‘I’ll say it straight: The refugees are no threat to us. These people are heading for Europe,’[1] explains the commander of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in August 2016 at a press conference in Sudan’s capital of Khartoum. Here he proudly presents to the journalists more than 800 arrested ‘illegal migrants’: Eritreans, Ethiopians, and Sudanese; among them women and children. Like livestock, they have been hauled on trucks from prison to the press conference. When the RSF captured them, they were on their way to Europe. ‘[We are working] on behalf of Europe,’ says Major General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo to the cameras.

Daglo is notorious under his nom de guerre Hametti. Sudan’s chief border guard is suspected of war crimes and has a bloody past. Hametti’s uncle is a tribal chief in war-torn East Darfur. His clan traditionally roamed the desert border regions as camel drivers and traders. Sudan’s regime set up his mounted assault troop in 2003 to fight the rebels in East Darfur. Known as ‘Janjaweed,’ Hametti’s militia is accused of cruel war crimes by international human rights groups.[2] UN investigators have presented evidence of torture, rape, and mass executions.[3]

In Sudan, however, Hametti is considered a hero. Just in April 2016, right before the elections, Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir promoted him to major general and handed out bravery medals to his fighters. Hametti had won the decisive victory in Darfur’s civil war and smashed the rebel group JEM (Justice and Equality Movement). While Bashir eulogized Hametti from the back of a pick-up truck, bloated corpses were rotting behind him in the desert sand.[4] Amnesty International’s 2016 report on Darfur mentioned poison gas attacks by the government against its own people – as in Syria.[5] The International Criminal Court had issued the first arrest warrant against President Bashir back in 2009; the second followed a year later. The charge: genocide in Darfur.[6]

Hametti is also doing Bashir’s dirty work in other civil war regions, such as South Kordofan and Blue Nile. In 2013, his units brutalized demonstrators in the capital. He boasts of being known as the guardian of Bashir’s power. In 2014, he speaks to the cameras of Australian channel ABC at his headquarters in Darfur.[7] His fighters present heavy weapons. To Sudanese-born ABC reporter Nima Elbagir, Hametti brags that he’s been taking direct orders from Bashir ever since their first meeting in 2006. In 2013, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) took over his militia to control the border between Darfur and Chad and cut off the JEM’s retreat routes. Hametti hired his clan members to do the job. In return he asked for power, influence, and – most of all – equipment.[8]

The latest constitutional amendment of 2015 allows Sudan’s NISS to maintain its own troops. Article 151 expands its tasks from ‘collecting and analyzing information and data,’ placing the NISS on equal footing with the armed forces.[9] In January 2017, Sudan’s parliament passed a law placing the now 30,000 RSF soldiers under direct orders of President Bashir and made the troops part of the army.[10] Hametti is now officially Bashir’s personal henchman: When people across Sudan start protesting against rising inflation and bread prices in December 2018 and demand that Bashir step down, he call Hametti’s RSF to the capital to secure his regime. Hametti claims he ‘did not come to terrorize anyone’ but ‘will be on the lookout for terrorists and agents.’[11] A few days later, plainclothes snipers start shooting at protesters in Khartoum from rooftops. Amnesty International report 37 protesters killed by the end of 2018.[12] At the same time, it emerges that Hametti’s paramilitary mercenaries are also fighting the war in Yemen alongside the Saudi-led coalition. The UN rightfully named the Yemen war the worst humanitarian disaster of 2018. Among the 14,000 RSF fighters stationed in Yemen, ‘at least 20 percent’ are child soldiers, most from Darfur.[13]

As Bashir’s personal guard unit, the RSF are better equipped than the regular army because they fight wherever Bashir’s power needs upholding;[14] this includes the war on migrants. The RSF guard the strategically important borders with Libya, Egypt, and Chad[15] as Bashir’s fight against illegal migration on behalf of the EU keeps earning him credit on the international scene. Hence, RSF commanders repeatedly face the cameras in Khartoum to declare the arrest of migrants. In January 2017, they once again arrested 1,500 people trying to flee over the border.[16] The wave of arrests went on in 2018. At a press conference in August 2018, RSF General Murtada Osman Abu al-Gasim declared that most of those arrested were Sudanese citizens from Darfur. He guaranteed that the RSF would meet its duty to protect the national borders to ensure security and stability.

