Thursday

28th Jan 2021

Opinion

EU must put Sudan under microscope at Africa summit

  • The EU is reliant on Sudan's Rapid Support Forces ensuring they respect human rights (Photo: Human Rights Watch)

The European Union has pledged hundreds of millions of euros for the 'Khartoum Process', a multinational effort to manage migration from the Horn of Africa to Europe.

In Sudan, it supports a mix of development and humanitarian assistance - but also the country's controversial border control and counter-trafficking and counter-smuggling operations.

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The upcoming AU-EU Summit next week in Ivory Coast is an opportunity for the EU to renew its commitment to put human rights at the heart of its work, including its migration response.

The EU's programs in Sudan have been widely criticised on human rights grounds, in large part because its border control support the notoriously abusive Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which were responsible for atrocities in Darfur.

The EU has flatly denied funding the RSF, but the perception that it does shows the cost of doing business with Sudan's abusive government.

That perception is reinforced every time the RSF commander, Mohammed Hamdan, known as 'Hemeti', brazenly boasts of capturing migrants on Sudan's border with Libya at the behest of the EU.

This blind-eye approach feeds into a wider shift in Sudan policy, not just by the EU but also the United States, which in October formally revoked broad economic sanctions on Sudan.

Sudanese forces, including the RSF, collude with human traffickers and smugglers rather than responsibly investigate them, Human Rights Watch and the United States government have found.

Moreover, the violence Hemeti boasts about triggers other abuses. Sudan's law enforcement and judicial officials conflate trafficking and smuggling, resulting in criminal prosecution of trafficking victims.

In 2017, this was one of the problems that kept Sudan on 'tier three' - the lowest designation in the US government's annual counter-trafficking evaluations.

In Sudan, migrants are vulnerable to a litany of abuses.

Rape, arrest, and jail

Many live in legal limbo; can be rounded up and arrested at any time and summarily tried for immigration violations; and can be jailed, fined, and deported without due process or transparency.

They face extortion and other forms of exploitation. When I was in Khartoum in October, an Eritrean tea-seller told me that two policemen raped her in June and threatened her with deportation if she reported the case. She finally told a trusted friend about it in September.

Sexual violence against domestic workers, many of them trafficked, appears alarmingly common.

Obtaining refugee status – which under Sudan's encampment policy means going to a refugee camp to register and staying there – does little to guard against abuses by Sudan's national security service.

An Ethiopian man in his sixties who has a refugee card told me of his harrowing experience one night in August, when three national security agents took him from his home in Khartoum, forced him into a pickup, and detained him for nine days in an unmarked building, where they interrogated him about his links to an Oromo opposition group in Ethiopia.

He feels certain the Ethiopian government asked Sudan to pick him up, although he has been living in Khartoum for more than 30 years.

Sudan regularly deports refugees in violation of international and African regional prohibitions on refoulement – that is, sending refugees back to countries where they face persecution.

In August and September, Sudan deported hundreds of Eritreans, including 30 children, on alleged immigration law violations, a move the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said flouted Sudan's international obligations.

In 2016, Sudan deported over 300 migrants, most Eritrean, including six registered refugees, back to Eritrea, where they faced abuse. Such deportations are likely more frequent than media reporting suggests.

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.

It is not enough to disavow support for the RSF; it should improve information and legal services, adopt a clear set of human rights benchmarks for Sudan, and call Sudan out on specific violations and patterns of abuse that affect everyone in the country.

Jehanne Henry is acting associate director of the Africa division at Human Rights Watch

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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