Authorities in Sudan have launched a crackdown on Eritrean migrants - arresting those living in the capital, Khartoum, and intercepting hundreds travelling north through the country towards Libya, the launching point for smugglers’ boats heading for Europe.
Reports that 900 Eritreans were rounded up in Khartoum on Monday and that a further 400 arrested en route to Libya have been deported to Eritrea, come amid recent revelations in the British and German media that the EU is planning to deepen its cooperation with a number of African countries, including Sudan and Eritrea, to stem migration towards Europe.
Kibrom*, a 16-year-old Eritrean refugee who used the route through Sudan and Libya to reach Europe in 2015, told IRIN that his twin sister was among a group of 130 Eritreans captured by Sudanese soldiers in the town of Dongola, about halfway between Khartoum and the Libyan border, earlier this month.
“I passed the same way. When we were travelling, we had to bribe the police. My sister used the same smuggler, but when he tried to bribe the police, it didn’t work,” he said.
Kibrom’s sister, along with the rest of the group, were taken to a prison in Khartoum where they spent three days. Kibron said he tried to alert the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, but failed to make contact.
“Only the Eritrean Embassy was informed. They took them in an open truck at night time to the Eritrean border,” he said. “From there they were taken to a prison located in my city – Teseney.”
Leaving Eritrea without permission is a criminal offense and Kibrom is extremely concerned about his sister, who was trying to evade military conscription, as well as his mother and two younger brothers who are still living in Teseney.
“My mother can’t even try to see my sister or she will be arrested as well,” he told IRIN over the phone from Sweden where he has applied for asylum. “I’m so worried what’s going to happen to them.”
A spokesperson with UNHCR’s office in Khartoum confirmed that a number of migrants, including Eritreans, had been intercepted in northern Sudan heading towards the Libyan border. Of those being held at the Aliens Detention Centre in Khartoum, UNHCR had only identified six individuals who had previously sought asylum and been recognized as refugees.
None of those six had been deported and the spokesperson did not comment on the other deportations but said: “If an individual does not apply for asylum through the channels provided and subsequently does not express a wish to seek asylum, Sudan may be within its legal right to pursue deportation of irregular migrants from its territory.
“For UNHCR, the principle prohibiting forcible returns or non-refoulement only takes centre stage when the affected individuals are persons of concern to UNHCR, which does not appear to be the case in this particular instance.”
It is unclear whether UNHCR had access to all of the Eritreans detained in Khartoum prior to their deportation. Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean activist based in Sweden who has been in touch with the relatives of some of the deportees, told IRIN that another group of around 300 Eritreans arrested while making their way to Libya were deported last Friday.
Sudan has a prior record of deporting Eritreans without allowing them access to asylum procedures, a practice that UNHCR has condemned in the past as amounting to refoulement.
Increased border controls
In addition to the arrests of migrants in Sudan, Estefanos said there has also been a noticeable increase in controls on the Eritrean side of the Sudan-Eritrea border in the last two months. “Leaving Eritrea to Sudan is becoming hard now,” she told IRIN. “People are being intercepted and sent back.”
Last year, a UN inquiry found evidence that Eritrea is a totalitarian state responsible for “systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations” including a system of indefinite national service that amounts to forced labour.
Eritrean soldiers are instructed to shoot at anyone they discover trying to leave the country illegally, a policy that hasn’t prevented thousands from fleeing across the border every month. While the majority of Eritreans remain in camps in Sudan and Ethiopia, over 70,000 applied for asylum in Europe during 2014 and 2015, according to EuroStat figures.
Last week, Der Spiegel and the New Statesman reported on a leaked plan to increase cooperation with African countries of origin and transit for migrants. The articles alleged that the EU plans to use funding from the recently launched Emergency Trust Fund for Africa to send equipment and vehicles to help Sudan police its border with Eritrea and to assist with the construction of two closed reception centres in Gadaref and Kassala. Eritrea would be given assistance to develop or implement human trafficking regulations.
A spokesperson with the EU’s Office for International Cooperation and Development, said the reports were inaccurate and that there are currently no plans to provide equipment to the Sudanese government, or to help them build reception centres.
“Any decision to provide civilian equipment will be taken on the basis of a forthcoming appraisal mission to Sudan from the EU,” she said, adding that any future donation of equipment would comply with EU sanctions against Sudan, which include a ban on the provision of services related to military activities.
“The activities related to Sudan are part of a broader regional project in the Horn of Africa, worth EUR 40 million, financed under the EU Trust Fund for Africa and designed to improve migration management,” said the spokesperson, noting that the main objective was to cooperate on fighting trafficking and smuggling.
“No funding will be channelled through the beneficiary countries’ government structures.”
