Starlink internet shutdown in Sudan will punish millions, Elon Musk warned

<span>The satellite company recently said it will remove its services in Sudan by restricting roaming in jurisdictions where Starlink is not licensed.</span><span>Photograph: Ismail Aslandag/Anadolu/Getty Images</span>
The satellite company recently said it will remove its services in Sudan by restricting roaming in jurisdictions where Starlink is not licensed.Photograph: Ismail Aslandag/Anadolu/Getty Images

Nearly 100 humanitarian groups in Sudan have warned Elon Musk he risks “collectively punishing” millions of Sudanese by shutting down his vital Starlink satellite internet service in the war-ravaged country.

Sudan has been grappling with a widespread telecommunications blackout for several months, with many aid groups using Starlink to operate during the humanitarian crisis which the UN has warned is the largest in decades.

However Starlink, the satellite arm of Musk’s SpaceX, recently said that it will remove its services in Sudan by restricting roaming in jurisdictions where it was not licensed.

The imminent termination of the system risks destabilising the coordination of emergency assistance and humanitarian services to millions of civilians caught up in the year-long civil conflict.

Fighting broke out in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, on 15 April 2023 as an escalating power struggle between the two main factions of the military regime finally turned deadly.

On one side are the Sudanese armed forces, who remain broadly loyal to Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the country’s de facto ruler. Against him are the paramilitaries of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a collection of militias who follow the former warlord Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti.

Hemedti’s power struggle with Burhan can be traced back to 2019, when the dictatorial president, Omar al-Bashir, was ousted following countrywide protests. Bashir had deployed the Janjaweed, the forerunners of the RSF, to crush a rebellion in Darfur in 2003. Analysts trace many of the roots of the latest conflict back to the appalling violence and human rights abuses – possibly genocide – committed in the region at that time.

The conflict has plunged Sudan into “one of the worst humanitarian nightmares in recent history”, according to UN officials. It has created the world’s worst displacement crisis, scattering more than 8 million people internally and across Sudan’s borders. Nearly 2 million people have fled into neighbouring countries, putting mounting pressure on Chad and South Sudan.

Officials from the UN’s World Food Programme warn that nearly 28 million people across the region face acute food insecurity, including 18 million in Sudan, 7 million in South Sudan, and nearly 3 million in Chad.

On Wednesday, a coalition of 94 rights organisations operating in Sudan issued a statement: “Any shutdown of telecommunication services is a violation of human rights and may be considered to be a collective punishment that will not only isolate individuals from their support networks but also exacerbate the already dire economic situation facing millions.”

The statement added: “The potential shutdown of Starlink would have a disproportionate impact on civilians and the aid organisations who are trying to reach them.”

Musk’s move will compound a widespread telecommunications blackout in Sudan with the two warring factions, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and Sudanese military, targeting relevant infrastructure.

The coalition, which includes Islamic Relief Worldwide and Sudan Human Rights Network, urges the repair of damaged infrastructure across the country.

Related: Children ‘piled up and shot’: new details emerge of ethnic cleansing in Darfur

Since fighting between the RSF and Sudan’s military began in April 2023, more than 8 million people have fled their homes. Half of Sudan’s population – 25 million people – require humanitarian assistance.

The focus of alarm centres on El Fasher, the last city held by Sudan’s military in the western region of Darfur.

The UN warns that, as the city is encircled by the RSF, not only are “countless lives at stake” but the potential magnitude of the fighting meant the country was at a “tipping point”.

In areas where formal telecommunication is not working – the Darfur region, parts of Khartoum and the Kordofan states – civilians and humanitarian groups including emergency responders connect through informal Starlink internet cafes.

The same areas are also the most exposed to conflict and risk of famine, making the ramifications of the blackout even more profound.