To the regime, all refugees from Darfur are public enemies; the RSF have been fighting them since the civil war. The chaos in Sudan’s northern neighbor state of Libya has also attracted former rebels from Darfur. The trade in gold from their home region has made them rich. They are now recruiting more Darfurian refugees crossing Libya on their way to Europe and are gearing up along the border against Sudan’s government. Hametti’s task is to create a buffer zone for catching the refugees before the enemy can recruit them. So he is trying to build a coalition with the Libya Dawn militia, which sits in the National Transitional Council (NTC) in the capital of Tripoli and receives support from Sudan and Qatar.

At the press conference in August 2016 mentioned above, Hametti’s spokesman tells international reporters that 25 of his soldiers were killed, 315 were injured and 151 cars were lost while arresting the migrants. ‘Fighting against [illegal] migration and human trafficking has inflicted on [our forces] heavy loss of life and destroyed [our] vehicles during chasing operations in the Libyan desert, nevertheless, nobody even thanked us [for sacrifices we made],’[17] Hametti complains. This comment is aimed at the EU, from which he expects more equipment as a sign of gratitude.

Merkel discovers Africa

‘Africa’s well-being is in our interest,’ declares German Chancellor Angela Merkel in October 2016 before stepping on the plane. Her trip takes her to Mali, Niger, Ethiopia – three countries in three days, and the prelude to a new Africa policy.

On 9 October 2016, Merkel first treads Malian ground for a few hours to shake President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s hand on the runway of Bamako-Séno International Airport. She cites ‘protecting the borders’ as one of the goals, alongside security and stability.[18] The next day in neighboring Niger, she visits an immigration center of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) near the capital of Niamey. The desert state is along the main route for migrants from Western and Central Africa heading for the Mediterranean. For many, their journey to Europe ends in this EU-funded camp. Merkel has a message to Africans and warns them against false hopes: ‘Often very young people risk a life-threatening journey without knowing what awaits them, or if they are even allowed to stay,’[19] she says the next day in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, just after inaugurating the new building of the Peace and Security Council (PSC) of the African Union (AU), which was funded by Germany.

The Chancellor has not been to Africa in five years. Her 2016 visit makes it seem as if Berlin were rediscovering Europe’s southern neighboring continent. In the preceding months, Development Minister Gerd Müller (Christian Social Union (CSU)) visited Eritrea, Rwanda, Senegal, Benin and Togo, and invited African partners to Berlin. Federal Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (Christian Democratic Union (CDU)) went to Mali in April 2016 to visit German soldiers of the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSMA. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Social-Democratic Party (SPD)) also went on several trips to Africa in 2016, including one to Nigeria in October

Just after coming back, Merkel received two African heads of state at the Chancellery. Idriss Déby, the first Chadian president to visit Germany, said: ‘I hope the door will be open now and we will be coming to Berlin many more times.’[20] A few days later, Merkel welcomed Muhammadu Buhari, president of Nigeria. Africa’s most populous state is among Germany’s closest partners on the continent. Nigerian asylum applicants in the EU are second only to Eritreans. Merkel emphasized Germany’s willingness to create prospects for young Nigerians in their own country through jobs and training opportunities and more local involvement by German companies. Today, this is seen as tackling the causes of migration. Emigrants, however, would have it harder, warns the Chancellor. The same month, Nigeria enters talks with the EU Commission about a readmission agreement for illegal immigrants from Nigeria.[21]

So much Africa in Berlin is no coincidence. Scarcely ten days after Merkel’s trip, the EU member states meet in Brussels. Their main issues: Migration, guarding the EU’s external borders and reforming EU asylum laws. New ‘Migration Partnerships’ between the EU and African states are set up. The European Commission picks five ‘priority countries,’ Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali and Ethiopia, to ‘tackle the root causes of migration.’ Four months later, the partnerships have started to yield results, states an EU press release: ‘Furthermore, the 24 projects of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa signaled initial success, so that the EU Commission proposed to increase funds to €500 million.’[22]

The Migration Partnerships are just the next step in a wider EU policy towards Africa which hardly anyone understands anymore: Agenda of Migration, Action Plan on Return, Marshall Plan with Africa, Compacts with Africa, Processes of Valletta, Khartoum, Rabat … Yet, this bureaucratic labyrinth has one final goal: Stopping migration from Africa.

