Conflict and Fragility


The Khartoum process: Shifting the burden

22 Feb 2016 - 15:10
Bron: Life in a UN protection of civilians site/ IOM/Bannon 2015

In the wake of the October 2013 Lampedusa tragedy that resulted in 359 deaths, the European Union (EU), unwilling or unable to provide safe(r) passage to those fleeing persecution and economic desperation, identified human trafficking networks as the [primary] reason for migrants and refugees getting onto boats to cross the Mediterranean. In short order the EU gathered states from the Horn of Africa that are either sources of migration or countries of transit and forged a consensus against a common enemy of human traffickers and smugglers. This resulted in the Khartoum Process, a framework with a narrow security-based focus that is unlikely to prevent unsafe migration by boat to Europe.

The Khartoum Process could only come about because of a series of unspoken (or under-spoken) assumptions between the main players on both sides of the Mediterranean. Given the increasingly inhospitable climate towards refugees in Europe, it is worth examining these assumptions and their unintended consequences for their relevance to both current and future EU-Global South migration initiatives. Without addressing its pitfalls, in its current form the Khartoum Process is likely to be just another in a long line of instruments for Europe to dodge a greater moral and physical responsibility for global migration. [1]

We pay, they do

One of the unspoken assumptions behind the Khartoum Process is that the physical burden of managing asylum seekers and economic migrants should rest with states in the region of origin. These states can then be compensated by states or blocs in the Global North, in this case the EU, or leveraged through incentives or coercion.[2] The Khartoum Process facilitates this burden shift of the physical management of Europe’s borders to African countries by funding projects that enhance border security, upgrading national legislation, and disrupting or dismantling migrant smuggling and human trafficking networks in Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan and Tunisia.[3] Through this framework, Europe shirks a greater responsibility, placing the greater burden on African states.

Total criminality

A second important assumption behind the Khartoum Process appears to be the total criminality of individuals and groups involved in facilitating irregular migration. The horrors of human trafficking create a useful straw man on which to pin the blame for the Lampedusa tragedy. Instead of asking why these people got onto the boats, it is more expedient to focus on who put them onto the boats. According to the Khartoum Process, the answer seems to be sophisticated criminal networks operating from the Horn of Africa all the way through Europe. However, the reality of the how (to say nothing of the why) individuals move through these African countries to get to Europe is far more opaque and exists along a continuum of criminal-to-opportunistic (and possibly even idealistic).[4] This obfuscation is a necessary condition to get all states involved at the ministerial level. Only by agreeing that organised and criminal networks are the primary problem to be tackled could the Khartoum Process come into being.

Foxes guarding the henhouse

The Khartoum Process’s assumption of total criminality means that the complicity of Eritrean and Sudanese government officials, some quite highly placed, in the smuggling and trafficking of individuals (as documented by the United Nations and human rights groups) is overlooked.[5] The total criminality modality employed in the framework lets states such as Eritrea and Sudan off the hook by effectively placing blame and responsibility on non-state criminal actors. The signatories can then publically agree that what is most needed to fight these criminal enterprises is funding for projects that will enhance the border security of states along the Horn of Africa migration route.

What EU officials may fail to appreciate, or have overlooked because of a greater political imperative, is that the regimes in Eritrea and Sudan are not only complicit in human trafficking but are also likely to benefit from irregular migration flows. Take for example the Afwerki regime, which benefits materially from boys and young men leaving Eritrea to avoid military service. These boys and young men pay bribes to get out of the country and are then pressured to send back remittances if and when they make it to Europe. An unintentional consequence of not acknowledging the complicity and even vested interest of some of these African partner countries in human trafficking is that the EU may be investing in and strengthening bad systems.

All carrots, no sticks

As it stands, the Khartoum Process appears to provide incentives, or carrots, in the form of capacity building and technical assistance for East African states to manage migratory flows.[6] The carrots in the framework are presented as the lack of capacity these states have to properly manage their borders and crack down on human trafficking networks. There appear to be no disincentives, or sticks, however, to ensure compliance with the framework or with human rights norms if failed asylum seekers can be returned to their countries of origin. Moreover, there seems to be no mechanism in the Process to verify that reforms promised by certain East African states, notably Eritrea and Sudan, are actually being carried out. It seems that another unspoken assumption behind the Khartoum Process is that it is the promise of change that is sufficient for the EU and certain member states to start re-engaging with these states, which have notoriously poor human rights records.

An obscured quid pro quo?

Because of these promised reforms and the multilateral framework of the Khartoum Process, EU member states are now able to bilaterally engage with states like Eritrea, “the world’s fastest emptying nation”, [7] and provide funding and capacity to secure a number of guarantees to accept more of their nationals whose asylum claims in Europe have been denied.[8] Already the UK government has cut the number of Eritrean asylum seeker claims accepted in the second quarter of 2015 to 29% from 77% the previous quarter,[9] based on a Danish immigration report that was discredited as being a political effort to stem migration rather than an honest assessment.[10] The tragic consequence of this strategy is that Eritreans and others seeking asylum in EU member states may have their claims rejected and sent back, only to have their human rights violated yet again.

