Saturday 28 December 2019

Xenophobia in Sudan: what is at stake?

A joint piece coauthored with Abraham Zere @ abraham_zere. An edited version of this piece appeared on Aljazeera online

Sudan’s new rulers are in festive mood in the midst of celebrations marking the first anniversary of the popular revolt that dislodged former president Omar al-Bashir from power. Television crews are busy devising propaganda mantras from the rich cultural world of the months long sit-in around the headquarters of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) in Khartoum. Politicians of the transitional authority led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok are refining their rhetorical skills in now routinised broadcast interviews rich with political subtleties, pleasant anecdotes, fiery condemnations of the old regime and promises of deliverance. Today’s victors, long suppressed by Omar al-Bashir’s security apparatus, are now in a position to dictate new rules and devise a world according to their self-image. 
A few kilometres away from the seat of power on the bank of the Blue Nile in Khartoum, police squads are deployed with the force and animosity of old to clear the city of alleged “polluters and elopers.” Since the first week of December, the police have been given license to round up the poorest and most vulnerable of Khartoum’s refugee and migrant residents. Eritrean, Ethiopian and Syrian refugees and migrants, to name the most conspicuous in the current wave of persecution, are open game for a demoralised and ill-reputed police force eager to reclaim its diminished authority. Under arrest, refugees and migrants are forced to bail themselves out of detention with hefty fines ranging from 50,000 to 100,000 Sudanese pounds ($1,100-2,200) in what is by all means an extortion campaign. Not all migrants are the same, a Syrian restaurant owner is far above a Syrian tiler who is a step ahead of an Eritrean barber still superior to an Eritrean day labourer or female Eritrean domestic worker in search of employment. 
Throughout the long months of demonstrations against the former regime the police were the target of popular anger. Teams of defiant protesters organised in the famed ‘resistance committees’ outmanoeuvred and wearied out an outstretched police force across Khartoum’s urban jungle. 
Today, police vengeance is directed against the habash of al-Deim. While a benign label at first glance that translates smoothly to Abyssinian, habashiya and habashi (singular female and male forms) are employed in daily use as derogatory terms with repugnant racist prejudice denoting servitude and sexual availability. Under the colonial British administration, al-Deim was a dumping ground for emancipated slaves, “detribalised negroes” in the colonial dictionary, an excess population deemed essentially vile, criminal and morally corrupt, and subject to incessant policing and persecution, but critically a pliable labour force. 
Emancipated slaves became the policemen, nurses, midwives, soldiers, railwaymen and importantly musicians, performers, actors and entertainers of the independent Sudan. Enabled by their skills many sought employment during the first waves of expatriate outmigration during the 1970s in the booming economies of the Arab Gulf, some returning back as small proprietors and rentiers. Impoverished refugees and migrants from the Abyssinian peninsula, many undocumented and effectively stateless, started arriving in urban Sudan in the second half of the 1960s and the first half of the 1970, many fleeing persecution, guerrilla warfare and military conscription, push factors compounded by the 1984/1985 famine which drove more than 300 thousand herders and farmers from the Abyssinian peninsula into eastern Sudan. The overthrow of the Derg and the independence of Eritrea offered no reprieve as thousands more sought to escape armed conflict, military conscription and immiseration. In Khartoum, many settled in places like in al-Deim, vacated by an outmigrant labour force and in the densely populated working-class areas of al-Sahafa, Gireif East and West and al-Kalakla. Their presence however in Sudan is as old as the urban centres of the country. European travellers observed slave caravans from Abyssinia in al-Obeid in 1836 and identified Abyssinians among the inhabitants of Khartoum in the 1850s.
According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, more than 123 thousand Eritrean refugees currently reside in Sudan, the majority in remote camps along the border in Kassala State. With or without documentation they are generally subject to recurrent waves of harassment and violence from the Sudanese authorities, are at considerable risk of human trafficking and women and girls are exposed to sexual exploitation. Short of options, many depend on smuggling networks to reach Europe and only the very few actually make it. At the height of the migration push towards Europe in 2015 around 40 thousand Eritreans managed to reach the shores of Greece, Italy and Spain. The UN estimates that around 400,000 Eritreans have fled the country in recent years at a rate of 4000 per month, almost 9% of the country’s total population. The UNHCR puts the number of Ethiopian refugees at around 14 thousand while Syrian refugees count at around 95 thousand. In total, Sudan is host to around 1.1 million refugees and asylum seekers, of which around 900 thousand are South Sudanese. 
