In November 2014, the EU launched the Khartoum Process aimed at combatting illegal migration from the Horn of Africa region, including Sudan. In 2016, the EU also established a High-Level Dialogue on Migration with Sudan – among 16 priority countries. This resulted in the EU notably funding a EUR 40 million ‘Better Migration Management’ programme in the Khartoum Process countries, including Sudan. The programme focuses on ‘the provision of capacity building to government institutions’, ‘harmonising policies’, laws against ‘trafficking and smuggling’, and ‘ensuring protection of victims and raising awareness’.
The programme is implemented by a consortium of different EU member states’ bodies – including the German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the Interior Ministries of Italy, UK and France. A similar consortium led by Civipol, a semi-public company with majority ownership by the French Interior Ministry, is implementing another EUR 5 million project for a regional operational centre in Khartoum (ROCK) to share police intelligence among Horn of Africa states. The centre will open at the end of 2018.
In April 2016, the EU Commission additionally adopted a Special Measure for an amount of EUR 100 million, followed, in October 2017, by a new envelope of EUR 60 million, to support ‘displaced persons, migrants and host communities’. Thus, EUR 160 million has been allocated to Sudan, although this amount is not strictly focused on migration but includes some classical development programmes. According to an EU official, ‘The Sudanese government needs this money: it looks small compared to their [substantive] security expenses, but that’s still something they won’t have to take on their own budget. Sudan’s economic situation is so bad that they can’t refuse EUR 160 million.’
In 2016, German and British media obtained confidential documents revealing that the EU had earmarked funds to train Sudanese border police and planned to provide registration and surveillance equipment to the Sudanese authorities, including for detention centres in eastern Sudan. It is not clear if these funds were part of the April 2016 Special Measure, the Better Migration Management grant, or a different one.
Several EU member states, including the UK, Italy and Germany, also engaged with Sudan bilaterally on migration issues. the Italian and Sudanese Interior ministries signed a memorandum of understanding, with a direct link to the Khartoum process, focused notably on border management, migrant flows, and repatriations of Sudanese migrants from Italy to Sudan. The UK also began a ‘strategic dialogue’ with Khartoum, notably on migration issues.
The EU and EU member states’ cooperation with Sudan on migration, central to the Khartoum Process, has generated debates in Europe. A crucial point of critique, as explained by the former (and latest) EU special representative for Sudan, Rosalind Marsden, is that ‘by portraying Sudan primarily as a country of transit rather than a country of origin, the “Khartoum Process” downplays Sudan’s role as one of the largest producer of refugees in the world and the fact that many of those trying to cross from Libya or camped in Europe are Darfuris.’ Jaspars and Buchanan-Smith also noted that ‘this approach will do little to address the root cause of migration from Darfur, namely the systemic persecution of particular ethnic groups.’
Sudan is one of the main transit countries for Horn of Africa migrants, as well as the third largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, with 800,000 refugees on its soil. But no less importantly, it also accounts for the second largest population of internally displaced persons (IDPs) on the continent, estimated at 3.2 million, in addition to some 600,000 Sudanese refugees in Chad and South Sudan. These huge displacements, mostly occurring over the past 15 years, are mainly caused by the Sudanese government’s violent counter-insurgency strategies in the three current conflict theatres in the country (Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile).
Those continuous conflicts, as well as the lack of democratic rule, have been among the main reasons for the increasing number of Sudanese, in particular Darfurians, migrating to Libya and Europe. Numbers began to increase in 2013, when an estimated 30-60,000 Sudanese left their country for Libya or Egypt. Numbers kept increasing: between 2014 and 2016, the number of Sudanese arriving in Italy multiplied by three to reach a peak of more than 9,300. Their protection and asylum claims in Europe are largely recognised. In France – the first European country for Sudanese asylum claims -, in 2017, Sudan was the first nationality of asylum seekers to be granted refugee status, with more than 20% of all admissions, ahead of Syria and Iraq. About 75% of Sudanese asylum seekers in France obtained refugee status or protection in 2017.
Sudanese migration routes have evolved and become more diverse. Eritrean migrants mostly used to cross from eastern Sudan to Egypt, while Sudanese also reached Egypt from Sudan’s northern region. In recent years, flows have shifted towards Libya, along two main routes, which in the past were used by Sudanese migrants looking for work in Libya but are now used by refugees fleeing wars and undemocratic regimes across the entire Horn of Africa. The easternmost route, used notably by Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalians, goes from Khartoum to Dongola by an asphalt road, then crosses north-western Sudan to the Libyan border and Kufra. Further west, Darfurians and migrants from other parts of the Horn, drive from the North Darfur capital, El-Fasher, towards Mellit, Malha, then straight north to the Libyan border and Kufra. Some non-Darfurians travel from Khartoum to Darfur to join this route.
