Even before the recent violence, Sudan had among the highest numbers of internally displaced persons in the world and is one of the largest refugee-producing countries. Sudan has also been a host country to many refugees. Due to its location next to Libya and Egypt, as well as its porous borders, it serves as a major transit hub for refugees and migrants from the Horn of Africa, and more recently Syria, hoping to reach Europe.
For this reason, Sudan has been critical to the European Union’s efforts, particularly over the past ten years, to reduce the number of migrants to Europe through a policy of so-called border externalization. That is, shifting the responsibility for preventing irregular migration onto the countries of departure and transit. While these EU policies claim to be targeting the unscrupulous practices of smugglers and traffickers and intending to save lives, their real purpose is to block migrants as far away from EU borders as possible at any cost, helping them evade their formal obligations under international law to protect the rights of refugees and migrants.
The dearth of legal pathways for migration to Europe compels many to travel “irregularly”— often by attempting to cross the Mediterranean. These crossings can end tragically: In the first six months of 2023 alone, nearly 2,000 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean. As EU members grow more assertive in pushing back migrants across the Mediterranean and the death toll continues to rise from boats sinking, the latest conflict in Sudan raises important questions about the role of EU migration policies in making migration less humane and fueling conflict that contributes to displacement.
The Khartoum Process
Sudan first became a crucial partner in EU border externalization measures in 2014, following the launch of the European Union Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative, better known as the “Khartoum Process.” Calling itself a “platform for political cooperation amongst the countries along the migration route between the Horn of Africa and Europe,” the Khartoum Process brought together 28 EU member states and ministers from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, Egypt and Tunisia. In a November 2014 meeting in Rome, they signed a declaration agreeing to “undertake concrete actions to prevent and tackle the challenges of human trafficking and smuggling of migrants between the Horn of Africa and Europe, in a spirit of partnership, shared responsibility and cooperation.”
The language of humanitarianism, particularly the focus on smugglers and trafficking, is a common feature of EU declarations. But it sits in tension with the continued loss of lives at sea, the interdictions, the pushbacks, the detentions and the increasing spending on border control measures. This nominal focus on humanitarianism is further undermined by the willingness of the EU to partner with states known to disregard international legal obligations under human rights and refugee law.
Indeed, from the first, the Khartoum Process’s focus on the Horn of Africa raised concerns among refugee rights activists, academics and human rights organizations about how the partnership model could function in the context of a region marked by authoritarian regimes, protracted armed conflicts and socio-economic instability and insecurity. The scant publicity it garnered raised speculation that the EU did not want to bring attention to its partnership with states known for widespread human rights violations. Through the Khartoum Process and other initiatives, the EU began engaging with former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, even though the long-time autocrat had been indicted by the International Criminal Court for committing crimes against humanity in Darfur.
For its part, Sudan eagerly embraced the Khartoum Process as a means of gaining political and financial capital and ending its international isolation. Sudan had long been asking for the lifting of sanctions, debt relief and its removal from the list of states sponsoring terrorism, and hoped that cooperation with the EU on migration issues would help bring it out of isolation. Just as the EU had been willing to overlook the egregious human rights record of former Libyan president Muamar Qaddafi who warned that Europe would “turn black,” unless he received European aid to stem to tide of migrants, Sudan became a partner in the EU’s migration framework. Notably, what did eventually get Sudan removed from the state sponsor of terror list was Sudan’s entry into the Abraham Accords in January 2021—mediated by the United States—toward normalization with Israel. This deal also included its own migration component: easing the repatriation of the thousands of Sudanese asylum seekers who arrived in Israel via Egypt.
The EU has also lacked transparency around who receives the funding meant for border externalization policies and how these funds are dispersed. Following the Valletta Summit—convened in Malta in November of 2015 for EU and African leaders to discuss what was being labeled as Europe’s “migrant crisis” in response to the record number of asylum seekers heading to Europe—an Emergency Trust Fund for Africa was launched. Funds in this 2-billion-euro trust, which was intended to address the causes of irregular migration to Europe, were dispersed to a number of initiatives in the Horn of Africa according to the Khartoum Process.
The EU has persistently claimed that it does not provide any direct financial support to the government of Sudan or its military forces but rather channels all funds through EU Member States’ development agencies, international organizations or Non-Governmental Organizations. There is reason to doubt this claim, however, given the tight control the central government in Sudan has wielded over NGOs. NGOs must register with the Humanitarian Aid Commission, which, under Al-Bashir, fell under the control of the Sudanese Intelligence Service and, under the transitional government, continues to be closely monitored by military. International organizations, like the International Organization for Migration, that are among the main implementing partners of the Khartoum Process work directly with Sudanese government agencies. Although the International Organization for Migration frames its activities using the depoliticized language of “migration management,” in practice, it offers trainings to and works closely with government ministries, especially the Ministry of Interior.
