Chad: A Crisis Undeclared – 21 Years of Refuge in the Chad-Sudan Borderlands

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Crisis develops on the ground, as fast rupture and growing turbulence. At the same time, it develops internationally, if global attention is drawn to it and a crisis is effectively declared. A declared crisis or humanitarian situation necessitates consequences on different levels: funding flows into mitigations of crisis effects; aid organizations provide food and the most needed goods to the displaced to survive. Sometimes, international military operations attempt to provide security. These interventions are apart from efforts to initiate political debate. A major crisis, “the first genocide of the 21st century“, was declared on the Chad-Sudan border in 2004. At the time, this reaction to declare for the first time an ongoing situation as genocide was connected to the international reluctance to react to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and the (self-) accusations this had caused. In Darfur, the international reaction came almost a year after a rebel attack in Western Sudan’s Darfur region, after which the Sudanese government had unleashed militia and started to bomb civilians in villages and towns, leading to a major displacement movement into Chad. Once the crisis was declared, the UN Refugee Agency opened up 12 camps for more than 200,000 people. For the next seven years over 100 aid organisations flocked into the area, necessitating coordination of their actions to avoid duplication.

This is the situation that my book Lifeworlds in Crisis focuses on. It covers the time before, during and after this crisis. It analyses forms of cooperation and mutual knowledge production that emerge on the ground in response to the crisis through the lens of human categorizing; that is, the ways in which people constantly define and re-define their belonging. Such belonging can follow categories along lines of kinship, age, gender, definitions of ethnicity, nationality, trade or occupation, among many others. The introduction of internationally recognized categories in the aid world adds an additional complication to the existing ones: refugee, internally displaced person, vulnerable person etc. But to the borderland’s population, the new categories are not exclusive. Instead, people know how to operate with them and integrate them into their knowledge about surviving times of highest uncertainty.

As the book is published, the situation in the borderlands seemingly repeats itself. Again, people are fleeing into Chad, to the small border town Adré, thereby tripling its number of inhabitants and creating, again, makeshift camps that lack food, cover and security for hundreds of thousands of people. But there are two major differences: first, the situation has failed to attract global attention; and, second, the fighting escalated much faster than the last time. Since the General’s War began on 15 April 2023, NGOs already present in the borderlands have taken over smaller tasks – like managing a water collection point in the town or providing basic food and blanket supplies. But no new refugee camps have opened up, nor did major organizations send significant new numbers of staff to the area.

In the earlier crisis, humanitarian aid had long merged into development aid and for years, as I discuss in the book, agencies have tried to pull out of the area and to integrate the remaining 200,000 “refugees” into Chad. In 2015, they had started re-categorization campaigns on a large scale, together with the Chadian government, making the “refugees” they had defined before into “Chadian refugee citizens” with new rights, including free movement inside Chad, but still having access to aid. I followed this campaign with the help of my longstanding research partner Brahim Mahamat Ali.

Brahim grew up on the Chadian side of the border. When I first met him in 2001, he was living and working in the border town of Adré. We started working together and he became my closest connection to the borderlands, maintaining our contact over the decades. When people started to move from Sudan into Chad long before 2003 to flee from rising tensions that in 2003 led to all out violence, he and his family were not directly affected. It was rather the villages where people went to, and Brahim and his sisters started to work for the aid agencies, in the offices or being responsible for handling concerns from housing to health care or education which the different aid agencies provided.

The current situation is different. Most people flee directly into the towns where they assume they will have more security than in the exposed villages where they would also not find any international presence. This time, the war itself is different. People seem to have been ready to take up arms much faster than they were 20 years ago. Young men run to be recruited into rebel factions, and many of them are missing. Brahim found families mourning the deaths of their sons for a fight no one seemed to understand. “Whatever they have been promised, I do not understand”, one woman from a village neighboring Adré told him, “We only know that they fight and kill each other.”

Remadji Hoinathy, a researcher at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) in Chad, worries about a spreading conflict and openly calls for international attention and presence. However, as Hoinathy’s colleagues Andrews Atta-Asamoah and Maram Mahdi show, apart from the African Union condemning the violence, unanswered efforts by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to lead peace talks, or the UN’s urgent demand for ceasefire, international agencies have been reluctant to intervene. Although the numbers of displaced people are documented, people are basically left to their own devices.

People’s decisions today seem directly informed by their previous experiences of war and displacement that I document and discuss in Lifeworlds in Crisis. Their chance to build new livelihoods seems significantly diminished; many take up arms much faster than before to join the fighting while movements of displacement are more directed to larger towns where humanitarian aid would be expected. Aid agencies have found it difficult to withdraw from the region where safety cannot be guaranteed. After a decade of intervention they have finally begun to integrate Sudanese refugees into Chad, and they are reluctant to reinforce their humanitarian intervention. A new war, even if related to the former one, has not brought them back. I wonder if the long process of humanitarian aid dealing with people who remained in the war zone but could not return home might have been a reason for agencies not to rush back into the next war situation? Is this why a “crisis” has not been declared this time? Saskia Jaschek has written about the invisibility of the war in Sudan, which is most obvious in the lack of international aid, but also the lack of media attention. This invisibility certainly also pertains to the situation in Eastern Chad, the place where the largest number of (mainly very poor) Sudanese refugees have fled. I argue that the two crisis situations of 2003 and 2023 strongly relate. People move to find refuge in places where aid was formerly expected to be found. But a crisis not declared does not provide this aid, neither from international nor national agencies. It leaves people to their own devices.

Andrea Behrends is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Leipzig. Focusing on African issues, she has previously taught at universities in Bayreuth, Berlin, Vienna, Halle (Saale) and Hamburg. Alongside colleagues from Chad, she continues to work on human categorisation and belonging, displacement and aid, resource extraction, datafication and activism.

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