According to an EU official, the Sudanese authorities claim to have arrested between 800 and 1,200 migrants a year since 2012. Some were arrested by regular forces, but the task has to large extent been assigned to the so-called Rapid Support Forces (RSF). In 2013, Khartoum re-hatted some of the Darfur Arab militias generally known by the nickname of janjawid, which led most of the counter-insurgency campaign that devastated the region and displaced some 3 million civilians, into a new paramilitary force, the RSF. The new force is better equipped, better funded, and deployed not only in Darfur, but all over Sudan. Since 2016 it has been directly under presidential control, in the hope it would be better controlled and more loyal than the former janjawid. It is led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, aka ‘Hemmeti’, who proved less disloyal towards Khartoum than other Darfur Arab militia chiefs.
In 2016, coinciding with the EU dialogue with Sudan on migration, Khartoum redeployed RSF in the Northern State, from where they patrolled up to the Libyan and Egyptian borders. In an April 2018 video, Hemmeti claimed the RSF had 23,000 men ‘scattered throughout the desert borders’ – a credible count for RSF forces deployed from North Darfur and the Chadian border, to Eastern Sudan and the Egyptian and Eritrean borders.
This development is quite problematic, as rather than relying on Sudan’s regular security forces it puts militias that have been tied to large-scale human rights abuses and war crimes in charge of border control. It is possible that, from the Khartoum point of view, Hemmeti, a renowned smuggler between Sudan and Libya before the Darfur war, was more suited to control the border than the army. But above all, rather than stem migrant flows, the RSF’s real aim may have been to prevent movement of Darfur rebels and renegade janjawid between Sudan and Libya, which they did on various occasions in 2017-18.
In August 2016, Hemmeti publicly claimed his forces had arrested the exaggerated number of 20,000 migrants. Later, in January 2017, the RSF gave the more realistic number of 1,500 ‘illegal migrants’ intercepted ‘on the Sudanese-Libyan border during the last seven months’. In March 2018, the RSF was also said to have confiscated 321 vehicles between Malha and the Libyan border.
Smugglers interviewed for this study acknowledged that the RSF disrupted their travels within Sudan, leading to routes from Sudan to Libya becoming less travelled. ‘When the RSF see us with migrants, they confiscate our cars. One of my cars, confiscated full of migrants, was not given back. But if they don’t catch us red-handed, they have no evidence and can’t arrest us. Even if they chase us while we transport migrants, if we manage to hide the passengers, they can’t arrest us.’
Migrants interviewed for this study, including some who were arrested by the RSF but sometimes made a second attempt to travel to Libya, also said RSF patrols made these routes more dangerous. Some of them were victims of abuses perpetrated by the RSF. In 2016, Y.A., a Sudanese asylum seeker from the war-thorn Nuba Mountains, paid USD 1,000 to be driven from North Darfur to Tripoli, with ten other passengers, mostly Ethiopians and Eritreans. After a few hours’ drive, their vehicle was reportedly stopped by an RSF patrol. They were tortured by the RSF: first, to force to them to reveal information on where their smuggler had escaped to, and second, to make them provide the phone numbers of relatives, most likely so that the RSF could ask for ransoms. Y.A. says he was released after two months and does not know what happened to his companions.
In early 2018, the RSF were also deployed in eastern Sudan, on the Eritrean border. According to Sudanese government sources, about a quarter of migrant smugglers arrested in January-February 2018 on this border were arrested by the RSF. Yet, as along the Sudan-Libya border, the RSF deployment in the east may respond to another agenda: it coincided with the closure of the Eritrean border, following Sudanese accusations that Egypt and Eritrea were colluding to reopen rear bases for Sudanese rebels in Eritrea. Until 2006, Eritrea had hosted rebel groups from both Darfur and eastern Sudan. Among the latter were the Free Lions, a movement recruiting among the Rashaida Arabs straddling the Sudan-Eritrea border. Since 2006, former Free Lions leaders were allegedly involved in smuggling Eritrean migrants to Egypt through eastern Sudan, with the complicity of both Eritrean and Sudanese security apparatuses. This smuggling entente is now threatened, notably by the new anti-smuggling policies.
Since being deployed in Sudan’s north-western quarter, the RSF have gradually monopolised control of routes to Libya. But they do not always arrest the smugglers and migrants they intercept. ‘Officially, our orders are to drive the migrants back toward their country of origin,’ an RSF member explains. ‘So, from time to time, we intercept migrants and transfer them back to Khartoum, in order to show the authorities that we are doing the job. We’re not supposed to take money from the migrants to let them escape or to transport them to Libya… but the reality is rather different…’
Several smugglers and migrants confirm that the RSF tax the vehicles or migrants they intercept then let them go. In mid-2016, A.A., accused of being a rebel supporter, decided to leave Sudan for Libya. He boarded a pickup truck near El-Fasher, along with 20 Darfurian migrants. Their car was intercepted three times by RSF troops on the road to Tina. The first time, they were stopped just after Am Boru, in an RSF temporary camp where the militia had already intercepted three cars loaded with migrants. Questioned by the RSF, they pretended to be heading to Chad to look for gold, as the driver had suggested they say in case of an interrogation, in spite of the fact that the majority of the passengers were not gold miners but migrants heading to Libya. ‘We know you’re going to Libya,’ the RSF interrogators replied. However, after a discussion with the RSF, the driver paid the militia SDG 5,000 (EUR 750) to be allowed to leave.
