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The world’s largest child displacement crisis is in Sudan

While attention is rightly focused on the catastrophe in Gaza, millions elsewhere are suffering — and the world doesn’t seem to care.

A woman sits on the ground, laundry is laid out on the ground behind her.
A woman washes clothes using the water from the valley on September 20, 2023, in Metche, Chad. Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese people have sought refuge across the border in Chad.
Abdulmonam Eassa/Getty Images
Bryan Walsh is an editorial director at Vox overseeing the climate, tech, and world teams, and is the editor of Vox’s Future Perfect section. He worked at Time magazine for 15 years as a foreign correspondent in Asia, a climate writer, and an international editor, and he wrote a book on existential risk.

Back in May, Al Jazeera published a story about a Palestinian man named Adel Atallah. In 2007, Atallah left his native Gaza to escape the Israeli blockade, joining relatives who were living in Sudan, which has long had diplomatic relations with Palestine. He found a job in construction in the capital city of Khartoum, got married, and had five children. Atallah built, as he told Al Jazeera, “a stable life.”

But after a civil war broke out in Sudan this past April, Atallah decided that he and his family had to leave. “The situation exploded suddenly, and then things escalated until it became crazy,” he told Al Jazeera. “The sound of bullets and gunfire did not stop around us. Even corpses were on the streets.” So for the second time in his life, Atallah fled violence and chaos.

His destination? Gaza.

I wonder what’s become of Atallah and his family, and the hundreds of other Palestinians who left Sudan in the spring to come to what was, at the time, the comparative safety of Gaza. They had no way of knowing that their refuge would become what the UN is now calling an “unfolding catastrophe” in the midst of an unprecedented war with Israel, where as many as 10,000 people have been killed so far.

Even before the war, Gaza faced the risk of military action from neighboring Israel and was often described as an “open-air prison,” which gives you a sense of just how bad things were in Sudan when Palestinians began leaving. But unlike the one in Gaza, Sudan’s humanitarian crisis has largely escaped the world’s attention.

“The largest child displacement crisis in the world”

The civil war in Sudan, which pits forces loyal to the country’s de facto ruler, army Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, against the paramilitary leader Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, began when fighting broke out on April 15 in the country’s capital of Khartoum. Since then, at least 9,000 civilians have been reported killed and more than 12,000 injured, though the true number is likely far higher.

Fighting in Khartoum and in the western region of Darfur — which had already been subject to genocidal violence, leading to the deaths of as many as 300,000 people over the past two decades — has led to a horrific humanitarian crisis. Some 4.8 million people — more than a 10th of Sudan’s population — have been displaced internally, while more than a million Sudanese have fled to neighboring countries like Chad and Egypt.

Children, as always, are bearing the brunt of the suffering. Just this week, even as Israel’s bombs continued to fall upon Gaza, UNICEF issued a report calling Sudan the “largest child displacement crisis in the world,” with more than 3 million children forced to flee their homes and 14 million children in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance. With classrooms closed since the war began, an estimated 19 million children are out of school — a devastating situation in a country where the median age is just 18 years old.

More than 70 percent of the country’s healthcare facilities have been forced to close, contributing to deaths from cholera, malaria, dengue, and childbirth in a nation that already had some of the world’s highest rates of maternal mortality even before the war. Refugees are at risk of sexual violence and even slavery; children have been forcibly recruited into the armed forces. It is a state, as UNICEF put it, of “perpetual fear.”

“We cannot allow the death and suffering of millions of children in Sudan to become another forgotten humanitarian catastrophe,” UNICEF said in its report on Monday. And yet that is precisely what is happening.

When the world turns away

It is a mistake to attempt to weigh one atrocity against another. The death of a child, the loss of a mother, is a tragedy no matter where it occurs. The suffering in Sudan should in no way subtract from the pain in Gaza, or, for that matter, the deaths of some 1,400 people in Israel slaughtered by Hamas on October 7. One of the truths that we hold here is that all lives, and all deaths, should have equal value.

Yet the attention the world pays to these crises has been far from equal and has little connection to the scale of the tragedies. With 46 million people, Sudan’s population is more than three times that of the combined number of people living in Israel and the Palestinian territories. When a crisis like this civil war comes to a country of this size, one where an estimated 35 percent of people are living on less than $2.15 a day, the humanitarian consequences are proportionately terrible.

Nor is Sudan the only massive humanitarian crisis involving mass numbers of refugees occurring largely outside the world’s attention. In Pakistan, up to 1.7 million Afghan refugees — many of whom were born or have lived in Pakistan for decades as they sought shelter from years of war and upheaval in their native country — are facing expulsion after a government order to remove undocumented people. Those who return to Afghanistan will find themselves in an impoverished country once again run by the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban, where one of the worst earthquakes in memory killed thousands of people last month.

Afghanistan, of course, is a country that was once at the center of global attention, thanks to the long American military involvement after 9/11. Sudan, too, had its moment in the spotlight in the aughts, when fears of genocide in Darfur turned the country into a cause celebre. And then those moments passed.

At this moment, it might seem impossible that the same could happen to Gaza. In nearly a quarter-century as a working journalist, including multiple years running foreign news coverage, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a story seize the world’s attention, nor divide it so sharply, as the war in Gaza, accelerated in part by the growth of social media platforms that weren’t as widespread in previous iterations of the crisis.

We aren’t helpless in the face of such catastrophes. Money, as always, matters, and we’re falling short there — the UN has said it had only received 33 percent of the $2.6 billion it requires to deliver needed humanitarian aid to Sudan. And global attention, even if it isn’t flawless — the record of the Save Darfur campaign had its share of failures — can be a powerful motivator to force positive action, as the wildly successful movement to push the US to supply HIV drugs to Africa demonstrates.

Yet as the examples of Sudan or Afghanistan — or, for that matter, Ukraine, now struggling for attention as its war drags into a third year — all demonstrate, global attention and outrage can be fleeting. But the suffering endures.

A version of this newsletter originally appeared in the Future Perfect newsletter. Sign up here!

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