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Sudan at a crossroads: The mixed migration consequences of Sudan’s military coup

Just over a week ago, on Monday, 25 October, Sudan’s military apprehended the country’s civilian leaders—including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who remains under house arrest. This happened a few weeks after a failed coup attempt and after months of increased tensions between civilian leaders and the military.

Before its removal, the civilian government was part of a relatively recent democratic experiment,  following the April 2019 revolution which ousted former president and alleged war criminal Omar al-Bashir. After al-Bashir’s fall, Sudan gradually began to reform and normalise its relations with the West. Crucially, this paved the way for foreign investments and aid. However, just hours after this latest coup, the United States suspended a USD 700 million package of economic support, as it was conditional upon Sudan’s democratic transition, followed by the World Bank and other bilateral donors. Moreover, the European Union (EU) threatened to suspend financial support if Sudan’s military does not immediately restore civilians to positions of power. For its part, the African Union (AU) has suspended Sudan’s membership.

With this seemingly backwards political shift, Sudan risks becoming isolated once again and  some analysts suggest that civil war may be reignited in Sudan’s regions of Darfur and South Kordofan. The United States, the EU, the AU, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the United Nations (UN) have denounced the coup. However, it remains to be seen how much pressure these actors shall exert on Sudan’s military and whether this will outweigh the military’s interest in maintaining its economic privileges and political power, both of which were expected to end in November when the Forces for Freedom and Change were to become head of state. At the same time, countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, all with strong ties to Sudan’s generals, have called for calm without explicitly condemning the coup.

Reliable information on ongoing developments is difficult to obtain and much of the country remains without internet. Economic hardship – already among the reasons people rose up against al-Bashir in 2019 – has only deteriorated further since, with inflation increasing to over 400 per cent in July and regular shortages of basic goods. Against this backdrop, to show commitment to the international financial institutions considering writing off Sudan’s debts, Hamdok’s administration cut subsidies, causing further economic hardship for ordinary citizens.

As one of the largest hosting countries for refugees on the continent, and as a key country of transit and origin for refugees and migrants traveling along both the Central Mediterranean Route and Eastern Route towards the Arabian Gulf, the situation unfolding in Sudan raises several concerns with regard to the mixed migration situation in the country, the region and beyond. In this article, we examine the different mixed migration dynamics within the country and explore the potential implications of the current political crisis.

Sudan as a destination: risk of retreat from progress on durable solutions and secondary displacement

Sudan borders seven other states in the Horn of Africa, North Africa and Sahel regions. Its geopolitical importance is growing in a region facing instability and unrest, such as struggles between rival powers along the Red Sea, Islamist militancy in the Sahel, Ethiopia’s escalating war and South Sudan’s ongoing civil conflict. As of August 2021, the country was host to more than 1.1 million refugees and migrants, including nearly 800 thousand from South Sudan, followed by Eritrea (125,000), Syria (93,000), Ethiopia (70,000) and Central African Republic (27,000). A protracted struggle in Sudan could have a destabilising effect in the region, potentially fuelling further displacement and onward migration of refugees and migrants from neighbouring countries and of Sudanese, both within and out of the country.

Additionally, in the framework of the IGAD-led regional initiative, Sudan was engaging with UNHCR, the EU and IGAD on the development of a draft National Strategy for Durable Solutions. International non-governmental organizations as well as the donor community were laying the groundwork to meet such efforts with programming and support. More broadly this entailed shifting from a sole focus on humanitarian aid to include long-term development planning for IDPs, refugees and migrants in the country. There is concern that the coup would effectively cut the momentum gained for discussions around development and solutions and bring us back to looking only at the care and maintenance of displacement populations.