The car was intercepted again in the next two towns of Kornoy and Tina, and the driver again negotiated with the RSF and gave them (an unknown amount of) money. At their arrival in Tina, the migrants met three other cars that had also been stopped in Am Boru and also been released after paying a bribe. A.A.’s driver complained about the trip’s excessive cost and asked the passengers for an additional payment. Some of the passengers gave him SDG 400 or 500 (EUR 60-75).
The RSF also returned confiscated vehicles to smugglers in exchange for bribes. Friendly contacts between smugglers and RSF are not uncommon: ‘The RSF know us and our activities,’ a smuggler says. ‘Sometimes we play cards with them and they tell us their tricks to catch us with our migrants.’ However, ‘for smugglers who refuse to work with the RSF, the route between Darfur and Libya became difficult.’
Even more than taxing the migrants, the RSF have increasingly become smugglers themselves. Numerous migrants who have entered Libya from Sudan since 2016 were driven to Libya by RSF armed and uniformed soldiers, often in military cars mounted with heavy machine guns.
In early 2016, A.O., a 28-year-old Darfurian, wanting to go to Libya, was driven from Central Darfur to Mujuar, one of North Darfur’s northernmost inhabited settlements. In the market, he asked for tips on travelling to Libya and was put in touch with two RSF soldiers who openly gathered migrants under a shelter. Together with nine other Darfurian migrants, he boarded a military pickup truck mounted with a ‘Dushka’ (DShK-type) machine gun and loaded with RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) rockets. The vehicle was identified as RSF by an Arabic mark on the side, indicating ‘al-Quds’, the RSF’s acronym, which has also the double meaning of ‘Jerusalem’. Four uniformed Arab RSF also boarded the truck, including the driver, a commanding officer on his side, and in the back two soldiers, including one in charge of the machine gun.
Later, in July 2016, as many more RSF had begun to be deployed on the roads to Libya, N.M., a 21-year-old Darfurian from Otash IDP camp in South Darfur, chose to head to Libya. By chance, he had been playing football and befriended two young Arabs, who had recently joined the RSF in El-Fasher. ‘Soon after their departure, they phoned me and said that if I wanted to travel to Libya, they had a good way,’ N.M. said. They even told him he could travel on credit, and pay them back once he found work in Libya.
At nightfall, N.M. and five other men got in the back of a pickup truck driven by an armed and uniformed RSF soldier. ‘The back was loaded with ammunition boxes. We had to sit on them.’ They reached Mellit, where four other Sudanese passengers joined them. All boarded another vehicle, a camouflaged pickup also commanded by a uniformed and armed Arab RSF. The back was also equipped to be mounted with a DShK-type machine gun, but the weapon had been removed, probably to allow the ten passengers to lie down on the back, hidden under tarpaulin. They were driven to the Sudan-Libya border, where they were handed over to Libyan traffickers.
A.O. and N.M.’s journeys to Libya were relatively discreet and involved only a limited number of passengers, all Darfurians, probably arranged to avoid interception by other RSF. Already in 2016, however, some RSF were able to transport migrants coming not only from Sudan but also from various East and West African countries, on a larger scale. In late 2016, A.N., a 42-year-old man from North Darfur and his wife from the Nuba Mountains (another Sudanese war zone), had recently moved to Malha area in search of casual work. In the market, he heard about smugglers transporting people to Libya, and about possibilities of working on farms in Libya. He paid SDG 4,000 (EUR 600) for both of them for the journey to Um-el-Araneb in the Fezzan. As soon as he had paid, they were locked in a compound in the outskirts of Malha, together with 100 migrants coming from East Africa (Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia), West Africa (Nigeria, Senegal, Gambia, Equatorial Guinea) and Bangladesh. Only 15, including A N. and his wife were Sudanese, mostly from Darfur.
‘When you enter the place, you can’t get out,’ says A.N. ‘Seven or eight armed and uniformed Arabs were posted at the door.’ When A.N. tried to talk to them, they only answered: ‘We are the government.’ After three days, around midnight, they all boarded four pickups, 24 passengers in the back of each, covered with a plastic tarpaulin. The first and the last car of the convoy were mounted with Goryunov machine guns, and, besides the usual driver and assistant in the cabin, there were two soldiers in the back. Thus, the migrants were accompanied by 12 RSF men, all in uniform and armed with Kalashnikov-type assault rifles. The trip to the Libyan borderlands lasted two days.