From the start, Merkel’s activism gave the EU’s Africa policy a distinctive German note – better yet, her personal note. This urgency is also related to the upcoming federal elections in autumn 2017. Low number of refugees would help the Chancellor get re-elected. Germany’s Willkommenskultur lasted only about a year.

Most deals between the EU and African states aim to better secure African borders, which were drawn up by European powers in the 19th century. Migrants are not meant to reach the Mediterranean anymore. The EU is hiring Africa’s leaders as gatekeepers. Those who make it to Europe anyway still risk immediate deportation – even to authoritarian states like Sudan, Eritrea or Ethiopia.

One diplomatic cable of the German Foreign Office speaks of ‘tailored country packages’ which should ‘not reach the public under any circumstances.’ The reason being that ‘the EU’s reputation is at stake if it gets too involved in this country.’[23] This unidentified country is Sudan.

Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Niger, Chad, Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco or Nigeria – the EU has made ‘tailored country packages’ for each of these states since 2016. EU negotiations with African partners comprise strategy papers for readmission agreements and increasing the number of deportations. Another cable of the Foreign Office states that easier labor market access for African migrants could not be part of the package, since the German job market is too tense.[24] This turns the Chancellor’s statement upside down: Germany’s well-being is in Africa’s interest.

A few days before the Chancellor jets from Western to Eastern Africa, a few dozen Ethiopians, Sudanese, Malians and Nigerians gather in front of the building of the EU Commission at the Brandenburg Gate to protest Merkel’s new Africa offensive. They inflate a rubber dinghy and use bricks to theatrically build a wall. Their banner reads ‘EU: No deals with war criminals!’ atop the logo of the Society for Threatened Peoples (Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker (GfbV)), which has organized this rally.[25] A poster held up by two Ethiopians of the Oromo minority reads ‘Stop the genocide in Ethiopia and Sudan.’ Just one day before Merkel’s visit, Ethiopia declares a state of emergency and shuts off the Internet. Protests during the traditional Thanksgiving celebrations of the Oromo people were brutally suppressed by police and military forces. Many people were killed. The government counted 52, the opposition claimed more than 500.

‘Supporting dictators in Ethiopia does not improve living conditions there, but creates refugees and supports crimes against humanity,’ warns Seyoum Habtemariam, director of the Ethiopian Human Rights Committee in Germany, speaking through a megaphone. The bystanders applaud. Some have made masks with the faces of Chancellor Merkel and Sudan’s President Bashir. The masked protesters shake hands. ‘No pact with war criminals!’, the protesters chant.

War criminal extorts the EU

For its new migration policy towards Africa, the EU had to choose Sudan, of all countries, as its main partner. Why? It is the ‘main transit country’ for migrants heading from the Horn of Africa towards the Mediterranean, as stated in an internal document of the German Foreign Office.[26] President Bashir is the only head of state in the world with an outstanding arrest warrant – the EU, and Germany especially, had pushed for it. Ever since, Sudan has practically been isolated. But none other than Hametti is now a key player the new EU migration policy.

After years of icy silence, jets are now flying frequently between Khartoum, Brussels and Berlin. In early October, just before Merkel’s trip to Africa, German members of the Bundestag went to meet Sudan’s Minister of Interior, Lieutenant Esmat Abdul-Rahman. At the same table with the members of the Bundestag Committee on Economic Cooperation and Development sit two agents of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), who follow the talks. The previous day, the Germans had met Bashir’s advisor Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamid – this time without NISS agents. This close confidant maintains Bashir’s international ties to the West, as the international arrest warrant prevents him from doing this himself.[27]

