Migration policy in Sudan: Troublemaker or economic addon?

Sudan has just recently discovered refugees as leverage in negotiations with the EU – and uses the new found connections to it's advantage.

Militas in Darfur guard captured weapons Foto: dpa

The nation of Sudan in East Africa is one of the main transit countries for migrants. They come mainly from Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan and also from Chad, Niger, Somalia, and the Central African Republic. They pass through Sudan, as it borders Egypt and Libya, where the majority of boats currently pass to Europe. Many migrants only stay in Sudan for a few days, or at most for up to a few weeks. Others live there permanently, some as registered refugees and some without papers.

The interest of the Sudanese Government in migration has so far been rather limited. For years migrants have only been tolerated; they enjoy hardly any rights. For a long time, Sudan, like many African countries, operated an open border policy. This was the case even though illegal entry is a criminal offence, which can be punished by imprisonment of up to two years.

Currently, interest in the migrants is growing within the Sudanese Government, as they discover that they can be used as a bargaining chip in order to put pressure on the EU – similar to Libya under Muammar Qadhafi, or the current situation in Turkey. Recently, an influential Sudanese border guard threatened to no longer stop migrants at the border with Libya, if the EU no longer showed recognition for the Sudan's efforts. Which means: if you don't pay soon.

It is certain that they will pay. This year, the EU has concluded agreements with Sudan worth over 140 million euros: A „special measure“ to the value of 100 million euros is intended to benefit the inhabitants of crisis-hit regions. It is intended for areas where there is fighting, where many refugees live, and which are particularly affected by climate change. The EU intends to use the 100 million euros to contribute to the fight against poverty and hopes that this results in fewer people fleeing. The money comes from the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, which the EU decided at the Valletta summit of November 2015: 1.8 billion euros is intended to be used for combating the causes of migration.

The EU is investing a further 40 million euros in Sudan as part of a project on “better migration-management“. The aim is to strengthen the rights of migrants and, at the same time, to combat human trafficking and smuggling. This will be carried out by a consortium of five EU Member States (Germany, France, Great Britain, Italy and Malta). The German Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) is taking the leading role. The project is positioned under the umbrella of the Khartoum Process. It is likewise funded through the EU Trust Fund. The BMZ are contributing an additional six million euros.

Further EU funds benefitting Sudan come from transnational EU Africa projects. These include a dialogue on migration and mobility between the EU and Africa, a Regional Protection and Development Programme (RDPP) for the Horn of Africa and one project focused on ‚mixed migration flows‘ in Eastern Africa.

The EU decided, in 2015, to finance ten projects worth 250 million Euros across the whole of the Horn of Africa. They are all part of the trust fund and aim at addressing instability, irregular migration and forced displacement in the region.

In addition, individual EU Member States, for example, the British, the Dutch, and the Italians, are conducting bilateral projects in Sudan. In March 2016, Germany signed an agreement worth 35 million Euros. This is to allow young people in Eastern Sudan to complete vocational training in agriculture, automotive engineering and furniture production. The project is intended to involve both Sudanese people and refugees, many of whom – especially Eritreans and Ethiopians – are living in Eastern Sudan. At the same time, municipalities with a particularly high number of refugees are to be supported. The support will cover food, medical care, education and water supply.

It is remarkable that the EU is investing so heavily in Sudan: for several years now, state development aid for the country has been suspended, since the Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir has been subject to an international arrest warrant since 2009 – for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in the ongoing Darfur crisis.

According to UN figures, more than 300,000 people have been killed since the outbreak of the conflict in 2003. This was triggered by members of African tribes violently attacking the Arab-dominated government of al-Bashir as a result of feeling discriminated by them. About three million people are thought to have been displaced by the conflict, according to a United Nations estimate. These IDPs (internally displaced persons) often complain of discrimination. For example, they say they find it difficult to obtain passports. As a result, they cannot leave Sudan to apply for asylum abroad.