In some cases, the RSF did not drive migrants in their own cars but provided an escort to civilian smugglers. In 2016, S., an Eritrean asylum seeker, was intercepted by Sudanese government forces in the desert and brought back to Khartoum. ‘Some of the migrants paid to be released,’ he explains. One year later, he tried again, through the same Eritrean intermediaries based in Khartoum. The whole process was unchanged: the migrants were gathered in a Khartoum house together with other mostly Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants. One year to the next, even the fare was the same: USD 1,700 for the desert crossing and USD 2,300 from Libya to Europe. ‘Thus, 4,000 dollars is the official fare to Europe but we know it is likely to be much higher as we are kidnapped and ransomed on the way. Myself, at the end, I paid 13,000 dollars,’ S. explains.
Once again, S. boarded a large civilian truck with more than a hundred passengers. But this time, they had an escort: a khaki pickup mounted with a DShK-type machine gun and loaded with ammunition boxes, plus three Arab militiamen, sometimes preceding, sometimes following the truck. No patrol stopped them and they reached Libya. In June 2016, A., an Ethiopian migrant to Libya, had the same experience on another road: after being taxed by RSF near Dongola, he and his fellow passengers were escorted to Libya by other RSF men, on a military pickup mounted with a DShK-type machine gun and loaded with ammunition boxes.
From Darfur, Dongola or Khartoum to Libya, and from Darfur to Chad, the RSF transported or escorted migrants from Sudan as well as from other Horn of Africa countries. According to several migrants, ‘the RSF prefer the non-Sudanese, especially Ethiopians, Eritreans and Somalians, as they consider them as very valuable. Their family in the diaspora pays for them when they are kidnapped. In addition to being taken in RSF cars, migrants were reportedly regularly hidden, sometimes in large numbers, in RSF garrisons and occasionally dressed in RSF uniforms.
Several RSF members interviewed for this research acknowledged the RSF were both smuggling and taxing migrants rather than intercepting them. ‘Migrant smuggling is not a sin,’ one of them rationalises. ‘Even if we leave [this activity], others will take care of it. So why not benefit from it and get some money, since the fuel is already provided by the government? In principle, I’m not allowed to speak of this. I didn’t have the chance to drive migrants to Libya myself, but several times, as I was aware of this activity, I was given money to shut up.’ RSF smuggling activities were also confirmed by smugglers interviewed in Sudan by The New York Times, according to which, ‘each smuggler – interviewed separately – said that the RSF was often the main organiser of the trips, often supplying camouflaged vehicles to ferry migrants through the desert.’
Conflicts have even flared up between rival RSF groups involved in migrant smuggling. Competition can lead some RSF groups to intercept a convoy organised by rivals or to denounce rivals as smugglers to the government, in order to have the rivals transferred away from the migration routes and then take their place. Sometimes rival RSF groups shared their profits to avoid such competition.
Darfur Arab camel-herder (abbala) communities have long been involved in trading camels in Libya, since before the war in Darfur began in 2003. Since 2003, the routes between Darfur and Libya have been largely controlled by Zaghawa rebel factions, who raided some Arab camel caravans and disrupted Arab movements to Libya. This actually facilitated recruitment of the janjawid among Darfur Arab camel herders. Since 2005, some Arab militia leaders, in particular Musa Hilal, historically the main janjawid chief, gradually distanced themselves from the government and established contacts with Zaghawa rebels, so that they were able to regain access to the routes to Libya. As a result, Hilal’s militiamen – officially known as ‘Border Guards’, although their duties did not specifically involve border control – reportedly began to smuggle migrants between Darfur and Libya. In 2017, Hemmeti’s RSF began to regain control on the routes to Libya, and they attacked, arrested and killed both rebels and Hilal’s Border Guards and associates travelling on those routes, accusing them, notably, of being migrant smugglers or ‘human traffickers’.
The janjawid militias, whether officially named or renamed Border Guard or RSF, were originally, and on the whole, recruiting from among Darfur’s Arab communities. Various rebel splinter factions, mostly Zaghawa, successively joined the Sudanese government, after deals promising them, notably, integration into government forces. However, most rebel combatants were unable or unwilling to fight in the ranks of government regular or paramilitary forces, including the RSF, that is until 2016-17 when a splinter faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), led by Mohammedein Ismaïl Bachar, aka ‘Orgajor’, was incorporated into the RSF.
Mohammedein ‘Orgajor’ was one of the main commanders of the Zaghawa faction of the SLA known as SLA-MM, from the initials of his leader Minni Minawi. He was not unfamiliar with the routes between Darfur and Libya and, in 2011, reportedly drove from Darfur to Libya and managed to bring back a large number of weapons, thanks to brief support of Qaddafi forces. In October 2014, Orgajor split from SLA-MM, reportedly at the incitation of Chadian president Idriss Déby, who had been very actively pushing Darfur rebels to splinter and join Khartoum since 2011. In March 2015, in N’Djaména, Orgajor’s faction, then reportedly numbering 400 men equipped with 30 cars, signed a peace deal with the government of Sudan. In 2016-17, his troops were integrated into the RSF, and he was made a colonel.