Hamid is the official Sudanese contact in the Khartoum Process, a dialog platform for the EU to negotiate with states along the route of migrants from the Horn of Africa to Europe. Both Germany and Sudan sit on the Steering Committee. At the same time, the Rabat Process was set up for West Africa. Both deals aim to tackle ‘people smuggling and human trafficking,’ as stated in the Khartoum Process.[28] They claim to give victims better protection against exploitation and abuse and – most importantly – intend to curb the uncontrolled migrant flows on the continent, which the new EU Foreign and Security Policy considers a threat.[29]

To achieve this, the EU wants to support Africa’s border security agencies with training, technical aid and supplies of suitable equipment to implement the migration policy, as stated in the description of the Better Migration Management (BMM) project, which is part of the Khartoum Process. European advisors will go to train their African colleagues so they can stop migration to Europe.[30]

German border guards run similar ‘empowerment projects’ in other countries, such as Tunisia or Mali. For example, a project description of the German Ministry of Defence for Tunisia lists ‘procurement of electronic surveillance systems.’[31] The security forces of border agencies usually report to the police, the army or the secret service. Sudan’s Minister of Interior sent a list of all items he would need for capacity building, although it was not considered further. It included equipment, internment cells, fences and combat helicopters for the border police.[32]

Germany and Sudan’s historical ties

Sudan was the main recipient of German development cooperation funds in Africa for a long time. In the 1980s, the state of Lower Saxony maintained a partnership with Sudan. To this day, Lower Saxony takes in a higher rate of asylum seekers from Sudan than other German states. Official ties were cut when the current ruler Bashir seized the power in a coup in 1989, but many personal contacts to Khartoum remain, which still influence the German government’s perception of Africa’s third largest country by area.

The Sudan department of the German Foreign Office treats the country as part of the Arab region due to its language and Islamic religion. Hence, Berlin interpreted internal conflicts as cultural or religious in nature: ‘Arabic’ or ‘Muslim’ against ‘Christian’ or ‘Black African.’ Bashir’s rule fostered this into a genocidal, racist ideology to massacre and displace parts of the population of Darfur and other internal conflict zones. This is one reason South Sudan declared its independence in 2011.

The German government helped to arm the racist police and military dictatorship suppressing the other minorities. Even before Bashir’s seizure of power, German development cooperation in Sudan in the 1980s focused on training the security forces. The first batch of Sudanese police officers was trained by the Federal Criminal Police (Bundeskriminalamt) in Wiesbaden. Gun manufacturer Heckler & Koch from the southern state of Baden-Württemberg supplied its G3 assault rifle, Daimler-Benz sold military unimogs and the former state-owned corporation Fritz Werner built an ammunitions factory for the Sudanese people.[33]

German armament supplies went on until the EU imposed an arms embargo against Sudan in 1994. German aid has made Sudan Africa’s third-largest arms producer, and Sudan’s soldiers drive German military trucks to this day. In 2011 and 2012, Germany exported over 3,000 military trucks to the Netherlands and to Belgium, before being shipped on to Sudan. These trucks have been sighted in warzones there.[34] Even today, the standard-issue rifle of the German Bundeswehr is killing people in the civil war in Darfur. The investigators who drafted the arrest warrant against Bashir also found evidence of German arms.[35] So Sudan’s minorities are fleeing from German weapons.

Ulrich Delius of the GfbV therefore thinks that partnerships with regimes like Sudan’s are an ‘unsuitable means, because the policies of these states are producing more and more refugees.’[36] His demonstration at the Brandenburg Gate in October 2016 was intended to raise awareness on this issue.

A young refugee from Darfur also spoke at this rally. The 22-year-old Abdulman, who does not want to give his real name for fear of the worldwide network of Sudan’s secret service, has been living in Germany for one year. He goes to a vocational school in Lower Saxony and speaks decent German. ‘My escape to Europe was very expensive, complicated and dangerous,’ he reports.[37] After his mother, father and brothers were killed by Hametti’s horseback militia, he first escaped to Khartoum. Here he organized protests against the government and was arrested multiple times. To escape the country, he had to get a passport with a fake name. The reason: ‘Our passports also show where we come from – and anyone who tells the authorities that he is from Darfur or has a typical Darfurian name, will not get a passport,’ says Abdulman. His travel document with an Arabic pseudonym allowed him to cross the border to Egypt. From Cairo, he took a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul, from where he went to Greece by boat. Together with hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Afghans and other nationalities, he marched the Balkan route to Germany by foot in 2015. His journey cost more than €2,500. He borrowed the money from an uncle and came to Europe heavily indebted. ‘It would have been much cheaper to take a plane from Khartoum to Frankfurt, but how could I get a visa from the German embassy with a fake passport?’ he asks.

