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The 5 Crises You’ve Been Waiting For Someone To Explain

In months gone by, five of the worst humanitarian crises anywhere in the world have quietly slipped from view. Though most have long since left the headlines, much of the violence continues. Two are now what the UN classifies as a "Level 3" emergency - the same rating as Syria.

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South Sudan

Today international leaders meet in Oslo to swing the spotlight onto the humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, where both the UN and the country's President have warned of an impending famine.

UN Tomping, the peacekeeping base for the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) in Juba - opened to civilians in December 2013. / Via

On December 15th 2013, political tensions in the South Sudanese government spilled into country-wide violence. The violence spread rapidly across the country, pitting the troops of President Salva Kiir against forces led by his former Vice President, Dr Riek Machar.

In the months since, both sides are reported to have committed serious human rights abuses, more than 10,000 people have been killed, and over 1.3 million people have abandoned their homes.

UN bases dotted around the country quickly became a refuge for civilians trying to escape the fighting. Tomping in Juba, the UN’s peacekeeping headquarters, saw an influx of nearly 30,000 people in just three months, making it one of the world’s most densely populated places.

There are now around 80,000 people sheltering in eight UN peacekeeping bases across South Sudan, and hundreds of thousands displaced to the ‘hard to reach’ rural parts of the country. More than 300,000 refugees have left for neighbouring Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.

The UN estimates that up to 5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, almost half the country’s total population.

South Sudan is now entering the hunger gap – when people have finished the food from their last harvest period. And the rains, which cut off many areas of the country, are making it increasing difficult to get help to those in need.

The already dire situation will deteriorate further if people are unable to plant their crops this year.

The UN needs £1.2 billion to give food, shelter, clean water and other lifesaving help to the millions of people affected by the crisis. Ahead of today's Oslo conference the UK has pledged an extra £60 million, or $100 million, to help South Sudan, bringing its total response to over $150 million. The US has announced an extra $300 million, taking its total to about $493 million, and Norway has pledged an extra $63 million.


Central African Republic (CAR)

Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes in CAR | Getty Images / Via

In late 2012, the peace agreement between François Bozizé’s government and the Séléka rebels fell apart.

Three months later the rebel movement had captured the capital Bangui, Bozizé had fled the country and Séléka rebel leader Michel Djotodia was in power.

In response a series of loosely connected militia groups, the anti-balaka, launched a counter offensive against the Seleka, setting off a spiral of renewed violence and reprisals against civilians.

By mid 2013, the fighting had driven more than 200,000 people from their homes and livelihoods. Hundreds of thousands of people ran for the border, taking refuge in Cameroon, DRC, Chad, Sudan, South Sudan, and the Republic of Congo.

At the same time, hospitals and pharmacies across the country were raided. Medicines and equipment were stolen and staff fled for the relative safety of Bangui, leaving the country’s healthcare system virtually paralysed. Meanwhile, health complications are intensifying for those living in inadequate shelters.

The violence also caused massive disruption to farming cycles, putting 1.3 million people at risk of malnutrition and threatening the country with famine.

Violence worsened over the second half of the year, with thousands killed on each side. Around 6000 child soldiers have been recruited, some as young as 10, and sexual violence is widespread.

In response to reports of civilian massacres African Union forces went into CAR in December 2013. In the new year, the French government announced the deployment of an extra 600 troops, doubling its total contingent to 1200 – with the British government providing additional military support and a £12 million aid package.

That brings the UK’s total contribution to £23 million, funding the Red Cross, UN, and international aid agencies to protect civilians, prevent violence against women and girls, and provide emergency medical care, food, and clean water to hundreds of thousands across the Central African Republic.

To read more on the international response go to:

A photo narrative of the conflict from UN OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs):

A French soldier from Sangaris stands guard in the village of Boda on April 7, 2014. Pulaar ethnic and muslim community are trapped in the village of Boda surrounded by the Anti-Balaka militia | Getty Images / Via

The Sahel

A Malian soldier on patrol in Gao, Mali - roughly 200 miles from Timbuktu on the River Niger / Via

Sweeping across Africa from Senegal to Ethiopia, the grasslands of the Sahel are facing a multi-headed humanitarian crisis.

