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.

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6 thoughts on “Do Darfur’s IDPs Have an Urban Future?

  1. Darfur is a hot issue every one talks about it , some do say the truth and the majority don’t , they actually keep publicizing the issue as if they know it all and no one ells do .
    Will am a Sudanese person who lived out and never visited Sudan for a long time ,and since am a Sudanese I was flowing this issue and educating my self about it from the media ( the western media that is) I actually exposed my self to it and I believed it all , and I did not like it .
    Will let me tell you this after a long time now am back in Sudan and honestly I though I was going to find war in the street killing every where government Jan jawed chasing every one all over , isn’t that what the western media was feeding all of us? Exactly will I visited Darfur Alfashir, Aljenina, and Neyala and I actually met the governor of Darfur personally and I have seen nothing of what the western media was talking about ! it was all Lie’s .. will not all of it.
    I forgot to tell you that I wanted to come back to Sudan and actually help my people and try with the others to end there suffering and I was determent but the lies transformed me changed me and I really did ask my self why do the western media will do such a thing why and I did not have to think far , the same media that publicized the WMD of IRAQ and justified Bush’s WAR it’s the same media that talking about Darfur and in IRAQ it was WMD and oil and in Darfur its oil and
    Menrals such as Uranum and to get it many more will die.

    After all guys if we did not act now and stop these lie’s another 1000000 people will die in sudn like IRAQ

  2. Alex: In a word – illuminating!

    An excellent idea for undoing perhaps the knottiest issue in paving the way for a fair and lasting comprehensive political settlement to the Darfur conflict. The precedent for absorbing the large IDP camps into Nyala, El Fash, and Geneina (the cities) has, as you noted, already been set in Khartoum: Mayo, Haj Yousif etc. So here’s a suggestion, let international donors suggest to the Sud Govt that for every US$1 that the govt provides, the donors will match that with $3, with all the proceeds going into a massive public works programme to provide/expand the necessary services to formally link the main IDP camps to the cities in Darfur.

    Ibrahim Adam,

    El Fasher, North Darfur

  3. Dear Ibrahim

    I think at the very minimum, we should start debating practical suggestions for transitioning to sustainable solutions for the IDPs.

    There are good reasons to consider delinking the resolution of the IDP question from an overall political agreement. Clearly, some important principles should never be abrogated, most notably the right of IDPs to return to their former homes.

    The major challenges to this approach are not economic, environmental or social — they are political. But the IDPs cannot remain hostage to a political agenda over which they have no control, and to political leaders who have shown no capacity to represent their interests.

  4. Adaptation to circumstance is certainly a useful quality for survival. Saying that I don’t mean people don’t want change. Sometimes change by force brings with itself adaptation to circumstance which would, should the force not be present, long in materializing. Should there have been no conflict in Darfur, or no war in Sudan, would there be a slow but stable migration from rural life to urban life? Possibly. In small numbers, almost neglible, most likely.

    Although a different pastoralist population, Afars are going through a parallel formation with relatively different results. Not leaving their rural settlements, no matter how dire the circumstances (malnutrition bordering famine, low intensity clashes with the Somalis) they are in touch with the urban centers. Trade is essential. And although there are skirmishes between the Afars and the Somalis, it is not so much politically oriented, nor it is large scale and intense enough to leave displaced populations seeking help. Life as a pastoralist is tough, but interestingly enough, the Afars would rather not have it any other way. However the changing climate, diminishing natural resources, access to water becoming harder to attain and at times dangerous, the herds prone to diseases, so the people (sort of similar to early developments in Darfur) are making life as a whole tougher for them. Access to resources primarily becoming more and more a security issue.

    The approach in the North Eastern region in Ethiopia, which the NGOs operational in the area are adopting, is one where the animals are kept healthy, and through them the people can survive. Conflict resolution is not so much an issue, but rather vaccination, nutrition, etc. Most projects are run through “village councils” Local recruitment also seeks represantatives from both genders.

