Investigation: EU funds to Sudan may worsen fate of refugees – By Vivek Shah, BRUSSELS

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War has displaced over three million people in Sudan/ Photo: UNited Nations Photo

The European Union, in the last couple of years, has been forging increasingly close ties with Sudan, a country once globally ostracised for sponsoring terrorist activities and human rights abuses. But human rights have taken a back seat, as the EU moves to stem the influx of refugees and migrants to its collective shores.

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The budding partnership between the EU and Sudan is in part a financial one: the EU so far has given just under €215 million to Sudan to curb migration – a figure that is €38 million higher than originally announced in July last year. Sudan, meanwhile, has made no secret of the fact that it is using an infamous government-aligned militia to arrest more migrants on its borders.

Amid these reports, the EU in mid-December approved the latest portion of these funds to Sudan, totalling €38 million. And as recently as January, the partnership was affirmed in a meeting between an EU envoy and an under-secretary for Sudan’s foreign ministry.

While EU officials maintain that the money is strictly supporting humanitarian efforts, Sudan watchers question how these funds can truly be tracked.

If Sudan is indeed directing these funds to a militia – this could actually be exacerbating the migration crisis further. Sceptics also argue that providing any support to Sudan’s government, be it fiscally or through other means, risks legitimising it.

Sudan’s president Omer al-Bashir is wanted for war crimes.

In addition to EU support, individual European nations are bolstering Sudan’s anti-migration efforts. A Sudanese delegation in October said it had reached a joint understanding with the German police on combating illegal migration and human trafficking.

In addition to providing training and equipment to the Sudanese police, the German government has also allocated approximately €12 million towards projects aimed at stemming African migrants, who use Sudan as a transit route to Europe.

This is not the first European country to strike a deal. Italy signed an agreement with Sudan in August designed to tackle migration, and three months later made the unprecedented step of repatriating a group of Sudanese nationals attempting to cross into Italy from France.

Germany and Italy’s anti-migration activities fall under the broader framework of cooperation between Sudan and the EU to limit migration flows to Europe, through what is known as the “Khartoum Process.” Since the Syrian crisis emerged in 2011, the EU has faced a spike in migrants entering the region, with 1.3 million seeking asylum by the end of 2015.

To curb this trend, the EU has agreed to stop refugees and migrants entering Europe, with Sudan and other countries that act as transit migratory routes. The Khartoum Process, launched in November 2015, fundamentally changed the EU’s stance towards Sudan to date.

But the EU partnership with Sudan did not stop at the Khartoum Process. It deepened with the Valletta Summit in November 2015 and the establishment of the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, designed to address the migration crises of the Sahel and Lake Chad regions, as well as North Africa and the Horn.

Resources allocated to the Trust Fund amount to just under €2 billion, and out of this figure approximately €173 million has been set aside for addressing migration management within Sudan, according to an EU source.

Furthermore, the European Commission and the high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, announced measures in July 2016 to extend the EU’s financial support for border and migration management activities, to partner countries such as Sudan. According to the EU, such support to Sudan would go through EU development agencies rather than directly from the member states themselves.

In May 2016, Spiegel and the German public television station, ARD, with their show “Report Mainz”, obtained documents showing that EU migrant-curbing projects in the country focused on border protection.

Europe wants to send cameras, scanners and servers for registering refugees to the Sudanese regime, as well as training border police and assisting with the construction of two camps with detention rooms for migrants.

The German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development has confirmed that the plans for building the two camps are binding, but implementation is still pending. The EU is also planning two reception centres along Sudan’s border with Eritrea in Gedaref and Kassala to equip Sudan’s security forces with vehicles and equipment, these articles allege.

Sudan oppression and EU money

Mukesh Kapila, a former UN representative for Sudan, said the current pouring of EU funds and support into Sudan is “providing more resources to the regime to suppress its own people.”

Sudan’s government has been led by president Omar al-Bashir for 26 years. Bashir is facing an International Criminal Court (ICC) warrant for crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes. At least 300,000 people have died and over three million have been displaced, largely due to the lethal attacks of the pro-government Janjaweed militia.

As Europe engages more with Sudan over migration, the already meagre criticism of Sudan’s human rights record will be further muted. “In the last few years there has been a gradual thawing of relations with Sudan in terms of normalising these relations, despite the ICC indictment against Bashir,” says Kapila.

EU engagement with Khartoum reflects a wider strategy in Western foreign policy of engagement with formerly ostracised regimes. The United States in January announced that it would ease economic sanctions after Sudan’s recent efforts in helping to tackle terrorism and halting military operations to local and neighbouring conflicts.

The US first imposed sanctions on Sudan in 1997 for concerns over terrorism, and even layered on more sanctions in 2006 for the government’s complicity in the violence in the Darfur region.

Sudan’s Janjaweed militia was rebranded the Rapid Support Force in 2013.