Climate change, food shortages, political violence, natural disasters, and outbreaks of disease have all hit the region in recent years.

The first major threat is the climate. The Sahel has been on the frontline of climate change for some time, witnessing the slow creep of the Sahara towards populated areas and more and more erratic weather patterns. With a drought in two of every five years now, a new concept has emerged: ‘climate displacement’.

The second major threat is political. The Sahel has been politically fragile for several years now. An insurgency in Northern Nigeria has killed thousands since 2012. Niger experienced a coup in 2010. A short spell of electoral rule had already been toppled by the military in Mauritania in 2008.

At the beginning of 2012, a coup in Mali brought twenty years of democratic government to an end. Meanwhile in northern Mali, where the Sahel bleeds into the Sahara, an armed rebel Tuareg group – the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Libération de l'Azawad) – gained control of the region.

Operating initially alongside jihadist groups, they took advantage of the coup in the capital Bamako to declare an independent state in the North. Not long after, violent clashes between the two groups led to the expulsion of the MNLA from towns and cities, and the imposition of sharia law by Islamist groups in Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.

In October 2012, a UN resolution authorised the deployment of an African-led force and in January 2013, a year after fighting first began, the French Operation Serval intervened to halt a jihadist advance on Bamako and retake the North. Troops from a number of African countries later arrived to join the force, and the UK provided logistical and intelligence support.

Despite a return to democratic government and the large UN Stabilisation Mission (MINUSMA), violence has continued in the North.

At its peak in 2012, the crisis drove 460,000 people from their homes. The number displaced now stands at 330,000, with another 147,000 people sheltering in Burkina Faso, Niger, Mauritania, Côte d'Ivoire, Algeria, Togo and Guinea.

The UK has committed £103 million to the Sahel in the last two years, channelled through the UN, Red Cross, UNICEF, and other NGOs. This is providing nearly a million people with food assistance, and getting emergency therapeutic food to more than 300,000 who are severely malnourished.

100 million people live in the Sahel. Many have already been displaced by climate, and there is a real threat of a 21st century dustbowl spreading further. The UK is backing technologies and practices to prevent climate change and adapt to climate extremes under the umbrella programme BRACED.

International organisations are helping thousands of people across the region adjust to new climate patterns and resist desertification, including the major African Union-led project to grow a Great Green Wall of trees along the Sahara’s southern rim.

A more detailed overview of the international response in the Sahel can be found here:


Darfur, Sudan

The UN has been providing protection, shelter and basic services to those affected by the Darfur crisis. ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/G / Via

Darfur was forgotten almost as soon as it began. While the Iraq War absorbed international attention, a wave of ethnic cleansing was taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan. The resulting conflict has killed more than a quarter of a million and driven over 2 million people from their homes – one of the biggest displacements of people anywhere in the world.

Ten years later, violence in Darfur has escalated again, pushing humanitarian needs to levels not seen since those dark days a decade ago.


Lying in the western tranche of Sudan, between Chad, Libya and the Central African Republic, Darfur tore into full-scale conflict in early 2003. Rebel groups began to attack government posts, claiming that the Government had long neglected the region and were favouring Arab groups. In retaliation the Sudanese government mobilised the now notorious Janjaweed militia and its military forces against the rebels.

The resulting violence forced civilians across Darfur to flee their homes and seek shelter in temporary camps. Ten years later, many of the camps are still there. Through a decade of ongoing violence, they have slowly evolved into semi-permanent settlements.

In March 2009 Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir, along with five others, was indicted by the ICC (International Criminal Court) for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

2013 resurgence

Since the close of 2013, renewed violence has broken out on a scale not seen since the start of the conflict, with appalling consequences for civilians.

Since February this year 290,000 people in areas of North and South Darfur have been pushed out of their homes and villages by fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces – backed by the government-affiliated militia, the Rapid Support Force – and armed opposition movements.

With the new influx of people, Darfur now has one of the largest displaced populations in the world. The majority are women and children, and they remain highly vulnerable to disease, malnutrition and attack. A generation of children has not had access to stable education.