According to a civilian Zaghawa migrant smuggler, ‘Orgajor’s men were already involved in migrant smuggling when they were rebels.’ A former SLA-MM who joined Orgajor’s RSF in June 2017 confirms that ‘when Orgajor was a rebel he was often at the border between Sudan and Libya and was smuggling migrants. He kept good contacts with Libyans. He did not account for these activities to anyone [in the SLA-MM hierarchy] and it was his source of income.’ After Orgajor joined the government, his troops, waiting for their integration into the RSF, were garrisoned in a camp near Tina, on the Sudanese side of the border. ‘He benefitted from the period when his men were stationed near Tina and transformed his camp in a hosting place for migrants. It was a favourable time as he was no more in rebellion and was still in negotiations with the government about the troops’ integration.’ Idle and under little control, Orgajor’s men thus had much time and freedom, as well as a sufficient number of vehicles, to smuggle migrants to Libya.
The smuggling did not stop as Orgajor’s troops were integrated into the RSF in 2016-17. The same member of the group acknowledges that ‘today it’s a bit different, Orgajor works for the government and has less freedom to transport migrants. He’s our leader and he’s not often in the area but his men are still here and still involved in migrant smuggling.’ A civilian smuggler confirms that ‘even after integrating into the RSF, [Orgajor] did not totally give up this activity.’ It seems that, being Zaghawa, Orgajor’s RSF were given the task of controlling the Sudanese Zaghawa territory of north-western Darfur, which remains a major transit area for many migrants between Sudan and Libya.
Several migrants interviewed for this research were transported by Orgajor’s RSF. In February 2017, S.M., a Darfurian asylum seeker, linked up with former SLA-MM rebels whose task was to gather migrants on behalf of Orgajor’s elements in Tina. He was driven in a military car to the camp mentioned above, surrounded by earth walls and guarded by RSF men. ‘They collected all the phones. Once you enter, there is no way to get out,’ he remembers. The place was crowded with several hundred migrants from various countries: the majority were Somalians, Ethiopians and Eritreans (which he estimated to be more than 400), but there were also close to 200 Comorians, 150 Sudanese, mostly Darfurians, and a dozen Bangladeshis. All were men except for a few Ethiopian or Eritrean women who were regularly raped at night. The fares and the currency that they were expected to pay appeared to depend on the migrants’ nationalities: the Sudanese paid in Sudanese pounds (SDG 2,500 to Libya and 13,000 to Europe – EUR 375-2,000), the others were to pay in dollars (USD 7,000 for Ethiopians and Eritreans, and 10,000 for Somalis) or euros for the Comorians (3,000).
S.M. left Tina in a convoy of 14 military pickups loaded with migrants – there were 35 in S.M.’s truck. The convoy was escorted by two additional pickups mounted with a DShK-type machine gun, and about 30 uniformed and armed RSF soldiers. From Tina, they drove north along the Chad-Sudan border. Most of the road was probably within Chadian territory, but the convoy did not face any control by either Chadian or other Sudanese forces. Orgajor, whose agreement with Khartoum was facilitated by Chad, was said to work as much for Khartoum as for N’Djaména, with his strategic position at the Chad-Sudan border allowing him to protect Chad from possible rebel incursions.
In the same period of early 2017, A., another Darfurian asylum seeker, met RSF smugglers in El-Fasher who were recruiting passengers for gold mines at the Chad-Libya border. He was driven to Tina in a convoy of four military cars, each loaded with 35 passengers. The drivers and assistants were RSF men armed with Kalashnikov-type rifles. A.’s driver, a Zaghawa, was most likely one of Orgajor’s troops.
Other Darfur rebels and former rebels have allegedly been involved in migrant smuggling. In 2017, Darfurian combatants reportedly guarded a farm in Jufra area, in central Libya, where 300 to 400 Eritreans were detained, but it is unclear whether those troops were active or former rebels. According to one of the leaders of a faction that joined the government in 2012 – known as JEM (Justice and Equality Movement)-Dabajo – some combatants from this group defected and became smugglers. It seems Darfur rebels who turned to migrant smuggling or other non-political activities are mostly found among those who gave up the rebellion, including members of factions that joined the government but whose troops were left without enough work, income or control by their leaders. On the contrary, elements from the main and still active rebel movements appear to be less involved, either because they are better controlled by their leaders, or, as a former rebel suggests, ‘because they currently don’t have strong enough positions, neither in Darfur nor in Chad, to control smuggling routes’.
In Darfur, as elsewhere in the region, the ability to control or operate on strategic cross-border territories depends often on ethnicity. This explains why Orgajor’s faction is able to smuggle migrants from Zaghawa territory, straddling the border between Chad and Sudan. Nevertheless, in migrant smuggling, associations between members of different communities are not uncommon and are often stronger than in rebel movements. Thus, some migrants reported being transported by RSF members belonging to different communities, including Arab and Zaghawa. But there could also be conflict between smugglers, and armed groups involved in migrant smuggling, from different communities, over control of territory and smuggling routes.