As a partnership, the Khartoum Process is asymmetrical. It is driven and shaped primarily by European interests. Most of the money allocated to it goes toward projects designed to discourage migration through containment and control. Especially criticized is the Better Migration Management initiative, a years-long regional program led by the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) and implemented through numerous bodies and agencies, including the International Organization for Migration, the UNHCR and the interior ministries of various EU member states.
In 2016, the EU Trust Fund allocated 40 million Euros to this program, toward, in part, drafting national legislation and policies on migration management and human trafficking. Even more controversial has been the use of these funds to further empower police and security forces in the form of “training, technical assistance and provision of relevant equipment, for judiciary and border management authorities to better address migration and border management.” Another consortium led by Civipol—a semi-public company with majority ownership by the French Interior Ministry—executed a 5 million euro project for a regional operational center in Khartoum to share police intelligence among Horn of Africa states.
EU Migration Initiatives and the RSF
In 2015, the Bashir regime in Sudan charged the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) with patrolling and controlling borders. The RSF is the paramilitary force that is today fighting for power against the Sudanese Armed Forces. Its origins go back to militias drawn from the Abbala and Baggara tribes of north and western Sudan and deployed by the central government to quell the uprising in Darfur in 2003, just as successive governments since the 1980’s have relied on militias to fight wars in the peripheries. The militias fighting in Darfur came to be known as the Janjaweed and were infamous for the atrocities they committed during that conflict. In 2013, to address a fraying alliance with the Janjaweed, Bashir shuffled around the militias, drawing from border guards and former Janjaweed fighters, and called them the Rapid Support Forces. The were placed under the command of Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service, and its members were given NISS identity cards and granted immunity under the National Security Services Act of 2010. General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as “Hemedti”, (himself a commander during the Darfur conflict) was appointed as its head. Soon after forming, the RSF was quashing protests in Khartoum as well as countering uprisings in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
Regardless of how much EU money is disbursed and through what channels, those charged with border control are known for readily violating human rights. Moreover, the RSF has amassed riches through a variety of sources, including controlling gold mines in western Sudan and providing mercenaries to allies. Even more than the funds, then, the EU migration policy grants them a veneer of legitimacy and emboldens them.
During and since the popular uprising that led to Al-Bashir’s ouster in 2019, the RSF have continued to be involved in quashing internal dissent. Equipment like the cameras and sensors that were originally provided to surveille traffickers were used against protesters during the uprisings. Only after the RSF violently dispersed a peaceful sit-in demanding civilian rule on June 3, 2019, killing over 186 protestors, did the EU under pressure halt some of its programs in Sudan. Specifically, an EU spokesperson informed the German news agency Deutsche Welle that the GIZ-led project providing training and equipment to Sudanese border police had been stopped.
The EU’s Flawed Migration Policy
Events in Sudan today reveal the deep flaws of EU migration policy toward Africa, beginning with the assumption that the primary way to address migration is to enhance the state’s capacity for surveillance and coercion. This approach fails to recognize, or deliberately ignores, how the state itself contributes to and is complicit in creating violent conflict that drives people from their homes.
Alleviating “irregular” migration requires addressing its root causes and creating legal pathways for migration. Although the Khartoum Process pays lip service to the creation of legal channels for migration, only 3 percent of the EU Trust Fund was allocated to this end. As long as western migration policies prioritize keeping people out at any cost rather than the free and safe movement of people, conflicts like the current war in Sudan will continue the cycle of violence and instability, resulting in more displacement and refugees.
[Parastou Hassouri is a Cairo-based consultant on refugee law and migration policy who has taught international refugee law at the American University in Cairo.]
 EU Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative, “Declaration of the Ministerial Conference of the Khartoum Process,” November 28, 2014.
 Ian Traynor, “EU keen to strike deal with Muammar Gaddafi on immigration,” The Guardian, September 1, 2010.
 OXFAM Briefing Note: “An Emergency for Whom? The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa –migratory routes and development aid in Africa,” November 2017, p. 5.
 Lutze Oette and Mohamed Abdelsalem Babiker, “Migration Control à la Khartoum: EU External Engagement and Human Rights Protection in the Horn of Africa,” Refugee Survey Quarterly 36/4 (2017), pp. 71-72.
 Caitlin Chandler, “Inside the EU’s flawed $200 million migration deal with Sudan,” The New Humanitarian, January 30, 2018.