On top of this, it has become harder for aid to get through. The government of South Sudan has suspended the operations of the Red Cross, leaving 1.2 million people in Darfur without vital support.

Things have begun to improve in recent weeks. The violence has stabilised a little, and more aid supplies are getting through – including food, shelter, clean water and sanitation.

The UK is supporting the response through the UN Common Humanitarian Fund and the World Food Programme, but without further support aid agencies will be unable to continue, with dire consequences for millions.

The UN appeal for Darfur currently stands at $995 million. So far, $343 million has been raised – barely more than 34% of the total need.

To get a sense of the long-term impact of intervention across Sudan, see:

Democratic Republic of the Congo

A soldier from the Democratic Republic of Congo army (FARDC) stands guard near Goma / Via

The eastern region of DRC, which arcs from Orientale province in the north-east of the country down past the Great Lakes to Katanga in the south, has been in the midst of a humanitarian emergency for nearly two decades.

1 in 10 children under 5 are severely malnourished. 6.7 million people need food assistance. The frailty of health infrastructure in the DRC makes it exceptionally difficult to contain epidemics, with regular outbreaks of measles and typhoid – as well as endemic malaria and cholera in parts of the country. Meanwhile, humanitarian efforts and attempts to rebuild infrastructure are often disrupted by the risks posed by armed groups.

For more than eighteen years now, east DRC has been shaken by warfare. In that time, an amazingly complex web of conflicts and armed groups has established itself. For some it has been about land, for others resources and mineral wealth. In many ways, the conflict is ethnic. In another, it’s a regional proxy war.

The Congo Wars

To pick up the story anywhere is unavoidably arbitrary, but in the interests of concision the best juncture is probably October 1996 – or the beginning of the First Congo War.

Within three months the government had lost control of much of eastern DRC. By May 1997, the country’s dictator Mobutu Sésé Seko had been overthrown – and having traversed the country from the Great Lakes to Kinshasa, the rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila was in power.

In 1998 the violence worsened again as Kabila clashed with several foreign powers. The conflict that followed, sometimes labelled Africa’s World War, was one of the fiercest the continent has seen. The Second Congo War pulled in at least 8 countries across the region, and set off a colossal humanitarian crisis.

In the epidemics of disease and famine that followed an estimated 5.4 million people lost their lives, the single bloodiest conflict since the Second World War.


UN peacekeeping operations began thirteen years ago. Since then, the initial deployment of around 2000 troops has been steadily reinforced. Conflict never left the eastern provinces of the country, as violence from the varying warring parties reared again and again over the last decade. DRC now has the largest population of peacekeepers in the world, at just over 21,000.

In the spring of 2012, soldiers from the national army (FARDC) mutinied and formed M23 (the March 23rd Movement) – named after the peace deal signed that day. In July they took the city of Bunagana on the Ugandan border. By November 2012 M23 had gained control of the regional capital Goma – in their push to the city more than 50,000 people were driven from their homes and villages.

After international pressure M23 withdrew from Goma in December 2012. A peace deal was struck between regional powers and their proxies in February 2013, and in March a UN brigade of around 3000 troops dispatched to eastern DRC – with the mandate to ‘neutralise armed groups’. In early November M23 surrendered.

The renewed conflict since 2012 has left countless civilians dead. The number of people driven from their homes and livelihoods has risen to 2.9 million – 1.6 million in North and South Kivu alone.

Sexual violence across the region is extremely prevalent and children have again been recruited by armed militia. Many in eastern DRC are now forced to migrate from one outbreak of violence to another. In the context, healthcare, education, clean water and other public services are very limited – and very difficult to build up. There were 27,000 cases of cholera last year. Meanwhile, the neutrality of aid workers is often violated, with hospitals and clinics raided by armed groups and medical staff forced to abandon them.

The peacebuilding effort between regional partners and the international community continues, as does the enormous humanitarian effort. To read more on the interweaving of armed groups, peacekeepers, natural resources, land conflicts and what it has meant for the country, see:

A boy looks on as a MONUSCO (United Nations Organization Stabilization mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) vehicle drives past a Democratic Republic of Congo military (FARDC) vehicle in Goma on August 31, 2013. / Via