Between Sudan and a hard place
Eritrean refugees who try to escape into neighbouring Sudan are caught up in a deadly stand-off between East Africa’s big powers – as European Union (EU) money aimed at keeping them there continues to roll in all the while.
In January 2018, the governor of Kassala in eastern Sudan issued a decree halting all border crossings from Eritrea: a country that has been nicknamed the ‘North Korea of Africa’ because of its high levels of repression, isolation, and punishing military conscription.
Along the Sudan-Eritrea border, life for refugees is deeply insecure. Before the border closure, at least 500 Eritreans crossed into Sudan every month, many of them teenagers.
They are vulnerable to kidnapping, extortion and retaliation attacks by Eritrean forces. Some have been held to ransom by local tribes for as much as $10,000. Sudanese security forces regularly demand hundreds of dollars from Eritreans trying to cross.
The crossing was always treacherous, but regional power play is making matters worse. Egypt has increased its military presence in the region as part of a 60-year-old dispute with Sudan over an area of land called the Hala’ib Triangle.
In response, Sudanese media is reporting that thousands of Rapid Support Forces (RSF) fighters – the former Janjaweed, accused of carrying out ethnic cleansing in Darfur – have been deployed to the East. The RSF now focus on border security, using brutal methods to stop migrants from passing through.
Amid all of this, the EU has given more than €200m ($245m) to Sudan, in a bid to slow migration to Europe. There is a real risk that European taxpayers’ money is bankrolling the abuse of refugees.
A controversial dam project by Ethiopia has led to further concerns about destabilization of the region, as countries along the Nile vie to maintain control of their freshwater supply. Any escalation could put refugees in greater danger.
Local aid-workers are fed up. During a summer 2017 visit to Shagarab refugee camp in Sudan, I witnessed a heated conversation between employees of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and Sudan’s Commission for Refugees.
A UNHCR employee complained that Sudanese border forces had refused entry to an Eritrean woman with a legitimate claim to refugee status. They are untrained and incompetent, she argued. Both officials agreed the conditions made them want to quit.