Through the ‘Khartoum Process’ - the European Union (EU) Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative - established in November 2014 the EU outsourced the tasks of ‘managing’ migrants seeking to reach Europe along the said route to state actors and non-state actors in exchange for financial support. The Sudanese government under Bashir was keen if not thrilled to provide its services in enforcing the externalisation of the EU border well into al-Deim and al-Kalakla. Implementation of the EU’s border militarisation policy was entrusted to Sudan’s security authorities and militias, notably the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) under Mohamed Hamdan Daglo ‘Himedti’. The diplomatic labels of these arrangements appear rather benign, for instance the ‘High-Level Dialogue on Migration with Sudan’ and the ‘Better Migration Management’ (BMM) programme launched in 2016, but their content is effectively a militarised campaign to apprehend, punish and deport migrants. 
Coinciding with the 2016 EU migration dialogue RSF units were redeployed in northern Sudan where they carried out patrols up to the Libyan and Egyptian border. The RSF leader Himedti claimed that 23 thousand of his troops were scattered across the desert on the watch for migrants. Himedti, given to hyperbole, asserted in a press conference held in the Sudanese Ministry of Defence in August 2016 that his forces had apprehended some 20 thousand migrants to the benefit of the EU. He revised the figure in January 2017 to 1500 migrantsarrested somewhere between Sudan and Libya over the last seven months. In early 2018 RSF units were deployed in eastern Sudan along the Eritrean border. Inevitably, ‘managing’ migrants became another lucrative RSF trade; smugglers and migrants were intercepted to be taxed and released repetitively along the desert route. 
The EU plan involved the establishment of a regional intelligence and operation hub in Khartoum, dubbed the Regional Operation Centre in Khartoum (ROCK), run by the French state-owned security company Civipol to coordinate and streamline the efforts of its state and non-state partners in the Khartoum process. The EU was embarrassed by a barrage of criticism to announce the suspension of its migration-related security cooperation projects in Sudan. In the post-truth world that we inhabit, “RSF troops did not massacre protesters in Khartoum in the early hours of 3 June but some imposters who were actually planning a coup,” as the RSF commander Himedti asserted recently. And the EU does not really equip the Sudanese security authorities to crack down on migrants before they even embark on their treacherous travels to the European citadel, rather “the participant lists of BMM's training courses are closely coordinated with the [Sudanese government] National Committee for Combating Human Trafficking (NCCHT) to prevent RSF militiamen taking part in training activities”. The Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced in November 2019 that the African Union (AU) Specialised Committee on Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons had approved the charter establishing a regional operation centre for the combat of irregular migration and related crimes in Khartoum. The EU was not mentioned. Under whatever title and through whatever convoluted funding routes, policemen and militiamen under the authority of the Sudanese government carry out a European minted policy to intercept, apprehend and punish migrants on suspicion far away from the EU’s physical borders with impunity. 
Duplicitous European diplomats and official prefer Saharan silence over the issue but the RSF’s commanders have all the reasons to publicises their services. Speaking in Khartoum on 1 December the RSF spokesman, Jamal Jumaa, said his militiamen apprehended during 2016 and 2017 some 2500 migrants. The RSF rescued 61 people from traffickers sometime during 2018 and 2019 and arrested 70 others in Darfur’s Kulbus as traffickers were getting ready for the trip across the Libyan border, he said. The RSF, he declared, is willing to cooperate and coordinate with the international community to put an end to this troubling phenomenon. The RSF leader Hemedti simply stated that his troops were “working in place of the EU”.