Today, more and more people like Abdulman from Darfur are fleeing Bashir’s dictatorship to Europe. More than 11,000 people arrived in 2015. But only half received protection in an EU member state. The others are under threat of deportation. However, the return rate for Sudan is ‘particularly low,’ as stated in an EU strategy paper for the planned readmission agreement of March 2016.[38] The rate for Sudan is only about 12 percent; for other countries it is about 40 percent. As to the reason, the paper states ‘a complete lack of cooperation on readmission from the Sudanese side.’ To improve Sudan’s willingness, the EU paper goes on to promise ‘capacity-building measures’ and makes an offer the rogue regime cannot resist: readmission as a ‘partner’ to the international community.[39] The EU also considers forgiving all of Sudan’s debts to EU states and wants to speak to the USA about striking Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and to the World Trade Organization (WTO) about starting new negotiations. The EU is clearly reaching out to the dictator.

The EU’s total financial involvement is huge. Under the Khartoum Process, it provided €40 million for the BMM project at the Horn of Africa. Sudan is one of eight partner governments in this process. Germany is chipping in another €6 million. From the total sum of the Africa-EU Migration and Mobility Dialogue (MMD), €17.5 million are allocated to Sudan. On top of that, the German government guaranteed €35 million in refugee aid as a one-off measure. The largest EU package comprises €100 million over two years from the Emergency Trust Fund (EUTF) to meet the challenges of climate change, poverty or neglect. This fund had been set up in 2015 prior to the migration summit in the Maltese capital of Valletta for the African partners to fight the causes of migration.[40]

Italy, which is most affected by migrants and refugees, wants the EU talks to move faster. The Italian police signed a bilateral agreement with Sudan in August 2016. Most notably, it governs the cooperation of security forces in border controls, fighting drug trafficking, terrorism and migration and better collaboration in repatriation procedures.[41] Three weeks later, a plane takes off from Turin Airport to Khartoum with 48 deported Sudanese citizens on board.[42] A few days later, General Hametti faces the cameras and demands the promised equipment. Italy reacts flexibly: The IOM gets a contract from the Italian development agency to give border management training to Sudanese police forces.[43]

So the German government starts approaching Khartoum as well. Just one week after Merkel’s return from Africa in autumn 2016, a Sudanese police delegation visits Berlin. The chief of Sudan’s immigration agency, Lieutenant General Awad Dahiya, wants to introduce biometric passports and ID cards to better meet the EU’s demand to control migration, so he visits the government printing office in Berlin. Then he shakes hands at the headquarters of the Federal Police. The press office declares that it is just a ‘meet and greet,’ emphasizing that ‘no agreements were made between the Sudanese police and the Federal Police during this visit.’[44] Sudan’s Ministry of Interior states that the talks in Berlin were about technical and logistical equipment and training measures, and that the head of the German Federal Police gladly accepted the invitation to visit Khartoum.[45]

Just after getting the €100million offer, Sudan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ibrahim Ghandour, visited Berlin and Brussels. There he told the public broadcaster ARD: ‘We have been asking for devices like GPS and other border protection equipment for a long time.’ He cited talks with Germany and the EU and said he expected a mutual understanding. Asked whether Sudan was ready to take back refugees, he replied: ‘The migration commissioner in Brussels told me “We have 12,000 illegal migrants from Sudan in the EU. Are you ready to take them back?” I told him: “Immediately. Stand by your promise, and they are more than welcome.”’[46]

‘It’s a disgrace’

‘The EU should carefully consider its reputational risks in its engagement with Sudan,’ states an EU strategic paper on Sudan, which is why the EU channels any direct involvement through NGOs.[47] However, Germany’s official agency for international cooperation, GIZ, also directly handles projects on the ground. ‘After the discussion with the EU, we set down very clear human rights principles,’ says Martin Weiß, who is the GIZ manager in charge of the project, mentioning that they were included in the introduction to the project. The text reads: ‘Activities will be conducted in full respect of the human rights of migrants […].’[48]