Another conflict has caused additional flows of refugees: in 2011, the predominantly Christian South of the country broke away from the North. Many South Sudanese people have remained in the Northern region. Around 350,000 are said to be there currently. Their nationality is sometimes unclear. The UNHCR fears that they may remain permanently stateless. Some of them are considered to be refugees, others are described as economic migrants. The latter, according to UNHCR, can also become refugees „sur place“ due to militant conflicts in South Sudan.

Internationally, Sudan is isolated. The USA accuses the country of supporting terrorists. For five years, Sudan sheltered Osama bin Laden – until he was forced to leave in 1996. In 1997, Bill Clinton imposed sanctions which still apply today. Also, a UN arms embargo is currently in place for Darfur.

The EU cannot and must not transfer money to the Sudanese government. It can only invest in projects indirectly through international relief organisations and implementation partners such as GIZ, a German international development organisation, which is currently expanding its presence in Sudan.

Al-Bashirs regime and the already weak economy, which has been further restricted by the sanctions, are causing many Sudanese people to flee. Opposition activists and journalists are being arrested again and again. In 2013 approximately 200 demonstrators were shot. The Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) is infamous. Amnesty International has accused NISS members of arbitrarily detaining, arresting, torturing and otherwise mistreating people. Prisoners can be held for up to four and a half months without judicial review. NISS employees enjoy immunity for offences committed in service. Amnesty International speaks of a „culture of impunity“. One significant cause for intimidation are the many spies employed by NISS. Experts estimate that there are thousands in the capital city of Khartoum alone.

However, Germany only approves just over half of all asylum applications submitted by Sudanese people. Rejected asylum seekers are then supposed to be taken back by Sudan. But Sudan does so extremely reluctantly, with this happening in only twelve percent of all such cases across the EU. This rate is much lower than in other African countries, where the average is thirty per cent. It is estimated that 12,000 Sudanese are staying illegally in the EU. Ibrahim Ghandour, the Sudanese foreign minister, said to the ARD, Germany's consortium of public broadcasters, that Sudan is prepared to take them all back immediately – on one condition: „If, in return, you implement your relief fund, then they are welcome.“

The EU plans to work closely with Sudan when it comes to repatriation. While there is no repatriation agreement as of yet, there is an EU strategy paper that has been proposed, which suggests a simplification of US sanctions, debt cancelation, and cooperation in terms of counter-terrorism if Sudan cooperates on the matter of repatriation. On the other hand, visa restrictions may apparently be considered.

In August, the Italian police signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Sudanese government. This addressed, amongst other things, improved cooperation when it comes to repatriation. Repatriation has often failed in the past – across the EU – because the migrants concerned could not be identified or lacked travel documents. Only a few weeks later, the agreement bore its first results: at the end of August, Italy deported 48 Sudanese to their home country.

Further developments can be put down to the EU's increased „involvement“ in Sudan, for example Sudanese border guards are arresting migrants more and more frequently. Sometimes in the desert on the way to Libya, sometimes in Khartoum, where many migrants work as tea sellers, car washers or cleaners. In the shadows. It is virtually impossible for them to work legally; since only officially registered refugees are allowed to work, and even then only in theory. Work permits are rarely issued. So most migrants have to work in the informal sector.

Many migrants report that anyone caught by the police is first taken to the police station, where they can, in an ideal case, buy their freedom. Anyone who cannot afford to do is imprisoned, often for several weeks, though in rare cases for up to a year. Occasionally migrants are deported from Sudan to places like Ethiopia, where minorities are violently repressed, and to Eritrea where those who return are threatened by torture and murder because fleeing the country is considered a serious offense. There is a shoot-to-kill order at the border between Sudan and Eritrea.

The UNHCR accuses Sudan of deporting vulnerable migrants, without giving them the opportunity to apply for asylum. This is considered to be an act of refoulement by the UNHCR, which violates international law, in particular the Geneva Convention. According to government circles, Germany has also called for bilateral discussions about these deportations.