EU outsources migration policy
The EU has increasingly sought the cooperation of African states to control the flows of migrants headed for its shores by using the promise of aid and trade agreements. Critics argue that such policies have contributed to states viewing migrants as bargaining chips to be leveraged for maximum political capital with disastrous results for their safety and human rights.
Europe’s engagement with Sudan and Eritrea, and other countries along the Horn of Africa to Europe migration route, dates back to the Khartoum Process, launched in November 2014. The EU spokesperson said such initiatives were important for “keeping a dialogue going” with the otherwise isolated Eritrean regime.
But sceptics argue that the Khartoum process risks legitimizing the governments of Sudan and Eritrea by treating them as partners in tackling irregular migration, when in fact those countries’ own policies are a major factor in driving migration and fuelling migrant smuggling and trafficking. Sudanese officials have repeatedly been accused of colluding with or turning a blind eye to traffickers who kidnap Eritrean refugees and hold them for ransom.
A former journalist from Eritrea, who asked not to be named, said that Eritrea’s stepped up border controls were partly related to security concerns as it celebrates 25 years of independence, but that they were also about “trying to make themselves look like a good partner” to the EU.
“They’re helping the trafficking networks become smarter, because people will still look for a way out,” he told IRIN. “If these people stay in power, there’s no way to stop migration.”
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the ICC for war crimes and genocide. (AP Photo, File)
Berlin (CNSNews.com) – European Union proposals to stem the flow of migrants from Africa by cooperating with African countries – including those ruled by despotic governments known for human rights violations – are causing controversy here.
Plans emerged after minutes from a “secret” March 23 meeting were obtained by German news outlet Spiegel and the ARD public television network.
The plan would be coordinated by the German development agency (GIZ), and involve working with eight African countries including Sudan, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia – all ranked “not free” by democracy watchdog Freedom House.
The E.U. would provide funding of 40 million euro ($45 million) over three years, supply equipment such as cameras, scanners and servers for registering refugees, assist with the construction of two refugee camps, and train their border police.
The foundations of the plan were first established during a 2015 E.U.-Africa summit in Valletta, Malta, where African and European leaders signed a 16-point action plan aimed at preventing irregular migration and combatting human trafficking.
However, due to the negative reputation of some of the involved African countries’ governments, ranging from rights abuses to war crimes, the plan has met with criticism.
Eritrea is responsible for the third largest influx of migrants fleeing to the E.U., behind Syria and Afghanistan. Sudan, a key route for refugees from Eritrea, is suspected of collaborating with criminal human trafficking networks.
A U.N. inquiry into Eritrean human rights last June reported that its one-party government is “responsible for systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations that have created a climate of fear,” and noting that “the population is subjected to forced labor and imprisonment.”
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, meanwhile is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, arising from the Darfur conflict.
Marina Peter of the German relief organization Bread for the World criticized the plan, saying working with Sudan meant that “a regime that destabilized the region and drove hundreds of thousands of people to flee is now supposed to stem the refugee problem for the E.U.”
The E.U. has been facing scrutiny as it struggles to find solutions to a growing migration crisis, with record numbers of refugees fleeing conflict-ridden zones in Africa and the Middle East.
After Germany took in more than one million migrants in 2015, Chancellor Angela Merkel under growing political pressure brokered a controversial agreement with Turkey to return all asylum seekers and refugees who had crossed the Aegean Sea into Greece.
The pact has so far succeeded in reducing the numbers of refugees entering Europe through Greece, but recently reached an impasse over another element – visa-free travel for Turks.
Talks on that aspect stalled over E.U. concerns about Turkey’s anti-terror laws, which allow journalists and academics to be labelled as terrorists.
The German government denied having a secret “Plan B” if the Turkey agreement should fail, but the government is nevertheless actively looking at additional methods to stem the tide of migrants.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told the Tagesspiegel am Sonntagnewspaper that there was “a search for solutions in case of possible alternative routes, such as via Libya and Italy.”
“If, once more, more people come via this route, we will need to search for similar solutions as we did with Turkey and also enter into negotiations with North African countries,” he said.
In further steps aimed at blocking migrant flows from Africa, Germany’s Bundestag, effectively the lower house of parliament, approved a proposallast Friday to add Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia to a list of “safe countries of origin.”
If approved by the upper house, this would mean that citizens of those countries would have no legal right to apply for asylum, allowing Germany to speed up the process of sending Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian asylum-seekers back to their nations of origin.
Greens foreign affairs expert Jürgen Trittin criticized the proposal, telling theSaarbrücker Zeitung newspaper that “human rights in the Maghreb are in a bad way.”
“These are not safe countries of origin. Period,” he said.