Weiß thinks training measures for Sudan’s border guards could be an option, because ‘refugees are criminalized there.’ The training would not take place in Sudan, however, but in Ethiopia and would be open to Sudanese participants. EU trainers would teach humane treatment of migrants – to normal police pursuing human-rights compliant investigations, as the GIZ emphasizes. The RSF would be explicitly excluded from attending. Weiß underlines: ‘We will not work with people who are on sanctions lists due to crimes against humanity,’ and ‘we will not supply any equipment that is listed on applicable sanctions lists.’ The only exception: Office supplies (up to and including laptops).

Weiß traveled to Africa often in 2016. Talks had to be started with new governments that were to join the Khartoum Process, and with partners like the IOM or the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Offices were rented and staffed in Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan. A meeting with all project partners took place in October 2016, including Italian, French and British nationals, Weiß reports. Five to ten measures per country were planned. For Ethiopia, the GIZ developed ‘training for judges and public prosecutors on how to prosecute human trafficking, with a focus on human rights-compliant treatment of the victims.’ In Sudan, ‘safe houses’ for victims of human traffickers to seek shelter and counseling were planned. ‘Prisons in Sudan are full of migrants. Our task is to promote awareness for their situation.’ As refugees and migrants are sentenced for not having papers, the GIZ stresses, the agency intends to train border guards and police officers – but only those who report to the Ministry of Interior, not the military.

‘It’s a shame for the GIZ to make a deal like this,’ criticizes the former UN special investigator for Sudan, Jérôme Tubiana, who now is a researcher for an NGO called Small Arms Survey and frequently visits the Sudanese border. ‘It’s often not clear who is who – even if they are wearing a uniform,’ says Tubiana, and warns against working with the local security agencies, especially with Hametti: ‘He is clearly a war criminal.’

BMM is not the only European training project for Sudanese border guards. The EU is also funding the setting up of the ROCK operational center at the police academy of Khartoum. It is intended for East African states to gather and exchange information about smuggling networks and migration routes[49]. In response to a parliamentary inquiry, the German government stated that the Federal Police had given introductory courses on ID document verification to Sudanese border police officers responsible for ID controls at airports in January and February 2016. The courses took place at the training academy of the Sudanese police in Khartoum.[50]

Eritrea: One of the world’s top refugee makers

News about the training assistance from the EU have spread throughout Africa. Eritrean refugees who fled their country over the Sudanese border in summer 2016 told the Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights (EIRR) that they had seen heavily armed special units patrolling in German military trucks. ‘They say Sudan’s units were equipped by Germans, that’s why they no longer dare to cross the border,’ said EIRR director and journalist Meron Estefanos.[51] The Eritrean exile in Sweden assumes that these rumors spread after the cooperation between Sudan’s border units with Germany became public. But rumors alone are enough, she says, to cause Eritreans to prefer fleeing to Ethiopia over Sudan. Since Sudan’s border units have started targeting refugees for arrests, no one feels safe anymore.[52]

Yahia al-Adi Suleiman, police commander of the Sudanese province of Kassala, which borders on Eritrea, confirmed in a January 2018 interview that his units were working with other forces, such as the military and secret service, to guard the borders. He also has a request to the EU: ‘I’ve always said, as long as European countries are the destination and suffer from this illegal migration, they will have to pay by sending transportation, modern surveillance gear, modern vehicles, even airplanes to guard the long borders to Ethiopia and Eritrea.’ So far, he says, all he got from the EU were a couple of motorcycles.

