest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the world; hosting over four million IDPs with half of them in the capital Khartoum. The outbreak of the conflict in Darfur in 2003/4 and its associated gross violations of human rights and genocide resulted in the death of over 400,000 civilians and the displacement of three million persons, with an estimated half a million refugees, mainly in neighbouring Chad but also other parts of the world including Europe. Darfuri IDPs have been living under extreme dire conditions with limited access to food, water, health and education services for over 15 years, and they are often systematically denied humanitarian assistance and are subjected to harassment, unlawful arrests, systematic rapes and/or forced disappearances. Population displacements in Sudan are protracted and often outlive their initial triggers. While the main triggers have eased in recent years, large and protracted displacement continued. Despite the absence of major droughts or famines for decades, the end of the longest civil war in the country's history with secession of South Sudan in 2011, and the significant reduction in hostilities and improvements regarding the security situation in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan in recent years, by mid-2019 the country’s eight major IDPs hosting Sudanese states alone are home for about 1.9 million IDPs. On top of this, Sudan is also host to 1.1 million officially recognised refugees (mostly from South Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia) and some 324,328 returnees who were either IDPs or refugees. The overwhelming majority of the current officially recognised IDPs (88 percent of the total number) are in Darfur. The Table below shows the current numbers of IDPs and their geographical distribution in Sudan.

Internally Displaced Persons and their Geographical Distribution, 2019

StateNo of IDPs% of TotalNo of Returnees% of Total
South Dafur537,02328.8 %18,2436 %
North Darfur 446,44123.9 %54,02817 %
Central Darfur388,37120.8 %175,07954 %
West Darfur183,7259.9 %14,7055 %
East Darfur84,8594.6 %53,34216 %
Total for Darfur1,640,41988.0 %315,39797 %
South Kordofan168,0849.0 %8,9313 %
Blue Nile47,3922.5 %
West Kordofan8,3000.4 %
Total outside Darfur223,77612.0 %8,9313 %
Total for Sudan1,864,195100.0 %324,328100 %

Source: Sudan Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) (2019). Official Figures for Internally Displaced Persons and Returnees in Sudan 2019, A Report by the Office of the General Commissioner.

IDPs in Sudan live under dire conditions and are lacking adequate protection and have limited access to basic needs such as shelter, food, medical care and sanitation facilities. Those in Darfur in particular have been living in camps at the outskirts of main cities since 2003. The situation in these camps are deteriorating due to many factors including the expulsion of humanitarian agencies and the restriction of humanitarian access by the Sudanese authorities, limited funding for humanitarian agencies, insecurity and poor protection mechanisms. New displacement and overcrowding in camps that are lacking adequate water and sanitation has led to various health problems including the outbreak of cholera in 2017. The general economic deterioration in the country and the sharp increase in food prices coupled with IDPs' lacking access to financial resources and farming land as well as attacks by male militias (including sexual harassment and abuse of women working in farms or collecting firewood) have further limited already scarce livelihood opportunities.

By 2019, among the estimated 2.1 million IDPs, around 1.9 million were in need of humanitarian aid with regard to food, water and sanitation or protection assistance. Attacks by armed groups, burning down IDPs' shelters, are common place in Darfur. So is the looting of crops and other properties. Gender-based violence including sexual violence is also widespread. Women and specially children (who represent over 60 percent of the IDPs) are particularly affected by the lack of basic services and are in need of protection.

Contemporary Displacement – Historic Patterns

Despite their dynamic nature and their changing patterns, in essence, recent forms of internal displacement largely represent little more than new manifestations of trends initiated over a century ago. For example, several parallels can be drawn between those post-independence patterns of internal displacement discussed above and earlier forms of "forced migration" such as:

  1. the slave raids and slave trade in the south, Nuba Mountains and Darfur and their associated dislocation, displacement and exploitation during the Turco-Egyptian rule (1821-1885);

  2. displacement associated with the so-called Tahjeer policy which was adopted by "the Khalifa" (Abdullah al-Khalifa who ruled Sudan in the late nineteenth century) as a punitive action against his opponents and a strategy to forcibly relocate some Darfurians and their tribal leaders into the Mahadist capital of Omdurman and their associated burning of villages and destruction of properties by the Khalifa’s troops as a punishment for resistance or in order to disempower and prevent them from returning;

  3. the British military campaign to punish tribes that resisted the British rule and pacify peripheral populations during the early years of Anglo-Egyptian rule (1898-1956) as well as the British policy towards urban-based slaves. In order to break down the resistance of tribes against colonial rule, villages were burned down, crops were destroyed and part of the local population was forced out of their traditional lands and farms. The British administration’s slave policy depicted slaves living in urban areas, especially in Khartoum, as a source of evil, social decay and a threat to law and order and social cohesion. They were forced out of the cities and relocated to rural and commercial agricultural areas.

In sum, and as mentioned above, displacement can be seen as an integral part of the process of state formation, the expansion of the socioeconomic frontiers of the state and the modernisation of the country’s economy, rather than a recent phenomenon or a mere by-product of war or natural disasters.

