Sudan, a country sharply criticized a few years ago for pursuing ethnic cleansing, is now cooperating with the European Union (EU) to crack down on migration. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for genocide committed in Darfur. But that has not stopped the EU from giving his government more than $215 million to patrol his borders.
The Khartoum Process, which was established in 2014 to initiate a dialogue between the EU and countries in the Horn of Africa and dismantle smuggling and trafficking networks in the region, paved the way for a stronger bond between the European bloc and Sudan.
The EU also set up the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa the following year, guaranteeing more than $400 million for the Khartoum Process ‘to respond to the challenges of irregular migration and displacement and to contribute to better migration management’. However, according to an Oxfam report, only 3 per cent of this sum financed legal channels for migrants to reach Europe. A large portion of the fund supports law enforcement in the Horn of Africa, sparking fears among rights groups that migrants could be abused with impunity.
Most concerning are the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which al-Bashir charged with patrolling Sudan’s borders. Fifteen years ago, the unit – then known as the Janjaweed, meaning ‘devils on horsebacks’ – was sponsored by the government to spearhead a near-genocidal campaign against tribes in Darfur’s western province.
More than 300,000 people were killed and millions remain displaced due to summary executions and the systematic burning of villages, according to damning reports by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The RSF allegedly terrorize civilians across the country, including in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan. In northern Sudan, they are using arms intended for warfare to keep migrants from crossing the desert en route to Europe. Rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), anti-aircraft missiles and machine guns are all part of the RSF arsenal.
“Once we dealt with the rebellion in South Kordofan and Blue Nile and Darfur, we immediately turned to the great Sahara Desert, especially after the directives from the president of the republic to combat illegal migration,” Mohamed Hamdan, the head of the RSF, told al-Jazeera in November 2017.
An investigation by Refugees Deeply, a news platform dedicated to covering refugee issues worldwide, discovered that multiple security branches are directly implicated in the smuggling and trafficking of migrants in northern Sudan.
Bram Frouws, a former researcher for the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS), a non-partisan group that monitors migrant-related issues in the region, told Refugees Deeply that it is impossible for anyone to cross Sudan’s border without the help of authorities such as police officers and border guards. Migrants and refugees reportedly tell researchers at the RMMS that government officials collude with smugglers and traffickers daily.
Worse still, police often round up hundreds of refugees and migrants from neighbourhoods in the capital Khartoum and present them in court. Those arrested are then charged with entering the country illegally and forced to pay the equivalent of $360. The ones who cannot pay are forcefully deported.
Khalid, a rights lawyer in Khartoum, told IRIN News that the justice system is just as crooked as the police force. “In many cases, the traffickers [brought to court] are let go because they have police officers as witnesses,” Khalid told IRIN News. “There are trials where 250 refugees are arrested, and each one is fined. It happens so fast – the process of being arrested, the trial and the conviction, and the judge and the police force responsible to get a cut of the money. These judges are the same ones who were trained by the British embassy.”
Amid the corruption, the RSF still hunts down smugglers, regardless of the deals they made with government officials or police officers. In September 2017, the unit claimed to have killed 28 smugglers in clashes along the border with Libya. Nobody knows exactly how many migrants died in the fighting because the RSF refuses to disclose the number of migrants it kills.
The lack of transparency and mounting death toll is provoking wide condemnation of the EU. Abdelmoneim Abu Idrees, a Sudanese political analyst, told al-Jazeera that the EU must recognize that they are relying on a controversial fighting force to stem migration from Sudan. The EU denies funding the RSF, claiming that all their money goes to partners aid organizations. The RSF has told a different story.
“They [the EU] lose millions in fighting migration, that’s why they have to support us,” RSF head Mohamed Hamdan said. “Some representatives have come with us to the desert to witness our operations and offered trainings.”
It appears that the EU has financed Sudan’s repressive security services indirectly. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, which receives a good portion of the money from the EU to combat smugglers and traffickers, has admitted to providing motorbikes to Sudan’s National Security Service (NSS). The NSS is known for hunting down Sudanese political suspects both in and outside the country.
Another major issue, noted Jehanne Henry, HRW’s African division leader, is that neither the RSF nor other Sudanese security branches differentiate between smuggling and trafficking victims. She pointed out that this conflation has kept Sudan in ‘tier three’, which is the lowest ranking that the United States gives to governments worldwide when conducting its annual counter-trafficking assessment.
It is not enough, Henry argued, for the EU to disassociate itself from the RSF if the Sudanese government continues to violate international law by returning migrants to countries where they risk persecution. In 2016, Sudan deported 300 refugees, many of whom were fleeing military conscription and repression in Eritrea. She also stressed that the EU needs to ensure that it is not emboldening a government that imprisons and tortures its dissidents.
In an HRW report released in November 2017, she wrote, ‘If the EU wishes to support the Khartoum Process’ goals, it needs to engage in the difficult task of pressing Sudan to improve respect for human rights – not just of refugees, but more broadly.’