Xenophobia threatens to undermine Sudan’s revolution

By targeting refugees and migrants, Sudan’s new rulers are betraying the popular revolt that brought them to power.

Sudan migrants Reuters
Irregular migrants wait to be transported after being arrested by Sudan's paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) on the Khartoum State border, Sudan. September 25, 2019 [Mohamed N Abdallah/Reuters]

Sudan‘s new rulers are celebrating the first anniversary of the popular revolt that led to the military overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir and their rise to power. Politicians from the transitional government led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok are spending their days giving broadcast interviews in which they indulge in political subtleties, pleasant anecdotes, fiery condemnations of the old regime and promises of a better future for Sudan. Meanwhile, however, police squads are working with the force and animosity of the old to clear the city of alleged “polluters and elopers”.

Since the first week of December, the police have been given license to round up the poorest and most vulnerable of Khartoum’s refugee and migrant residents. Eritrean, Ethiopian and Syrian refugees and migrants are now open game for a demoralised and ill-reputed police force eager to reclaim its diminished authority following a popular uprising it failed to prevent. They are arrested and then forced to bail themselves out of detention by paying hefty fines ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 Sudanese pounds ($1,100-2,200) in what can only be described as an extortion campaign. 

Those who experience the most abuse are the ones who are at the very bottom of the pecking order: Eritreans who have nothing and are in constant search of work as day labourers and domestic workers.

The victimisation and abuse of migrants and refugees in Sudan is nothing new. It has happened in the past and was intensified after the EU concluded a migration agreement with al-Bashir. However, it is disappointing that it continues to happen today in revolutionary Sudan.

Impoverished refugees and migrants from the Abyssinian Peninsula, many undocumented and effectively stateless, started arriving in urban Sudan in the second half of the 1960s, fleeing persecution, guerrilla warfare and military conscription. The number of refugees from the region soared yet again in the 1980s as the 1984-85 famine drove more than 300,000 herders and farmers from the Abyssinian Peninsula into eastern Sudan. Throughout the 1990s, thousands more sought refuge in Sudan to escape the armed conflict, forced military conscription and immiseration which followed Eritrea’s declaration of independence.

According to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, there are more than 123,000 Eritrean refugees currently residing in Sudan, the majority of whom confined to remote camps in Kassala State along Sudan’s border with Eritrea. In Khartoum, most Eritreans are settled either in the neighbourhood of al-Deim, which was partially vacated after local skilled labourers left to seek employment in booming Gulf countries in the 1970s, or in the densely populated working-class areas such as al-Sahafa, Greif East and West and al-Kalakla. 

With or without documentation, they are generally subject to recurrent waves of harassment and violence from the Sudanese authorities and are at considerable risk of human trafficking. Women and girls, meanwhile, face the added threat of sexual exploitation. 

Short of options, many Eritreans in Sudan turn to smuggling networks in a desperate attempt to reach Europe and find safety there. Very few of them, however, actually make it into Europe. At the height of the migration push towards Europe in 2015 about 40,000 Eritreans managed to reach the shores of Greece, Italy and Spain. The UN estimates that approximately 400,000 Eritreans have fled the country in recent years at a rate of 4,000 a month – almost 9 percent of the country’s total population.

With the 2014 “Khartoum Process, the EU outsourced the task of “managing” migrants seeking to reach Europe through the horn of Africa migration route to regional state and non-state actors in exchange for financial support. Al-Bashir’s regime was eager, if not thrilled to provide its services to help the EU externalise its border well into Khartoum’s al-Deim and al-Kalakla neighbourhoods. 

Implementation of the EU’s border externalisation policy was entrusted to Sudan’s security authorities and militias, including the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) controlled by Mohamed Hamdan Daglo “Himedti”. While these arrangements were given benign-sounding labels such as the “High-Level Dialogue on Migration with Sudan and the “Better Migration Management” (BMM) programme, they, in essence, marked the beginning of a militarised campaign to apprehend and punish migrants. 

In the summer of 2016, following the start the EU’s so-called High-Level Dialogue on Migration with the Sudanese authorities, RSF units were deployed to northern Sudan to patrol the areas near the country’s borders with Egypt and Libya. In early 2018, the RSF’s migration control operation was extended to eastern Sudan along the country’s border with Eritrea. Inevitably, RSF units turned the task of “managing” migrants into another lucrative trade, intercepting, taxing and releasing smugglers and migrants repeatedly along the desert route. 