While there are no indications yet of any impact on humanitarian funding (contrary to suspensions of development funding), already now, the humanitarian response in the country is severely underfunded, despite growing needs: for 2021 the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated almost a third of Sudan’s 44 million strong population to be in need of international assistance (13.4 million), an increase of 4.1 million compared to the previous year. Any potential cuts in funding will likely lead to a further deterioration of the situation in Sudan and in displacement camps and potentially lead to a more severe humanitarian situation and refugees and migrants turning to negative coping mechanisms to provide for their livelihoods and find ways out of the camps, leaving them vulnerable to forced labour and sex trafficking. Already before the coup, interviews with Ethiopians and Eritreans in camps in Sudan indicated that a majority intended to move away to other locations and reports from protection actors suggested a real concern about trafficking networks operating near the camps.

Leaving Sudan: between more out-migration and a rise in people unable to move

Traditionally, Sudanese are well represented among mixed migration populations: many Sudanese can be found across the region and notably in North Africa, both engaged in circular migration between Sudan and countries like Libya and Egypt and more long-term settlement. While not amongst main nationalities yet, Sudanese refugees and migrants are regularly arriving in Italy as well, using the Mediterranean mixed migration routes between Africa and Europe. On the one hand, increasing economic hardship and insecurity within the country may further intensify and accelerate movements out of the country. However, at the same time, further economic hardship may also make migration more difficult for many people, who will increasingly lack the resources needed to finance their migration. This will have an impact on important livelihood sources for many Sudanese, relying on income through circular migration and remittances. As in any humanitarian crisis, those who would want or need to migrate, but are unable to do so, are among the most vulnerable.

Sudan as a transit country: increased risks

Sudan occupies a crucial geographic position at a crossroads along several migration and trade routes from West and East Africa passing through the territory – and movements across the country are already fraught with risk. An increase in insecurity and instability in the country will most likely translate into increased risk for people on the move across Sudan. More people might get stuck in Sudan, unable to continue their journeys or return, making them potentially vulnerable to situations of exploitation. In recent years, many reports highlighted the risks of human traffickers kidnapping and targeting refugees and migrants in Eastern Sudan, a phenomenon that could potentially increase again amidst further instability.

A vacuum in migration governance cooperation

Given its geographical location and as a major origin, destination and transit country, Sudan has been a crucial interlocutor for international cooperation on migration management. This has been the case particularly since the fall of the al-Bashir regime in 2019. One of the two migration dialogues associated to the joint Valletta Action Plan is the Khartoum Process, highlighting the strategic importance of the country for movements from the Horn of Africa toward Europe. Khartoum is hosting the “Regional Operational Centre in support of the Khartoum process and the African Union (AU) Horn of Africa Initiative” (ROCK), a regional project to fight criminal networks involved in human trafficking and smuggling, financed by the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa.

The possible lack of a legitimate interlocutor in the country, let alone a potential descent of the country into instability, may undermine these initiatives, creating a vacuum which may leave European countries with much more limited opportunities to influence migration management in the region.

Considering the history of the cooperation between Sudanese authorities, UN agencies and international organizations vis a vis humanitarian access the coup creates significant uncertainty for international actors on the future of their relationships, particularly in relation to the views of any new postholders. A return to a Bashir-era approach to humanitarian aid would be a step backward for organizations that have fought hard to establish their place and deliver life-saving assistance.

Conclusion

The situation in Sudan may continue to rapidly evolve and the future situation remains uncertain and unpredictable. The role of civil society in resisting the coup – exemplified by the ‘march of millions’ on Saturday 29th October, when thousands took the streets in nationwide protests against the coup –  and the position of the international community and the leverage they will have toward to current regime will have a strong impact on how the situation will evolve. Early November, amidst intensifying international efforts to reverse the coup, people following the talks reported that Sudan’s army and politicians edged closer to a new power-sharing deal.

In the past, the Sudanese regime used migration to start normalising relations with Europe, as it became an important country in managing mixed migration from the Horn of Africa. A new military regime – if it remains in place – is likely to be well aware that a willingness to cooperate with the EU on migration management and applying such ‘migration diplomacy’ potentially gives them the leverage to get legitimacy or at least be tolerated by the EU. A critical question therefore arises: how far is the EU willing to go in compromising and working with a new military regime in order to continue its cooperation with Sudan on migration management