If Sudan controls its borders more tightly in the future, more migrants will have to stay in the country, rather than being able to travel on to Europe. Even now, many decide to remain in Sudan for the time being. Either because they are too afraid of the dangerous journey through Libya and across the Mediterranean, or because they lack the money. According to refugees in Khartoum, they would need five thousand dollars for the journey from Sudan to Europe at the moment.

People are just passing through Sudan more and more, rather than it being their end destination. So there cannot be large numbers of migrants living underground in Khartoum. Sudan has a so-called encampment policy, which intends for all refugees to live in camps without exception. It is only under these conditions, that Sudan would be in agreement with the Geneva Convention on refugees. The UNHCR is calling for the encampment policy and is urging the government to recognise the rights of all migrants, regardless of whether they live in urban areas or camps.

As a rule, refugees can only register at the camps directly behind the border. Shagarab is the camp for all refugees coming from the east, for example from Eritrea and Ethiopia. It is lead officially by the Commissioner for Refugees, who is responsible for refugees and is subordinate to the Sudanese Interior Ministry. Their partner is the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Shagarab is the central point for all refugees from the nine East-Sudanese, UNHCR and government-run camps to apply for asylum. Since January 2016 refugees can also apply for asylum directly in the capital, Khartoum. This does not, however, apply to refugees who were previously in camps in eastern Sudan.

A growing number of refugees bypass these camps completely; instead they are smuggled directly into Khartoum in an attempt to earn money or to travel on further to Europe. Shagarab is a name known from Sudan all the way to Eritrea and nobody wants to go there. This is partly because of the poor living conditions. Every refugee receives food stamps at the beginning of every month with a value of 120 Sudanese pounds, which is around £14.70 (as of December 2016). Many of them report that the vouchers only last a week. The remaining three weeks they allegedly rely on the support of relatives from abroad.

Medical care is no less worrying: One doctor is responsible for 35,000 people and apart from that he also looks after patients from the surrounding areas. Despair is rife in the camp; refugees regularly take their own lives, allegedly one every month. To leave the camp, is illegal. However, many do so because the exit is hardly controlled. Whoever leaves, risks being kidnapped. Nomadic tribes that were connected until recently with the smuggling of gold, petrol and weapons, have now discovered the trade with refugees. They bring their victims to secret locations, where they are held and tortured for weeks and often months. Their families live by the phone; as a result, the kidnappers want the relatives to pay soon. They demand amounts of USD 10,000. An average salary in Eritrea amounts to EUR 25 per month.

Many refugees decide to stay for long periods of time in the camp from fear of those kidnappings and lack of resources as well as a general lack of prospects in Sudan. In the Shagarab camp, which was founded in the early 80s, there are already third generation refugees.

Whoever decides, on the other hand, to leave the camp or bypass this from the start, seldom has the opportunity to get legalised in Khartoum. Against a „penalty fine“. The cards which they carry are, however, not worth much in cases of doubt, as many refugees report. It is said that police officers often destroy the cards on the spot, during raids.

According to experts, the frequent raids that take place are not the only result of the strong cooperation between the EU and Sudan: For the protection of the border with Libya, President al-Bashir has recruited a particularly brutal task force: The RSF (Rapid Support Forces) which should comprise of the Janjaweed militia, the so-called mounted militia of the war in Darfur. Human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch, are accusing the Janjaweed of serious crimes such as mass rapes.

Again and again there are rumours that the RSF – directly subordinate to the Secret Services – are being financed by the EU. The EU denies this.

Another new development, independent from involvement with the EU, is the steep increase of the Syrian population Apart from Malaysia and Iran, Sudan is the last State that still grants entry to Syrians without a visa. Their stay in Sudan is not subject to a deadline. Syrians in Sudan are not registered as refugees but live in cities where they often open up restaurants or shops. Is it said that more than 120,000 Syrians are living in Sudan. Hundreds are expected to come each month.

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