Within this context, the ongoing campaign against foreign refugees and migrants in greater Khartoum is the police’s attempt to enact a decree issued by the Transitional Minister of Trade and Industry, Madani Abbas Madani, on 11 November 2019. The blanket order prohibits foreigners from engaging in trade but exempts foreign investors operating under the Investment Act or by special agreement with their governments. The ministerial order includes all import and export activities, mere presence in marketplaces and local trade whether directly or through an intermediary and aims according to the Minister at “sudanising” commerce in the country. It draws on and expands previous government decisions from the Bashir-era including a 2015 Ministry of Justice decree banning foreigners from establishing or holding a share in import and export firms and a 2017 decree prohibiting licensed investors from trading in the local Sudanese market. At the time the treasurer of the Chamber of Exporters said foreigners controlled 16% of the export sector, many operating behind a Sudanese interface. 
The rationale of the November 2019 decree, it seems, is a haphazard effort to reign in a runaway market. The government is particularly challenged regarding the foreign exchange rate, now well beyond the 80 Sudanese pounds mark for the US dollar. To demonstrate resolve, the government decree, whether by intent on not, frames foreign refugees and migrants as a scapegoat to be blamed for the suffering of its citizens. By design, the ministerial decree targets primarily the petty traders and small business owners of the suq, shopkeepers, food-sellers, peddlers and so on. The police interpretation of the decree is somewhat broader and extends to a racial profile of unwelcome foreigners who engage in any form of livelihood, labourers, handymen, barbers, rickshaw drivers and domestic workers. It remains a mystery however how punishing Eritrean domestic workers and shopkeepers is supposed to rescue the national economy. 
The ministerial campaign against foreign peddlers and domestic workers misses out on the voluminous profits of Arab Gulf land-grabbing agrobusinesses, telecommunication firms and commercial enterprises funnelled out of the country and the generous tax and customs exemptions they enjoy. It is but a populist and in fact racist propaganda claim to lay the distortions of the market at the feet of vulnerable often stateless and hapless refugees and migrants. Instead of cashing in on the meagre means of a foreign labour force by extortion it might be worthwhile considering the workings of commercial capital plugged into Arab Gulf treasure cases that catapults packaged Saudi dairy products into the refrigerators of retailers far and wide in Sudan deep into its broad pastoral belt. 
When probed about his decree, the Transitional Minister of Trade and Industry offered an argument that could have been plucked out of the mouths of Messrs Trump and Johnson. He emphasised the importance of safeguarding the Sudanese identity, suppressing the marketing of the Sudanese passport to foreigners and rescuing job opportunities and commercial profits from intruding foreigners. The review and control of internal and external trade is a legitimate objective of government but should be carried out in a manner that secures the human rights and dignity of foreigners, he stated further adding that violations will be considered on a case by case basis, inshallah. What such a promise translates into for an undocumented Eritrean teenage girl caught up in a police raid and huddled on the back of a truck or thrown into a detention cell is to say the least a matter of speculation. 
Sudan’s new ministers were raised to their positions of power by a resolute revolutionary surge infused with passionate patriotism. Brutalised Syrians from afar sent their blessings. Eritrean residents of the country, now hounded by the police, joined the protest movement promising their own dictator a day of reckoning. Destitute Eritreans, who are the main targets of the raid for lack of agency do not expect any help from their government. Sudanese delegates led by Prime Minister Hamdok and Deputy Chairman of the Sovereignty Council Himedti visited Eritrea in November. Having gotten rid of Bashir, whose mercurial relationships have been waning during the final days, President Isaias Afwerki is courting the two forces separately. Unless to use as pawns for negotiations, no one hopes an advocacy from the state. It is to be recalled that President asked for $50,000 for each if Israel wants to deport back Eritrean asylum seekers. 
In al-Deim, the resistance committee activists who defeated former president Bashir’s security apparatus, reportedly protected Eritrean migrants from the police onslaught. The solidarity on display is a cherished lesson of the Sudan’s revolutionary season and it is today an urgent duty of its champions, a test of their fidelity to the ideals that motivated the uprising against former president Bashir. Sudan’s protest movement is grounded in the agonies of the downtrodden and benefitted from an Internationale of solidarity. Absent the solidarity that protects vulnerable refugees and migrants, the lofty patriotism of its heroes is at risk of being transcribed into a rhetoric of chauvinism and racial hierarchy.
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This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.