Malha area is a case in point. Malha is the northernmost permanent settlement on a main route between Darfur and Libya, as well as the undisputed centre of the non-Arab Meidob tribe. The Meidob community and area largely escaped the inter-ethnic violence that broke out all over Darfur in 2013, thanks to an uncommon tacit agreement between Meidob leaders and various affiliations: government members or supporters, members of government militias, and rebels. As a result, Meidob smugglers were said to control the migration route from Malha to Libya. Both Meidob government militias and rebels were said to tax vehicles crossing their area.
This balance was questioned in 2018, when Arab RSF under Hemmeti were deployed in Malha, confiscated Meidob vehicles and arrested the main Meidob rebel chief, Suleiman Marejan, who was reportedly taxing migrant convoys. Meidob paramilitary forces were also integrated into the RSF. Hemmeti’s group is not particularly welcome among the Meidob: in 2006, the Arab militia raided the area and killed 35 Meidob civilians, chasing some of them with cars and bumping into them, before being repelled by Marejan’s rebels. Beyond asserting control over a strategic territory, it seems Hemmeti’s RSF are now trying to take over the Meidob’s smuggling activities. This takeover was facilitated by the 2017 withdrawal of the United Nations African [Union] Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) from its Malha team site, which was turned into an RSF base.
Migrants who were smuggled by the RSF to Libya report that the RSF systematically ‘sold’ them to Libyan traffickers, in the Sudan-Libya borderlands. The practice is generally known as taslim (delivery) in Arabic, a word that is also used for exchanges of drug loads across the Sahara. Those Libyan traffickers often torture and enslave the migrants.
According to an RSF member, ‘the RSF receive money for each migrant handed over to the Libyans.’ This explains why migrants could board RSF cars on credit: in principle, this involved repaying their debt later after finding work in Libya, but obviously the RSF did not care about being reimbursed and were getting the migrants’ ‘debt’ paid by the Libyan traffickers. This generally allows the Libyans to ask the migrants to reimburse their debt, torturing them until they could get relatives to pay for their release or obliging them to work without payment.
But even migrants who had paid the RSF for their whole trip were ‘bought’ by Libyan traffickers and endured abuses. Thus, in June 2017, S., the Eritrean asylum seeker mentioned above, was sold to Libyan Arabs, together with more than a hundred fellow passengers. ‘They told us that we were their property, that we had been sold,’ he remembers. The migrants were obliged to telephone their relatives to ask them to pay a USD 1,700 ransom – precisely the amount S. had paid the RSF for travelling to Libya. Those who could not find the money were forced to pick dates from palm trees.
Generally, RSF and other Sudanese smugglers sell their passengers to Libyan traffickers in the Sudan-Libya borderlands, and do not go further. However, a Darfurian asylum seeker said he met RSF members associated with human traffickers far from the Libyan border, in Um-el-Araneb, more specifically in Sharika: this is the name of a huge unfinished complex of social housing units from the Qaddafi era. Um-el-Araneb is reputed to be particularly dangerous, as it is inhabited by various armed groups and gangs, including Chadian rebels, mercenaries, road bandits and human traffickers. The latter are said to detain and sometimes torture migrants in Sharika. The same Darfurian migrant was smuggled from Um-el-Araneb to Tripoli by a Sudanese trafficker based in Tripoli, with connections to traffickers in both Sharika and the RSF in Sudan. A former Chadian rebel based in Libya also mentioned the presence of RSF members, in civilian clothes, involved in migrant trafficking in Sebha.
The Libyan ‘partners’ of the RSF are either civilians or members of Libyan militias. In late 2016, A.N., a Darfurian mentioned above, together with his Nuba wife and a hundred passengers from various countries, were handed over to uniformed and armed Libyans, on four pickups, two of them painted in a military beige colour, displaying Libyan flags and loaded with ammunition boxes. ‘They told us to sit in a circle, head down,’ A.N. remembers. They threatened to shoot any migrant who moved: ‘This bunch of slaves, if anyone lifts his head, give him a bullet in the head.’ And they shot in the air to scare them. The migrants then had to get into the four cars and were driven to a farm near Um-el-Araneb, in the Fezzan region, where possibly 250 were already held in captivity. ‘We know you want to go to Europe but you’re our slaves, you have been sold to us,’ the migrants were told.
The 15 Sudanese were asked to phone relatives so they could pay LYD 4,000 (EUR 600) for their release. The supposed richer migrants from other nationalities had to pay a ransom in euros or dollars. A.N. and others were beaten and burnt with blowtorches and boiling water. Men and women – including A.N. and his wife – were locked in separate containers. Women were regularly raped, including in public. After two months of torture, as he was unable to find the money, A.N. and his wife were sent to a nearby farm, where they were supposed to work for ten months in order to be released. However, after two months they managed to escape.