This summer, after ignoring the crimes against refugees and migrants committed in its name for years, the EU was finally forced to announce the suspension of its migration-related security cooperation projects in Sudan, following a barrage of criticism regarding the role EU-supported militias and security forces have played in the attempts to violently suppress the anti-government protests that rocked the country throughout 2018.

It has widely been documented that RSF troops, among other atrocities, were responsible for the violent June 3 crackdown at a protest camp in Khartoum that resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people and the wounding of nearly 400. 

In the post-truth world that we inhabit, however, RSF commander Himedti asserted recently said that his troops “did not massacre protesters in Khartoum”, but “some imposters who were actually planning a coup”.

Himedti’s attempts to whitewash the actions of his troops, however, are aimed at more than just saving himself. He is hoping to reinstate the partnership between the militia he controls and the EU states who are still desperate to keep refugees and migrants away from their borders. 

On December 1, RSF Spokesman Jamal Jumaa doubled down on the efforts to reinstate the partnership between the EU and the infamous militia, by publicising the group’s alleged past successes in apprehending migrants. After boasting that the RSF arrested some 2,500 migrants in 2016-17, he declared that the group is still willing and ready to cooperate and coordinate with the international community to put an end to undocumented migration flows. 

The continuing campaign of harassment and abuse against refugees and migrants in greater Khartoum should be viewed within this greater context of militias and security forces wanting to continue their lucrative collaboration with western nations to stamp out Europe-bound migration. But, sadly, militias are not the only ones keen on Sudan’s brutal and inhumane fight against irregular migration to continue. The new rulers of Sudan also seem happy to use and abuse migrants and refugees in the country for their own benefit.  

On November 11, the transitional government’s Minister of Trade and Industry Madani Abbas Madani issued a decree prohibiting foreigners from engaging in business activities in Sudan. The blanket order prohibits all foreigners from engaging in trade, but exempts foreign investors operating under the Investment Act or special agreements signed between their governments and Sudanese authorities.

The decree is a haphazard effort by the transitional government to stabilise the country’s struggling economy by “Sudanising” business and stopping the profits generated there from leaving the country. But in its current form, the decree not only fails to address the Sudanese economy’s many problems, it also scapegoats migrants and refugees as the only ones responsible for the country’s economic woes. 

The ministerial campaign against “foreigners” fails to stop the voluminous profits of Gulf-owned agro-businesses, telecommunication firms and commercial enterprises from being funnelled out of the country. 

Instead, it targets refugees and migrants who are working in Sudan as petty traders, shopkeepers, food-sellers and peddlers. The security forces interpret the decree to be even broader in scope and use it as a carte blanche to target any foreigner who is trying to make a living in Sudan. 

As a result, now all refugees and migrants who work as labourers, handymen, barbers, rickshaw drivers and domestic workers are under attack in Sudan. It remains a mystery, however, how punishing Eritrean domestic workers and shopkeepers is supposed to help save the national economy.

Destitute Eritreans, who are now the main targets of the continuing crackdown for lack of agency do not expect any help from their government. Separate Sudanese delegations led by Prime Minister Hamdok and Deputy Chairman of the Sovereignty Council Himedti visited Eritrea in November. President Isaias Afwerki, who had a rather mercurial relationship with al-Bashir, is now courting the two forces separately for his own ends; he is unlikely to bring up the victimisation of his own people with the Sudanese government.

Sudan’s new ministers were raised to their positions of power by a resolute revolutionary surge infused with passionate patriotism. Some of the Eritrean residents of the country, now hounded by the police, also joined the protest movement promising their own dictator a day of reckoning.

In al-Deim, the resistance committee activists who defeated former president al-Bashir’s security apparatus reportedly protected Eritrean migrants from the police onslaught. The solidarity on display is a cherished lesson of Sudan’s revolutionary season and it is today an urgent duty of its champions – a test of their fidelity to the ideals that motivated the uprising against former President al-Bashir. 

Sudan’s protest movement is grounded in the agonies of the downtrodden and it benefitted from an Internationale of solidarity. Absent the solidarity that protects vulnerable refugees and migrants, the lofty patriotism of its heroes is at risk of being transcribed into a rhetoric of chauvinism and racial hierarchy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.