Sudan’s neighbor Eritrea, with its 5.4 million inhabitants, is among the smallest and also the poorest of African countries – and one of the world’s largest producers of refugees. The World Bank estimates that more Eritreans are living outside than inside their own country. The cause is President Isayas Afewerki’s regime, which has been in power since independence from Ethiopia in 1991; his rule has become increasingly autocratic. In 2005 he treated the opposition with particular brutality, so the EU cut his development aid by 70 percent, costing his government almost €190 million per year. Germany officially froze its cooperation in 2007. The UN Security Council passed some measures in 2009, which included an arms embargo. Members of the regime were struck with travel bans. In 2011, the UN accused Afewerki of using tax money to fund the Islamist al-Shabaab militia in Somalia, which is close to the international terrorist network al-Qaeda. In 2015, UN investigators appealed to all countries to stop forcing Eritrean asylum seekers to return, since the regime punished anyone trying to leave the country without permission.[53]

Asmara’s dictatorship, however, is profiting from its huge diaspora. Eritreans must pay two percent of any income earned abroad to their home country – the so-called Recovery and Rehabilitation Tax (RRT). No matter if they live on welfare or have a job, even if they take on a different nationality. Until 2011, Eritreans in Germany had to pay this tax every month at the embassy in Berlin or at the consulate in Frankfurt. The German government banned this practice in 2011. Now Afewerki’s officials are collecting this tax from relatives who stayed in Eritrea. The government does not publish its budget, but it’s assumed to be funded mostly by remittances from Eritrean refugees all over the world.[54]

Afewerki’s rule rests on a massive security and secret service apparatus with activities worldwide. ‘Information gathered through the pervasive control system is used in absolute arbitrariness to keep the population in a state of permanent anxiety,’ states the latest UN report on human rights. ‘It is not law that rules Eritreans, but fear,’ concluded the investigators led by Australian expert Mike Smith.[55]

The Eritrean government had refused to work with the UN investigators and banned them from entering, because they accused the army of crimes against humanity, systematic sexual abuse of women and exploitation of their own population as forced laborers.[56] Eritrean human rights organization EIRR also sees the regime’s crimes as the main reason why the citizens are fleeing in masses.[57]

With good cause, one of the worst dictatorships on earth has not been receiving aid money for a while. This will change now; while Eritrea is the 43rd largest country by population in Africa, it is Africa’s number one source of asylum applicants in Europe. Some 5,000 people flee the country every month. Most seek a new home in Africa – Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan or even in civil war-torn South Sudan. In 2016, only 20,000 came to Germany.[58] The large Eritrean exile community in Frankfurt started in the 1980s; there even is an Orthodox church. It attracts many refugees who already have family in Germany. German Development Minister Müller visited Eritrea’s capital Asmara in December 2015 – as the first German minister in 20 years – to meet President Afewerki: ‘We want to support Eritrea in stopping the exodus of the youth,’ he said, ‘by improving the living situation here and also opening opportunities for returnees.’ Müller was said to be considering aid in areas such as vocational training and energy supply under the condition that Eritrea’s government start economic and political reforms and improve the human rights situation.[59]

Müller’s visit to Asmara ushered in the end of the regime’s isolation. Just a few weeks later, an Eritrean government delegation flew to Berlin and Brussels. On 28 January 2016, Eritrea and the EU signed a deal that promised €200 million from the 11th European Development Fund (EF) through 2020. This fund was set up in June 2013 with a budget of €30 billion to finance development projects in Africa through 2020. Another €13 million were promised to Eritrea for supplying energy to small businesses – to create jobs and get people to stay.[60]

The main reason young people are fleeing is the ‘national service.’ All men and women are drafted into this military service after leaving school. The constitution limits it to two years, but this can easily become half a lifetime. Recruits work as soldiers along the long border to neighboring Ethiopia, on road construction projects, in quarries or on mega projects like the hydroelectric dams being built right now. They perform heavy physical labor for less than $30 a month – outright slavery.[61]

In a strategy paper from March 2016 on the planned readmission agreement with Eritrea, the EU names reform of the forced national service as a ‘key interest,’ because it drives young people out of the country. This reform is a condition for Eritrea to receive the €200 million from the EDF.[62] One month later, the German government responds to a parliamentary inquiry: ‘The Eritrean government seems to make efforts to limit the duration of the national service to the official limit of 18 months, but cannot offer alternative employment opportunities to the young people afterwards. Jobs and employment opportunities are therefore a key prerequisite for the government to reduce the service time throughout the country. By providing support in the areas of vocational training and employment promotion, Germany can provide an important contribution.’[63]