A.N. believes his traffickers included Zwaya Arabs. Since 2015, the Zwaya appear to control the Libyan side of the borderlands between Libya and Sudan and the routes between Kufra and the border. It is thus not surprising that the main Libyan ‘partners’ of the RSF are reportedly Zwaya traffickers, including both civilians and Zwaya militias. The Zwaya militias reportedly protect or escort Zwaya traffickers, who are involved in ransoming Eritrean migrants. There are reports that members of the (mostly Zwaya) katiba Subul al-Salam, a Salafist force affiliated to General Haftar’s ‘Libyan National Army’, although officially combatting migrant trafficking, are also involved. Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants travelling from Sudan to Libya in 2015 told the UN that they were handed over to Subul al-Salam in Kufra. ‘They were put in a prison where the guards were dressed in police uniforms and driving official police cars. For their release, each migrant had to transfer up to USD 300 to a foreign bank account.’
According to prominent Tubu militia leader operating west of Kufra and controlling routes towards the Chad border, in 2016, the katiba Subul al-Salam came into conflict with Tubu migrant traffickers south of Kufra, allowing Zwaya traffickers to take control of the trafficking in the area. Since then, there appears to be a territorial divide, with Zwaya traffickers operating on the routes between the border, Kufra and Tazerbo, and Tubu traffickers operating further west, from Rebyana to the Fezzan.
The RSF also reportedly sell migrants to Tubu traffickers, who are not only civilians but also militias, including forces allegedly theoretically under the control – and on the payroll – of northern Libya’s rival authorities. In 2016, A.O. and nine other Darfurian migrants were handed over by the RSF to Libyan Tubu militias, in the Sudan-Libya borderlands. The Tubu were uniformed men on two pickups mounted with DShK-type machine guns who presented themselves as soldiers of the Tripoli-based GNA. Once in Rebyana, they beat the migrants for two days to force them to phone relatives and find SDG 2,000 (EUR 300). Those who were not able to obtain the money were reportedly sent as forced labour to gold mines. A.O. and the three others who were able to pay were driven by members of the militia themselves directly to Beni Walid, a main trafficking hub between southern Libya and the coast.
There are reports that the RSF also sell migrants to Chadian former rebels based in Libya, and who turned to banditry and migrant trafficking. Links between Chadian rebels and janjawid militias are well established: from 2005 to 2010, Chadian rebels were based in Darfur and supported by the government of Sudan. They, in turn, recruited among the janjawid and were recruited by them. Some of the Chadian rebels and former rebels now based in Libya maintained links with RSF members, and arranged taslim of migrants in the Libya-Sudan borderlands.
In 2017, the katiba Subul al-Salam reportedly attacked Chadian traffickers who were waiting in Kufra area for a delivery of migrants by the RSF. The Zwaya force possibly wanted to prevent those Chadians from threatening its control of migrant smuggling in Kufra. The incident eventually provoked tensions between the RSF and their Chadian partners, with each side arresting members of the other and asking for financial compensations.
According to a former Chadian rebel based in Libya, Chadian rebels or former rebels have been involved, rather than in ‘buying’ migrants, in capturing or ‘stealing’ them from their original smugglers or traffickers. Such operations specifically target Eritreans who, according to the former rebel, ‘represent the second business, just after drugs’: they reportedly can be sold for LYD 2,000 to 30,000 (EUR 300-4,500). Chadian rebels or former rebels reportedly raided convoys with Eritrean migrants as far away as Jebel Aweynat at the Libya-Sudan-Egypt tri-border. Eritrean migrants are also commonly ‘stolen’ in places where they are kept, for instance in Um-el-Araneb. In late 2017, bandits based in Um-el-Araneb also reportedly drove to Jufra area where they captured some 300 Eritrean migrants held on a farm, before reselling them.
It is not only Sudanese paramilitary forces but also members of regular forces who are reportedly involved in migrant smuggling. There have been various reports on the involvement of members of Sudanese regular forces, notably of the NISS (National Intelligence and Security Service) in human trafficking between Eritrea and Egypt, through eastern Sudan. More recently, it appears NISS is also involved in smuggling migrants from Sudan to Libya, including through Darfur.
In June 2016, A.I., a 26-year-old Darfurian asylum seeker, left for Libya via Malha. ‘As soon as you arrive in Malha, some smugglers are waiting for passengers, shouting ‘Dahab (gold) or Libya?’, he says. They took his passport but then revealed themselves to be NISS agents and threatened to jail him for ‘trying to leave the country’. But as soon as he paid them SDG 5,000 (EUR 750), they put him into a NISS car together with nine other migrants, followed by two similar vehicles. The three NISS cars drove their passengers only as far as a checkpoint outside Malha, then handed them over to a Libyan truck driver who had crossed the checkpoint without passengers. The NISS agents gave a share of the migrants’ money to the smuggler, who then drove them to Kufra area.
More recently, in early 2018, F.H., a migrant from central Sudan, paid SDG 13,000 (about EUR 300 at the inflationary black market rate) to NISS agents who put him on a direct plane to Tripoli, across all controls at Khartoum airport.
