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Do Darfur’s IDPs Have an Urban Future?

Most of Darfur’s internally-displaced camps are urban settlements in all but name.  In geographical terms the most striking impact of the last seven years has been to change Darfur from being overwhelmingly scattered rural villages and hamlets to huge extended cities.  In the wake of the abrupt expulsion of the international NGOs which provided a key component of the supply chain for assistance to the IDPs, it is worth reflecting on how this interruption — and the wider crisis of displacement — will appear in the longue durée of Sudanese demographic history.  Now is the time to think long-term.

The conventional lens for framing the IDP question defines them as victims of atrocities kept in suspended status, living on handout and in fear, until such time as peace allows them to return to their former lives in their villages and valleys.  There is much truth to this.  The sense of physical and emotional loss, of trauma and violated dignity, of the IDPs cannot be overlooked.  But there is another reality too.  The crisis in Darfur is the latest in a long series of such episodes in Sudanese history and can also be seen as an instance of the accelerated traumatic urbanization of society.  Whatever political resolution is achieved, many IDPs — perhaps the majority — will have a future in the cities.  If we recognize this reality, it can only help in finding workable solutions to the immediate challenges of livelihoods, services and protection for these people.

Modern Sudan is the creation of large migrations.  From the 18th century, West African migrants settled in Darfur and central Sudan in large numbers, drawn by both religious obligations and economic reasons.  During the Mahdiyya, the millenarian government pursued mass migration as an instrument of political policy.  The British colonial regime encouraged labour migration to the Nile and eastern Sudan, especially from Darfur, a policy which continued in the post-colonial period.  Most of this was rural-rural migration to agricultural schemes and it was only in the 1970s that Sudan’s urban centres began their accelerated growth.  During the 1980s and 1990s, the major cause of migration was the war in the south, which led to millions fleeing the rural areas and congregating around the towns.  Sudan’s extremely unequal economic development meant that life on the margins of the cities was often preferable to the rural areas.

Khartoum’s population grew from 255,000 in 1955 to 2,831,000 in 1993 and 4.5 million in 2005 (with unregistered immigrants, as many as 7 million).  Sudan’s level of urbanization grew accordingly, from 7% in 1955 to 25% in 1993 to nearly 40% in 2003.  Today it is pushing 45%.

In 2003, Darfur was the anomaly, with just 18% urbanized.  Today it is about 35% urbanized.  Nyala’s growth has been spectacular: from a small town in 1960 (just Hay al Wadi and the government centre) to a city of 100,000 in 1983 to 1.3 million today (1.6 million if we include the camps).  One in four Darfurians lives in Nyala and its environs and well over a third of the region’s economic activities are there.

During the war the cities have doubled in size.  There has been a huge inflow from the rural areas.  That is in addition to the 30% of the Darfur population that lives in IDP camps.  Social scientists who have worked in the camps estimate that at least one third of the camp residents are economically integrated into the towns, others are partially integrated, and many more (those who live in small camps dispersed throughout the countryside) are using the camps as “dormitories” and have some rural-based livelihoods, returning to the camps to sleep at night.  This would imply that the correct figure for urban residents in Darfur is 45%.  One way of interpreting the last six years is accelerated (and traumatic) urbanization — Darfur catching up with the rest of the country.

Urban migrants constitute an invisible population.  Lacking the assistance that the IDPs receive, they are often worse off than camp residents.  Many of them are Arabs, displaced by rebel attacks, general insecurity, or the intra-Arab fighting that has occurred across large swathes of southern Darfur.

A large proportion of the IDPs were displaced from their villages between 2002 and 2004.  They have now been five years or more in the camps and their livelihoods and social structures have changed.  Their hold on their old ways of life has loosened and it is increasingly unlikely that anything resembling the old Darfur can be reconstituted.  That is an immeasurable loss, the passing of a socio-cultural order.  In its own way it is a terrible crime.  The old village authorities have been swept aside and new “camp sheikhs” have emerged, usually with power based on control over aid resources or sometimes control over land, commerce or security.  Some of the larger camps have no government presence and are self-administering and self-taxing, which makes them attractive economic zones for traders.  Some of the camps have their own militia.  In response to the fact that the Sudanese police cannot operate in the camps, UNAMID has begun to recruit and train “community police services” in the camps.

Secondary displacement has occurred during since 2005.  The causes have been disparate including a few major military or militia operations (Muhajiriya in early 2009 is one example), inter-tribal clashes and generalized insecurity.  There are also pull factors at work.  Assistance and services are available along with diverse income-generating opportunities available for the famously entrepreneurial Darfurian youth.  Unskilled labourers earn LS 20/day, and the peddlers who sell scratch cards or tissues can earn about the same amount.  The IDP camps have become a pillar of livelihoods in Darfur, so that many households locate some family members in IDP camps while retaining a rural or urban livelihood base elsewhere.  In parts of Darfur which enjoy relative security where people can gain a livelihood in the rural areas, it makes sense for families to maintain a presence in the camps — for rations and as a fallback option just in case.  This pattern of displacement is not the destruction of the old order, but Darfurians’ adjustment to the new order.  The new Darfur is constructed around urban economies and the rents of aid, and less around the complementary farming and pastoral livelihoods of the past.

The camps have enjoyed better services than most villages and the poorer quarters of cities, including food rations, health and water.  Malnutrition and mortality levels are better than in the villages prior to the war.  Education is less good but the proximity to towns means that many IDPs have made arrangements with their urban relatives to ensure their children can attend school.  Because women have ration cards they have gained a measure of socio-economic independence from men.  Because old forms of social authority have been dismantled, the camps are places in which young people are free from the control of their parents.  Young women can resist their fathers’ decisions over whom they should marry, for example.

The residents of the camps are predominantly Fur, Masalit, Zaghawa and other tribes that were the chief targets of operations during 2003-04.  Many of them are militantly organized in support of the SLA-Abdel Wahid.  Among their chief demands are personal/family compensation (in cash) and the right of return.  The combination of life-sustaining assistance and population concentration has allowed the new leadership to focus on their political mobilization.  The IDP leaders are well aware of the political leverage they can exercise through drawing attention to their status as victims.

The term “IDP” has itself become politicized.  It is a label that implies that these people are kept in indefinite suspense, unable to become regular citizens of Sudan either by joining the urban areas, or by migrating to Khartoum, or by returning home.  The politicized IDPs have resisted registering during the census and continue to veto any indication that they should return home unless there is complete security (guaranteed by international troops).  They regard themselves as wards of the international community with an entitlement to relief and protection, and it is tempting for international advocates to echo this view.  However, international donors are also becoming tired of the expense of maintaining this dependent population indefinitely with no end in sight.

Even if there were a peace agreement tomorrow it is likely that the majority of the IDPs would not return home.  Many would remain in the camps, which might simply become urban neighbourhoods (as has happened in Khartoum).  Others might relocate to the adjacent urban areas, or divide their families between the rural areas and the towns.  We would see a new tussle for authority and allegiance among the IDP camps leaders with a vested interested in the status quo and those wishing to see more dynamic or durable solutions.

Whatever might be the next steps, it is important to begin thinking creatively and contextually about how to grapple with the challenge of Darfur’s displaced.


Alex de Waal is the director of Justice Africa.  This article was first published in Making Sense of Darfur on 31 March 2009, and it is reproduced here for educational purposes.


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