Blog post by Lutz Oette (Professor of International Human Rights Law, SOAS, University of London, Co-Director of the SOAS Centre for Human Rights Law) and Mohamed Abdelsalam Babiker (Associate Professor of Law at the University of Khartoum and United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea)
The ongoing urban warfare in Sudan is fast producing a refugee situation that risks destabilising the whole region and poses a major policy challenge. Sudan, the third largest country on the continent, has a crucial geopolitical location. It forms part of the wider Horn of Africa, acts as a link between the Arab and the African world, and as a trading port and bridge to the Middle East via Port Sudan. The region is one of the most volatile worldwide. Sudan’s immediate neighbours are highly authoritarian States, such as Egypt and Eritrea, politically fragile and insecure, viz Libya, Chad and the Central African Republic, or emerging from recent conflict, such as in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. Countries such as South Sudan combine most if not all of these features. Sudan’s strategic position created fierce competition among many states including the USA, the Gulf states, Israel, Russia and the Wagner group over its vital resources (gold, oil, land, water) and military bases. Sudan’s civic revolution for democratisation and constant attempts to abort it has already led to repression, economic and political instability, and a ‘dire’ humanitarian situation. The highly complex and challenging political environment includes large-scale refugee movements. Sudan has, for a long time, been simultaneously a major refugee producing, hosting and transit country. According to the UNHCR, Sudan hosted over 1 million refugees, mainly from South Sudan and Eritrea, and more recently from Ethiopia’s Tigray region, when the most recent conflict broke out. There were also, in 2021, believed to be more than 100,000 Syrians staying in the country. Sudan has also been a major transit hub, and a well-known staging post in trafficking routes from Eritrea to Egypt, Libya and beyond.
The current conflict’s refugee dimension has major implications for both refugee protection and stability in the region. It is quickly becoming one of the major refugee situations worldwide, with over 800,000 internally displaced persons and over 200,000 cross-border refugees. It will easily reach the one million refugee mark if the conflict continues. Sudanese fleeing the conflict are bearing the brunt of this situation already. They undertake arduous journeys, struggle to receive assistance at border crossings, and to secure status and employment. Several of Sudan’s neighbours, such as Libya, Chad and South Sudan are not economically well placed to host refugees, grappling with political and humanitarian crises themselves. Besides potentially adding to tensions in neighbouring countries, particularly if the requested humanitarian aid is not forthcoming, the refugee and security situation in Sudan is also bound to increase drastically human trafficking networks and transnational crime. Conflict, instability and large number of internally displaced persons present a toxic cocktail that can lead to further insecurity. This includes terrorist groups that are already operating in the wider region, and may seek to capitalise on the opportunity that the current situation offers. The conflict in Sudan therefore poses multiple risks, with clear multiplier effects.
The EU, including the UK at the time, has already engaged in a failed policy on refugees in the EU Horn of African Migration Route Initiative, also known as the Khartoum Process, in place since 2014. This policy has been seriously flawed as it does not effectively address the root causes of migration, including human rights violations, respect for the rule of law, and development. Ostensibly combating human trafficking and smuggling in the region, it was widely viewed as spending development aid to contain refugees and control migration. It relied on cooperation with rights-violating regimes, such as Sudan under the former President al-Bashir. The policy has a direct link to the current conflict. The Rapid Support Forces, one of the militia-parties to the conflict and implicated in serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, gained influence in their role as violent border guards in the Khartoum Process.
Learning the lessons from the Khartoum Process entails combining support for civilian actors and the democratic transition with assistance and pathways for refugees. Humanitarian assistance for neighbouring countries to host refugees, the UNHCR’s current focus, can only be part of this response. The EU also has to offer active protection. One solution would be to activate the EU Temporary Protection Directive, as it had done for refugees from Ukraine. The European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson recently said that the EU should have done this in response to the 2015 refugee crisis. Sudan is set to constitute the next test case for whether the EU shows equal concern for refugees beyond Europe’s borders. The same applies to the UK’s response. The Home Office, when declining to introduce a new visa scheme for Sudanese people, stated that the situation in Sudan is different from the Ukraine, without explaining why. The UK has offered limited assistance, even to the point of reportedly not allowing relatives onto evacuation flights. The EU’s and UK’s policy response to the Sudanese refugee situation will be a marker of their solidarity with the Sudanese people and political imagination and their peaceful struggle towards a democratic Sudan. If things fall apart and the centre cannot hold in Sudan, developments risk further destabilising the region and enhancing insecurity which may in turn result in even higher number of refugees. There is a lot at stake in the Sudan conflict. A policy of both helping Sudanese refugees and supporting the civilian forces in achieving a transition to a democratic and peaceful Sudan is the best, and only viable, option to break the country’s devastating cycle of conflict, violence and forced displacement.
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The EU’s and UK’s engagement is crucial in light of the farcical positions of the Arab League and the African Union that led down the Sudanese people time and time again. On 11 May 2023, Arab countries lobbied against the UN Hunan Rights Council decision to monitor and report violations of human rights in Sudan. Not unexpectedly, all African countries either voted NO or abstained. I would expect any good from the Arab League and the African Union!