Since the RSF has been deployed in north-western Sudan, their leader Hemmeti has regularly claimed he is acting on behalf of Europe and has provocatively sought to blackmail the EU in a style not dissimilar to the one Qaddafi employed in the past. ‘We are hard at work on behalf of Europe in containing the migrants, and if our valuable efforts are not well appreciated, we will (re)open the desert to migrants,’ he declared in August 2016, asking the EU to pay a ‘ransom’ in exchange for the RSF anti-smuggling work. In a press conference held in Khartoum in October 2016, he publicly asked the international community to lift economic sanctions on Sudan, in exchange for the RSF fighting against both migrant smuggling and terrorism. In November 2017, he told Al-Jazeera that Europe spends ‘millions in fighting migration, that’s why they have to support us’. More recently, in a video circulated in April 2018, he again threatened Europe that he would stop his anti-migrant activities if he did not get more support: ‘The European Union must recognise our efforts to fight against illegal immigration and smuggling. Otherwise, we will act differently.’
These open attempts at pushing the EU for support and recognition have led to criticism of EU policies. First and foremost, it has been questioned whether the EU risked supporting RSF militias, even indirectly – particularly in light of the human rights violations and war crimes that these militias have been accused of. The EU has countered this criticism in three ways. First, it has stated that ‘the Rapid Support Forces of the Sudanese military do not benefit directly or indirectly from EU funding’. The fact that mention is made of the ‘RSF of the Sudanese military’ suggests an acknowledgement on the side of the EU that the RSF form part of the regular armed forces; in 2017, they were indeed officially integrated into the army but remained both autonomous and under the command of the president. This was confirmed by an EU official, who declared that ‘the RSF are now integrated into the army and have become a regular force’.
This should not be problematic in theory, as EU officials have stated that it is the EU’s policy ‘not to work with neither the RSF, nor the army, nor the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS)’. The EU is thus limiting its cooperation with Sudanese security forces dependent on the Ministry of Interior, namely the police, and claims to be ‘well aware of and highly alert to the risks of cooperation with Sudanese Police and Security authorities in general’. The fact is, however, that janjawid militias have also been integrated into the so-called Central Reserve Police, whose record is no better than the RSF’s. Further, whether distinctions between regular and irregular forces, and between police and army, are sufficient to avoid abuses can be questioned. It is perhaps for this reason that the EU itself acknowledges that in a context such as Sudan, it is very difficult to mitigate all risks, including ‘the risk of unintentionally involving members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF)/Janjaweed in project activities.’
Second, it has been questioned whether in its engagement with an authoritarian regime such as Sudan, the EU does not fund internal repression, such as through the provision of civilian equipment to the Sudanese security forces that could be used for a military purpose. In response, the EU has stated that ‘it does not equip Sudanese border forces with [such] dual-use equipment’. Yet in a private discussion, the same EU official quoted above explains that it is in fact very difficult to guarantee this in practice: vehicles, surveillance equipment, computers and phones can be, to some extent, considered as dual-use, depending on how they are used and who uses them. And in the framework of its Better Migration Management programme, the EU considered providing the Sudanese Ministry of Interior with border surveillance equipment including cars, computers, cameras, scanners and servers. It only deemed as ‘unlikely’ the use of European funding for aircraft purchases. In addition, UNHCR, an EU implementing partner on migration, was similarly criticised for providing motorbikes to the NISS in East Sudan. This may explain why the EU itself has therefore acknowledged that, among risks, it is very difficult to prevent equipment being diverted to or by the RSF.
Third, in response to general concerns over EU funding for the Sudanese government, the EU has stated that ‘the Sudanese Government will not be in charge of the management of EU funds and, therefore, the latter will not be channelled through Governmental [structures]’. EU programmes in Sudan are implemented by ‘agencies’, in particular, as mentioned above, EU member states bodies, including from Germany, Italy, UK and France, notably from Interior Ministries. Yet EU officials acknowledged that this set-up could also raise concerns, as it makes it more difficult to trace what is happening with the money. According to other EU officials, similar fears of lacking information and losing control apply to migration programmes in Libya, where a large share of the Emergency Trust Fund programmes (support to the coast guards, border management) is managed by the Italian government. In the process of devolving funding to implementing agencies, the EU may thus prevent itself from funding the Sudanese forces directly but the question is then whether or not their implementing partners engage in such practices.
From the above, it follows that clear conundrums apply to the externalisation of border control to authoritarian regimes such as Sudan. The Sudanese case outlines some of the risks associated with this strategy: the risk of militias and paramilitary forces being associated with European policies, the risk of supporting regular forces that may perpetrate abuses against migrants, and the risk of ‘corruption or involvement of government structures in smuggling and trafficking activities’. What remains unclear is whether the first EU programmes in Sudan will be considered as a test, with clear benchmarks that would result in these programmes being halted if the benchmarks were not met. Towards this end, the EU could follow the example of the new engagements of both the US and the UK with Sudan, and the planned withdrawal of the United Nations African [Union] Mission to Darfur (UNAMID), which have been conditioned by progress, albeit disputed, on crucial security and humanitarian issues.