    How does this apply to Darfur. Firstly, the psychology of the refugees and IDPs are a bit different. The IDPs, displaced as they are, are still in Darfur, and what I have read from the article, it seems like the natural process for adaptation to circumstance is in full effect (the shanty town refugee camps in Northern Pakistan, the refugee camps in Albania housing the families of the UCK (KLA) who would use these places as safe bases for a hop soup, and a shower, and back across the border to fight against the Serbian army etc. The examples are often similar, when present for a prolonged time, camps, with their regular aid distribution do become centers for trade, soon the USAID vegetable oil becomes a common sight even in supermarkets in town)

    The difference lies in refugee populations, although the Zaghawas from Darfur are still in Zaghawa territory in Northeastern Chad, they are considered outsiders/intruders by the locals, not quiet able to blend in, not quiet able to stand apart. In limbo more or less. The “border” is a porous one, with family members travelling back and forth, and the marketplace is often the center for oral information on whoms whereabouts etc.

    This being the case, what can/should be done? I would offer a list of commonsense measures such as rural security, rural empowerment programs, pastoralist revival through say FAO projects etc etc.

    However rather than interfere, I believe we are stuck at such an impasse currently with what is going on (or not going on) with the ICC deal, is that it maybe best to wait and see the effect of the NGO pull out from Darfur, how it will change the nature of things inside the IDP settlements, especially with the correct referral to “camp sheiks” and their relatively recent rise to power. Should the NGO pull out have the positive/negative effect that these sheiks will be cut off from supplies (along with the camp population)? Hard to say. Should old school village councils be called to duty? Possibly.

    One camp, Mile, in Eastern Chad was a relative success story in that sense. Most families I kept in touch with were from Kornoi and that may have had something to do with it, but the communal approach to bettering the living conditions seemed to be working.

    So if the external factors are political, factors which the civil population have little to no control over, then maybe internal political factors should be introduced, elderly councils with representatives from different tribes (a loya jirga of sorts), political decision making bodies which represent the camp population, and over which the IDPs have relative control.

    At the end of the day it is all about control/responsibility. If the populations are left unrepresented or improperly represented, pushed around, left to fend for themselves, they will do that. Fend for themselves. The village council may not save the world at the end of the day, but at least it may pave the way to some sort of normalization. And it may even bring the transient nature of the IDP camps to one of a proper settlement, almost a village set up.

    One final food for thought:

    In the long run, with climate change a factor, the Sahel gulping down large expanse of land each year, can we truly afford to lose a life style that will be key to our own survival, and just shrug it off and say, oh well, adaptation?

  5. Bikem’s posting raises several important points. One is the distinction between IDPs and refugees. There’s no question that the refugees in Chad are in a very different situation to the IDPs–they are in camps in rural areas in a different country and would certainly return if given the chance. However, I suspect that without the war, the urbanization of Darfur would be continuing at a fair pace–not as fast as today but neither at a negligible rate.

    The question of nomadic populations is also of interest. Pastoral nomadism is an efficient way of using Darfur’s natural resources. Efforts to settle nomads, tried since the 1960s, have usually failed. Current plans for the rehabilitation of Darfur include settlement plans for nomads, which are not likely to succeed either.

  6. Quickly on nomadic pastoralism: It is sad that government programs for pastoralist nomads (and this not only in the case of Darfur either) often turn into attempts to offer territories (partially on fears that project control, government and monitoring will be impossible otherwise) to a nomadic population whose livehood depends on their livestock, which follows a semi-migratory trail based on water and grazing grounds This obviously is a mistake, however, recognition that nomads are dependent on the animals and have to follow the route they take have brought forward some recent successful projects in Ethiopia, potential candidates for future models.

    Success in livestock health monitoring, vaccination, and children’s nutrition through goat milk etc, through check point clinics (one example) has ironically brought forward a new problem. Without natural selection where the strong survived, now increased physical strength (stronger immune systems in children/adults) means the death tolls will decrease. An increase in population, a decrease in natural resources, migration to urban centers will become a must in the long term.

    So Mr. De Waal, you are absolutely right, I take my previous remark back. Urban migration would not be negligible. In fact posing this question to FAO recently in Ethiopia (what will happen to the extra 1.4 million who would otherwise be dead) the answer I got was promising. Possible projects on education, and skilled workforce to be introduced to a growing urban economy. (It sounds too good to be true, but shifts in thinking seem to be slowly taking place spec. among the donors)

    Now is needed a stable political environment and security for the civilian population (two problematic areas on which I have some uneducated ideas, but no true solution) to start putting these models to work.

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