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Migration Deals Are Normalizing Pariah States

The sudden push for deals to halt migration with African autocracies such as Sudan will stain Britain’s reputation and do little to slow the flow of refugees, argues Maddy Crowther from Waging Peace.

Written by Maddy Crowther Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, left, inspects an honor guard upon his arrival at the North Darfur state capital of el Fasher, Sudan, Sunday, March 8, 2009. Sudan’s president threatened to kick out more aid groups and expel diplomats and peacekeepers on Sunday during his first trip to the beleaguered Darfur region after an international court issued an arrest warrant against him.AP/Nasser Nasser

Fears about the number of migrants reaching Europe’s shores are increasingly leading decision-makers to compromise their commitment to human rights. We have already seen this in action with the European Union’s deal with Turkey that traded aid for help in stemming migration.

The trade-offs are even worse in the Horn of Africa. With far less scrutiny, deals are being made under the E.U.-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative. Also known as the Khartoum Process, this sees member states dealing with not just one repressive regime, but several of East Africa’s most notorious, including pariah states such as Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Sudan, whose capital city lends its name to the process, is a particularly problematic partner for the E.U. Its head of state, Omar al-Bashir, has an outstanding arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and genocide in the troubled western region of Darfur. Meanwhile, his government continues to bomb its own citizens in the south, continuing the same policies of marginalization and repression it has followed for decades.

Furthermore, right at this moment, catastrophic economic mismanagement and routine violations of the basic rights of religious belief, assembly and expression have seen activists across the country launch campaigns of civil disobedience and strike action. Today’s priority of stemming migration means that the regime in Khartoum is seen as a legitimate partner for European efforts to deter Africans from trying to reach Europe.

Money under the Khartoum Process is earmarked for projects that might seem innocuous enough. They include capacity building and equipment for migration officials and systems. However, the border forces that will likely benefit are the Rapid Support Forces, many of whose fighters used to be part of the “Janjaweed” militia guilty of the worst crimes during the height of atrocities in Darfur.

Although the E.U. flatly denies that money will go to the government or these bodies, it has not clarified the mechanisms by which it will ensure funds are not used for other purposes and turned against civilians. We know that forces on the border are complicit in human trafficking and smuggling.

Past experience tells us that the Sudanese government has already been able to undermine even more powerful international instruments, such as the hybrid United Nations-African Union mission in Darfur, UNAMID, and to some extent, use them for its own purposes.

The prioritization of short-term deterrence of migration over a human rights agenda is wrong-headed. It risks trapping people in states and in conflicts they have the right to flee.

Notes leaked from E.U. meetings suggested that Sudan was proposing to build closed camps to contain would-be refugees where they would not risk becoming Europe’s problem. These plans were condemned in the German press as “concentration camps.”

As well as being immoral, this approach is unlikely to work. A significant reduction in the numbers of people trying to escape Sudan will come only from solving the conflicts and instability that are driving people from their homes.

Depoliticizing these problems and pursuing quick wins on migration will simply embolden states to continue producing or failing to deal with the conditions driving such high proportions of their population to leave. Sudan is one of the top five producers of refugees for a reason.

The initiative also misappropriates development aid: 100 million euros ($104 million) of the proposed sum on offer is just repackaged development assistance, but evidence shows that mobility tends to increase, at least in the short and medium term, as a result of higher spending on sustainable development.

The E.U. would do far better to focus its efforts on offering safe, legal routes for desperate people. This would be a far more effective way of countering irregular migration. We have seen how when one irregular path is closed off – as happened in the Balkans earlier this year – numbers rise elsewhere.

For instance, Syrians are looking to Sudan as a pathway to Europe given that it does not require visas for entry, and Greece is no longer a viable option. But safe, legal passage is not even meaningfully on the table under existing plans, limiting the effectiveness of this approach.

The perceived need to engage with repressive regimes to deter migration is forcing Europe into murky waters regarding human rights commitments. Migration presents a gateway for regimes to rehabilitate themselves without any meaningful reform.

Once Sudan’s colonizer, Britain has been a critical friend of Sudanese governments and peoples. It is part of a troika of nations, along with the U.S. and Norway, committed to underwriting the nominal peace between the north and what is now South Sudan, since a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Britain has historically not been shy in criticizing human rights abuses seen to threaten this accord.

Now engagement over migration threatens to mute this criticism. The “U.K.–Sudan strategic dialogue” has seen reciprocal visits by officials to discuss cooperation on migration, and on counter-terrorism intelligence. Technically, Sudan is one of Britain’s allies in the Saudi-led conflict in Yemen, as part of the coalition of forces tackling the Houthi rebel movement. And co-operation has led the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office to change its approach to Sudan. A normalization of relations is under way in what the diplomats involved call “phased engagement.”

The result has been far fewer public statements from either the U.K. or on behalf of the troika regarding conflict in Sudan, which has if anything worsened in recent years. And now Britain even seems to be pursuing trade with Sudan. A U.K. government blog, on behalf of its ambassador to Sudan, Michael Aron, has hosted a post from a Khartoum regime hard-liner and minister of investment, promoting trade with Sudan. The post claims the only barriers to investment relate to poor infrastructure.

As a consequence of the actions of its governing regime, Sudan was once an international outcast. Its strategic location as a transit country for Africa’s migrants, and indeed the knowledge it has built in hosting and funding terrorism over the years, now puts it in a prime position to benefit from Western interest and support.

Sudan is not alone in exploiting the migration issue. Similar deals are being struck with other pariah states. What unites them all is the way in which migration legitimized them as partners.

We need to be careful what we are willing to sacrifice in an attempt to reduce the numbers rightfully fleeing the worst kinds of state violence. Is it worth doing business with a regime that bombs, rapes, murders and even allegedly chemically maims its own people just to slow the traffic at our borders? For Britain, which is so keen post-Brexit to present itself as a moral voice on the world stage, the answer has to be no.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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