Another unintended consequence is the potential leverage that the EU and member states are giving to Eritrea, Sudan and others. While Sudanese President Bashir and Eritrea’s President Afwerki are likely to be less overt than Gaddafi was in his demand for €5bn to prevent Europe “turning black”,[11] it is not inconceivable that they would make veiled threats, publicly or in private, to ‘turn on the tap’ while maintaining plausible deniability. While this scenario may seem unlikely, the Khartoum Process appears to give a degree of leverage to Eritrea and Sudan that could ultimately outweigh the short-term benefits from the Process. EU and member state politicians and officials should be aware that a burden shift puts them on the hook so long as safer passage for asylum seekers is not increased.

No one gets on to one of these boats because they want to

As it stands, the Khartoum Process will most likely fail to prevent future Lampedusas, primarily because it does not create more legal avenues for economic migrants or asylum seekers to reach European shores, while also leaving the root causes of migration unaddressed. Regarding the former, providing more short-term or seasonal visas for cyclical economic migration has long been a demand of African states (and the Global South more broadly),[12] and one that in the current strained political climate in Europe is unlikely to be met to their satisfaction. As regards the latter, official Khartoum Process documentation does make vague reference to the establishment and management of “reception centres” for asylum seekers, though it is unclear why the EU would want to create a parallel asylum and resettlement structure when the UNHCR is already doing that very thing, and more cost effectively one would imagine. Moreover, a systematic granting of asylum visas in third countries seems to be off the table for the moment, although this would greatly mitigate the possibility of more boatloads of refugees drowning while crossing the Mediterranean.

As long as those fleeing individual and structural persecution and economic hardship are unable to come to Europe safely and legally, they will continue to pay smugglers, risk being trafficked, and board unseaworthy boats in the vain hope of a better life. Unfortunately the Khartoum Process does not appear to address those concerns, and worryingly could be used to seek out ‘quick wins’ that may ultimately prove counterproductive. In order to effectively address the refugee ‘crisis’ affecting Europe, its leaders will need to get beyond the paradigm of burden shifting and accept a greater moral and physical responsibility for global migration.



[1] I am indebted to Jort Hemmer, Floor El Kamouni-Janssen, Sarah Wolff, Kloe Tricot O’Farrell, Pamela DeLargey and Mirjam van Reisen for their input and feedback on this piece.

[2] Betts, A. and Milner, J., The Externalisation of EU Asylum Policy: The Position of African States. Oxford: Centre on Migration Policy and Society (2006) pp 3-4

[3] Declaration of the Ministerial Conference of the Khartoum Process Rome, 20 November 2014

[4] Reitano, T.,  Adal, L., and Shaw, M., ‘Smuggled Futures: The Dangerous Path of the Migrant from Africa to Europe’ (2014) Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, May 2014. Web. p. 19

[5] Van Reisen, M. Estafanos, M. and Rijken, C. ‘The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond’ May 2014 pp. 46-52; and ‘I Wanted to Lie Down and Die’, Human Rights Watch, 11 February 2014, Accessed 26 October 2015; UN Monitoring Group on Eritrea and Somalia (2011) Report on the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1916 (2010) S/2011/433

[6] As of November 2014, €17.5 million was earmarked for direct support to the Khartoum Process from the EU’s Pan-Africa Programme, although substantially increased funding was discussed after the Valetta Summit.

[7] Stevens, M. and Parkinson, J., ‘Thousands Flee Isolated Eritrea to Escape Life of Conscription and Poverty’, Wall Street Journal, 20 October 2015

[8] Mohamud, M. and Horst, C. ‘New EU Approach to Horn of Africa Migration Sets Worrying Precedent’, African Arguments, 16 April 2015. Web. Accessed 26 October 2015

[9] Human Rights Watch, ‘UK: Flawed Policy on Eritrean Refugee Claims’, Human Rights Watch, 2 July 2015. Accessed 26 October 2015; Stevens, M. and Parkinson, J. Op cit.

[10] Van Reisen, M., ‘Flawed Danish Migration Report Shows Need for Realistic Benchmarked Approach on Eritrea’, European External Policy Advisors. Web, 17 December 2014. Accessed 26 October 2015;

‘Eritrea – Drivers and Root Causes of Emigration, National Service and the Possibility of Return’, Danish Immigration Service, October 2014. Web

[11] Carr, M., ‘How Libya Kept Migrants out of EU – at Any Cost’, The Week UK, 5 April 2011, Accessed 26 October 2015. Gaddafi later received a promise of €50 million a year for three years as part of a ‘co-operation agreement’.

[12] Betts, A. and Milner, J. Op cit.