Displacement Policy

The Sudanese government under President Omar al-Bashir (in office from 1989 until April 2019) did not recognise the 1998 UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement (UNGPs) because it regarded them as an attempt of international interference into internal matters. For the government, the UNGPs were an instrument to legitimise an expanding influence of donor countries and the presence of international aid agencies in Sudan. This was regarded as an unwelcome intervention and a breach of the sovereignty of the country. Instead, the government has been managing displacement through ministerial and presidential decrees for decades. In 2009, it issued its first national IDP policy. The policy was generally vague and defensive and simply asserted the government position and existing strategies and practices towards IDPs. While welcoming international humanitarian assistance to help the government deal with the calamities of addressing protracted displacement and finding durable solutions for IDPs, the policy clearly asserted that the prime responsibility over IDPs, especially their protection, lies with the Sudanese government who also has the right to open and/or close camps and relocate IDPs to any suitable areas in the country.

The government's practical displacement strategy is embedded in the official political discourse which developed and adopted its own terms to define the displacement situation in the country. For example, the Sudanese terms 'nuzuh' (voluntary relocation) and 'naziheen' (voluntary relocated people) have a different connotation than the terms 'internal displacement' and 'IDPs'. Nuzuh and naziheen imply that displacement is a voluntary and wilful movement of peripheral populations who choose to leave their villages and move to specific urban areas. The representation of nuzuh as a form of wilful and voluntary migration had a profound impact on the way the Sudanese authorities viewed and responded to internal displacement in various parts of the country. For example, some officials argued that nuzuh was a "natural process". The lack of concern among officials about the causes of nuzuh and its adverse effects on the welfare of the naziheen is one of the manifestations of these views.

Thus, contrary to widely held views that depict displacement in Sudan as a humanitarian crisis , Sudanese officials view internal displacement as a "natural process" and simply a management crisis relating to the ability of the government to manage not just the naziheen but also the aid agencies working with them in order to maximise the benefits of displacement and reduce its associated risk. For example, the displacement of people from southern Sudan into Khartoum in the period 1983-2003 has been perceived as a threat to the sovereignty and integrity of the state, the economic welfare of the Khartoumers and social cohesion in the city. At the same time, however, it has been viewed as an opportunity for new forms of social cohesion and integration of peripheral populations into the "mainstream" culture of the centre and the national wage labour market in the north of Sudan.

In the case of Darfur in particular, the authorities viewed the IDPs camps spreading across the region as symbols of the genocide and developed a sensitive and often hostile attitude towards these camps and the aid agencies operating in them. Consequently, they tried to demolish these camps and expel or forcibly relocate their residents to remote areas. Indeed, the management of internal displacement through further re-displacement and relocation of the naziheen has become a dominant feature of the displacement policies in the country.

On 11 April 2019, after 30 years of rule, Omar al-Bashir, and his military regime were ousted from power following five months of youth-led street protests across the country. The shift of power and the recent formation of a civilian-led government have eased humanitarian access and created optimism for a better respect of the human rights of IDPs and improved prospects for durable solutions to their plights.

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  1. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC): Sudan. 2,072,000 IDPs as of 31 December 2018. Externer Link: (accessed: 11-11-2019).

  2. Sudan became independent in 1956.

  3. Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, 2003, p. 27. This figure includes an estimated 1.2 million people displaced by the then emerging crisis in Darfur. For details, see Human Rights Watch, 2004.

  4. Externer Link: (> Drivers) (accessed 11-11-2019).

  5. See for example Ruiz, 1998.

  6. UNHCR, 2019.

  7. O’ Brien, 1988; Ali, 1989; Sikainga, 1996.

  8. The singular of naziheen is nazih and the process of displacement is referred to as nuzuh. See below for discussion.

  9. Assal, 2004.

  10. Mirghani, 1983.

  11. Christian Aid, 2001; Gagnon and Ryle, 2001; Human Rights Watch, 2003.

  12. International Crisis Group, 2014.

  13. Suliman, 2000.

  14. De Waal, 1989, Carter, 1986.

  15. At the end of 2018, there were 724,800 Sudanese refugees, making Sudan the sixth most important source country of refugees in the world (UNHCR, 2019).

  16. OCHA, 2019; IDMC, 2019; UNAMID, 2019.

  17. Including the Darfur region and the three Sudanese states of South Kordofan, West Kordofan and Blue Nile. Unknown and officially unrecognized numbers of IDPs are found in most of the remaining ten states including the capital city Khartoum. Due to restricted access of humanitarian organizations, the denial of the government of the existence of events that cause displacement and a lack of reliable figures, the actual number of IDPs could be significantly higher than these official figures.

  18. Sudan is the fourth most important host country for refugees worldwide (UNHCR, 2019).

  19. Sudan Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), 2019.

  20. OCHA, 2019; IDMC, 2019; UNAMID, 2019.

  21. IDMC Sudan Country Profile available at: Externer Link: (accessed 10-12-2019).

  22. Sikainga, 1996.

  23. Elhassan, 1995.

  24. Stevenson, 1966; Sikainga, 1996; Johnson, 2003.

  25. Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs, 2009.

  26. For discussion see Gamal Eldin, 2005.

  27. Bannaga, 2002, p. 19.

  28. See for example Cohen and Deng, 1998, Eltigani, 1995.

  29. Gamal Eldin, 2005.


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Ahmed Gamal Eldin is an Associate Professor of Development and Migration at Ahfad University for Women in Sudan. He worked with humanitarian aid agencies assisting IDPs and host communities for over 15 years and wrote his PhD dissertation on internal displacement in Sudan.