“Sudan is now being seen by EU countries, particularly Germany and Italy, but also the UK, as needing to be brought back in from the position that it was in five to ten years ago … and not only in migration,” said Magnus Taylor, Horn of Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group, a policy think tank focusing on reducing armed conflicts.

This “normalising” of relations is what diplomats have termed a “phased engagement”, said Maddy Crowther, head of communications, research and asylum at Waging Peace, a human rights organisation that campaigns against genocide and human rights violations in Sudan.

The result of “normalised” relations has been far fewer public statements from the UK in particular regarding conflict in Sudan, Crowther said. Instead, the UK has made reciprocal visits to discuss counter-terrorism, intelligence and trade.

Sudan’s notorious Rapid Support Force

These improved EU-Sudan relations may also mean EU support for Sudan’s notorious Janjaweed militia, rebranded the Rapid Support Force (RSF) in 2013. And just like their Janjaweed predecessors, the RSF is well-known for its extensive human rights violations within Sudan. Even through the RSF was installed to fight rebel movements in Sudan, the militia was involved in violent crackdowns on mass demonstrations in Khartoum in September 2013.

In January 2016, the Nuba Mountains Observatory for Human Rights condemned the violent practices of the RSF against civilians in Abbasiya Tagali in South Kordofan. And in June 2016, the RSF also carried out a campaign of detentions in the Blue Nile state capital, Ed Damazin, over two consecutive weeks, after people had protested against their presence in the area and accused them of committing atrocities against civilians.

Yet, the very same Rapid Support Force has also been hired to curb migration via EU funds. In January, the RSF thwarted an operation to smuggle a group of illegal migrants across the desert to Libya, according to what a state official from North Darfur told The Sudan Tribune, who added that the captured migrants came from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Yemen.

The RSF also said that it had handed over 1,500 alleged illegal migrants to the interior ministry earlier that month, claiming to have captured the migrants near the Sudan-Libya border in Northern State. The RSF’s involvement in anti-migration efforts was corroborated last August after RSF leader, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti”, explicitly claimed that his force had been patrolling the Sudan-Libya border on the EU’s behalf.

A former policeman based in Al-Borgaig, Northern State, also confirmed the pro-government militia’s presence and claimed that they were involved in the drug trade in mid-July last year. The infamous militia’s border patrols only started after the EU had announced their anti-migration program, said Taylor from the International Crisis Group.

Money from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa is being directed towards Sudan.

The RSF provides frequent updates on their alleged border operations on an official Facebook page. Hamdan even lists the country of migrants intercepted by the RSF, in a July entry that included: “49 Somalis, 75 Ethiopians, 196 Eritreans, 48 Sudanese and one Syrian.” While the number of arrests may be exaggerated, their presence and activities along the borders is indubitable, says John Hursh, the former lead policy analyst on Sudan for the Enough Project.

Moreover, the legality of the RSF’s anti-migratory tactics are under question. In May 2016, reports emerged that 900 Eritreans were rounded up in Khartoum and a further 400 were arrested while en route to Libya, all to be deported back to Eritrea.

According to Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean-Swedish activist specialising in Eritrean refugee rights, “the refugees were put on trucks and dumped at the border with Eritrea, and after that, the majority never made it home to their families.” Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a press statement that those being deported back to Eritrea were most probably returning to “likely abuse.”

The case of Eritrea

Refugees fleeing Eritrea are mostly fleeing the country’s mandatory military service. Although it officially takes up to two years to complete, it is often extended indefinitely. As Abdullah Tesfay (not his real name), an Eritrean refugee in Khartoum explains, “the military service is a life sentence” whereby failure to prove you have completed it restricts a national’s ability to live a normal life. “Returning those migrants to Eritrea is highly irresponsible,” Hursh said, adding that “It is certainly putting those people in harm’s way. You are returning refugees and migrants from that country, which has a shoot-to-kill order for people trying to cross the border.”

With EU money directed into Sudan to stop migration at any cost, Europe is encouraging a force that is facilitating the trafficking of refugees, and even incentivising them to do so in the process. Kapila, the former UN representative to Sudan, agrees. “This has probably emboldened them even further [and] given them another reason to continue with refoulement of [Eritreans].”

Sudanese officials have repeatedly been accused of colluding with traffickers who kidnap refugees for ransom. A 2014 HRW report even confirmed through individual testimonies that Sudanese police officers have played a role in facilitating the trafficking of refugees in Eastern Sudan, especially Eritrean refugees.

“For the first time [the EU] is supporting the police and other institutions with equipment in a public way, even though reports show that security and police officers are involved in human trafficking,” said Sudanese journalist Salih Amaar.

However, the EU has vehemently denied claims of working with the Sudanese authorities. According to an EU spokesperson who requested anonymity: “The EU does not provide any direct financial support to the Sudanese government; it is not supporting the Rapid Support Forces and does not have a partnership with them.” The spokesperson also said that, “no funds are decentralised to, or channelled through the Sudanese government’s structures.”

