A Crisis Within A Crisis: Creating a Safe Haven for Sudan’s Refugee Children

Sept. 25, 2023

On 15 April deadly violence once again engulfed Sudan with at least 7,500 people killed and more than 5 million displaced at the time of writing. We sat down with Toendepi Kamusewu, our Project Development Manager in South Sudan to talk about War Child’s response to the crisis as well as the broader challenges facing aid organisations.
How did War Child respond to the outbreak of violence in Sudan?

“War Child uses what we call a Fast Aid toolkit in order to respond to new wars and crises. Through a set of key tools and streamlined decision-making processes, this mechanism is designed to help us respond within 48 hours of a humanitarian disaster. This is what happened when the clashes started back in April. Our emergency taskforce came together to explore how we could best add value to the international response effort. With an office in South Sudan, we chose to focus our efforts on refugees providing vital protection and psychosocial support to the hundreds of children and families crossing the border.”

We know there was a huge influx of people into South Sudan. How did you experience that? What did you see in those first weeks?

“The situation was dire. We saw refugees coming into the transit centres in a very bad state. They were in shock. The children were very much emaciated. Many had witnessed the death of loved ones. They had difficulty coming to terms with that. I remember one girl, she kept talking about her parents as if they were still alive...

Besides the psychological impact, they were sleeping out in the open. Sanitation was very poor at the centres - it still is. Some children had gunshot wounds, among other injuries that they incurred along the way. And processing them was taking a very long time because the government was ill prepared - they didn’t have the human resources to deal with the arrivals.”


Toendepi (right) and MHPSS Advisor, Felix (left) welcoming refugees by boat near the border with Sudan

Photo: War Child

You mention protection and psychological support - but what about food, water and shelter?
““The mental health and protection risks that arise during an emergency like this require immediate action.”"
Toendepi Kamusewu, Project Development Manager War Child South Sudan

“First, I want to emphasise that War Child was not the first responder in terms of medical aid, water and sanitation etcetera. These things are critical and that’s why we collaborate closely with other international NGOs specialised in these areas. Having said that, the mental health issues and protection risks that arise during emergencies also require immediate action. Refugees were exposed. There were countless incidents of gender-based violence but also abuse in general. Many children were unaccompanied; the majority brought with them very traumatic experiences. It was vital that we provided them with a space where they could feel safe again.”

Can you tell us more about the activities - what did this safe space look like?

“Our response has several elements but our main priority was the set up of child-friendly spaces at the transit centres in Malakal and Renk as well as Paloch Airport where hundreds of refugees were stranded. These spaces take the form of tents where children can play and take part in group activities but also speak one-to-one with a social worker who can refer them to additional support services.

Another key element of our activities is awareness raising in communities. How do parents and caregivers protect their children from harm in these stressful circumstances? What are the biggest risks at this moment? What services are available?

We also provide children with toys and games; there is a tent for volleyball. We use play-based interventions such as TeamUp to help them let go of stress in the body and process difficult emotions. Our social workers travel around identifying vulnerable children and bringing them in."

War Child Holland in South Sudan_Malakal_Safe_Space_Facilitators_200303

Our safe spaces in Malakal are places where children can move and play and forget the weight of war for a moment

Photo: War Child

Despite these successes, the response by the international community has been widely criticised. From your perspective, why is that?

"Of course, there’s the geopolitical aspect. It’s no coincidence that the response to Sudan has been much less than the response to Ukraine, for example.

As for the humanitarian response, bureaucratic challenges will always be one of the biggest hurdles in terms of decision-making and the readiness of organisations to respond. Every NGO has a rigid system of rules and regulations that we must work within so getting on the ground quickly; activating the response - I think there is still much room for improvement.”

How does War Child plan to address these challenges?

“Here in South Sudan, the refugee and returnee situation was already a protracted crisis so the Sudan war has created a crisis within a crisis. One of the things that we’re proactively working on is to integrate a crisis modifier into our projects so that it gives us some leg room to be able to respond in a timely manner.

A crisis modifier is a financing mechanism within our regular programming that allows us to adapt or respond to any unforeseen eventualities - essentially a contingency fund. It means that we can move funds around quickly in the event of a crisis with minimal impact on the intended outcomes of a project.”

Do you have plans to extend your response into Sudan itself?

“We cannot ignore the security risks and bureaucratic impediments in Sudan itself - which is a key burden to providing support on the other side of the border.

We have launched a consultancy to evaluate the opportunities for War Child to add value, particularly focused on national organisations and civil society actors who are providing the majority of humanitarian assistance.”

Our emergency response to the Sudan crisis has reached some 10,500 children and 3,418 adults to date. Learn more about our work for refugee and host communities in South Sudan here.