Instead, according to the EU, assistance to Sudan is carefully monitored and delivered at bilateral and regional levels through international agencies and local organisations, not through the Sudanese government. The EU, however, is yet to divulge which international and local organisations the funds will be channelled through.

“Knowing Sudan and the way that the regime works, if the Sudanese government has accepted any EU conditions on how the money is being used and which partner, that partner must be under the thumb and control of the Sudanese organisation,” Kapila said. According to Kapila, Sudan has for decades prevented local and international organisations from working in the country unless under their strict control.

Sudanese journalist, Nesrine Malik, explains that the line between private and public is often blurred, whereby “money does not have to travel through official channels to reach government pockets.” According to the corruption watchdog, Transparency International, Sudan ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

There are no transparent monitoring systems in place to track donor funds, Hursh said, and money meant for migrants may easily be misappropriated as patronage for the RSF. Far from being ignorant, the EU might actually be fully aware of where money is being spent in Sudan.

Europe’s electoral politics clearly trump humanitarian concerns. With Germany, France, the Netherlands and others holding elections this year, authorities are keen to adopt a tougher stance on migration. In order to show that she is no longer “soft” on refugees, German chancellor Angela Merkel deported 25,000 migrants in 2016 and another 55,000 returned voluntarily. The once migrant-friendly country is now considering blocking development aid to countries that refuse to take back rejected asylum seekers.

An elderly woman, internally displaced from her home in Abyei by heavy fighting between the Sudan Armed Forces and the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army, gets ready to receive her ration of emergency food aid.
21/May/2008. Agok, Sudan. UN Photo/Tim McKulka. www.unmultimedia.org/photo/

Investment from the EU is pouring into Sudan to convert the country from a transit route for migrants into a host country. As this is happening, little focus is put on Sudan’s conflicts in Darfur and the “Two Areas” of Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains. These conflicts fuel Sudan’s position as the world’s fifth largest source of migrants. Meanwhile, up to 3.2 million people are internally displaced within Sudan, including 2.6 million in Darfur.

This figure is unlikely to fall. While Bashir claims the conflict is over, fighting and displacement continues in certain areas of Darfur’s central Jebel Marra area. On the first day of 2017, gunmen killed nine civilians and injured 69 others in a town in Central Darfur, Nertiti, Jebel Marra, despite a ceasefire in place, according to eyewitnesses and news reports.

Adnan Bishara, one Darfuri migrant now in the UK, said that Darfuris are desperate to flee from Sudan even with all the risks that the journey brings. On his own trip to Europe, “I saw everything…one time I saw 10 people die in front of me [because there was] no water…left [while in the boat].”

According to the UN refugee agency, the end of 2015 showed that those crossing the Mediterranean to Italy from Sudan (six percent) actually outnumbered those coming in from Syria (five percent). And, as stated in the UK Home Office’s immigration statistics of 2015, the third largest number of asylum applications came from Sudan.

Following a recent wave of migrant and refugee mistreatment at the hands of the Sudanese authorities, some MEPs have shown reservations about the EU’s cooperation with Sudan on the migration front. Over the last weekend of February this year, 65 asylum seekers, primarily hailing from Ethiopia and Eritrea, were whipped, fined, jailed and deported from Khartoum, after a peaceful demonstration to protest a rise in visa processing fees.

MEP Barbara Lochbihler, vice-chairman of the European Parliament’s sub-committee on human rights, voiced concerns about the EU’s connection to a government that commits human rights violations, saying “if projects such as Better Migration Management carry the risk for the EU to become complicit in human rights abuses, which I believe to be true, we should pull out immediately.”

Even British MPs, with the all-party parliamentarian group on Sudan and South Sudan, issued a report on 21 February this year, which harshly criticised the Khartoum Process. The report highlighted that the EU’s reputation for championing human rights was in danger of “being sacrificed at the altar of migration.”

People from within Sudan’s government also started to question Europe’s focus on curbing Sudanese migration. According to Ismail Omar Tairab, a member of the Sudanese National Committee for Combating Human Trafficking Europe, has focused all its attention on security, omitting the need to help the migrants within the country.

“The EU wants to turn Sudan into a large prison for migrants and that’s why all of the partnerships they have built are with the police,” Omar said in an interview with the online news website, Al-Tagyeer. Funds, Omar said in the same interview, are not directed towards protecting migrants, only policing them.

One Darfuri migrant who now resides in Ghana, Ibrahim Ismail, believes that Sudan’s government is using the very money coming from the EU into Sudan to continue waging internal conflicts against its own people. “The government of Sudan [uses] everything in order to implement their goals and objectives, so I strongly believe that [this] is true.”

Vivek Shah is a reporter with Nuba Reports, which produces films and news from the front lines of Sudan’s conflict zones. Started in 2011 by people living in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, the journalism initiative brings together Sudanese and international reporters and filmmakers to cover under-reported stories.