Berlin and Brussels are apparently ready to trust in the regime’s promises and hope for a positive turn. Christian Manahl, head of the EU delegation to Asmara, says that the EU asked no preliminary demands from Afewerki’s regime, but hoped that the cooperation would ‘improve governance.’ As an example, Manahl names the national service, where he says the EU was exerting ‘pressure’ to have the reform ‘realized.’[64]

Apparently, the German authorities are hoping that more freedom in Eritrea will cost its citizens their right to asylum. Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) and the Swiss State Secretariat for Migration sent a joint delegation to Asmara in the first half of 2016. The officials sought to find out how dangerous Eritrea really is. Their closing report states: ‘[Guards] do not systematically shoot at illegal emigrants at the border, but shots may occur.’[65]

‘The government is doing the utmost that it can do, under the circumstances,’ Information Minister Yemane Ghebremeskel told Reuters on 25 February 2016, saying ‘salaries would rise but there were no plans to scrap or cut national service.’ He added: ‘Demobilization is predicated on removal of the main threat [from Ethiopia].’[66] The Eritrean exile organization ERRI speaks of a double game. ‘Afewerki made this promise to the EU, not to us Eritreans. He is just fooling the West,’ says EIRR director Estefanos.

Afewerki got what he wanted: after more than a decade of isolation, Eritrea will join the Khartoum Process, the mentioned EU dialog round with the Horn of Africa countries. The EU strategy paper mentions the country’s ‘constructive role.’[67] In 2019, Eritrea will even take over the chair of the Khartoum Process.

Some of the funds for the BMM project will also go to Asmara. Manahl assures that these funds will not be transferred to Eritrean accounts, but rather spent locally by European and international NGOs. ‘We can’t change the problem by looking away, that’s why we have to cooperate,’ says the Austrian. While many EU states still had ‘concerns’ about a possible cooperation with Eritrean security forces, ‘this is not excluded’ for the future, says Manahl.

Launched in July 2017, the GIZ’s BMM project focuses on three measures: First, it supports the Eritrean government’s ratification of the Palermo Protocol. Eritrea’s challenge is to find ‘human rights-compliant’ ways to combat human trafficking, says the GIZ. Second, the GIZ is preparing courses for Eritrean judiciary officials. The GIZ claims these courses are explicitly closed to members of the police, border guard, military or secret police and merely intended to train judges on ‘how to handle these offenses in court.’ After all, there had been no proper legal basis against human trafficking, which is why the judiciary lacked knowledge and legal means.

The Eritrean government has formed a committee drawn from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Information as well as civil society organizations. It is tasked with coordinating questions surrounding migration; the GIZ claims to be working with this committee for its BMM project.

But what if refugees voluntarily seek help to cross borders? ‘We do not prevent people from escaping,’ the GIZ states curtly. Asked how it intends to respond to the government’s alleged involvement in human trafficking, the GIZ replies that its ‘mission’ was to get partner states to ‘prosecute criminal elements and human traffickers,’ but that it was ‘not tasked with investigating’ whether ‘criminal government agencies could be involved.’

Finally, the GIZ works on a third measure with the Ministry of Information, called the ‘information and consulting component.’ Its purpose is ‘education about possible threats from human trafficking and trade in human beings.’ The GIZ states that it would not ‘develop any determent campaigns.’ Instead, it aimed to help people who are planning to migrate to find ‘viable alternatives’ in Eritrea. What about those who do not consider life-long military service an acceptable outlook? ‘We are talking about these issues and have made it our goal to sensitize the government to the issue of human rights,’ responds the GIZ.[68]

On 24 May 2016, Eritrea celebrated the 25th anniversary of its independence from Ethiopia with pomp and parades. A few European journalists were allowed to enter and take photos. The UN world heritage agency UNESCO just declared Asmara a world cultural heritage. The parades celebrated President Afewerki as a liberator. Thousands of conscripted soldiers, both male and female, marched in line, followed by school children. Many of them probably toyed with the thought of fleeing, maybe even to Europe. Afewerki’s omnipotence is unchallenged. Being courted once again by Europeans certainly helped the dictator, as well as the expected funds from Brussels that are meant to keep Eritreans at home.

The opposite happened: In 2018 more Eritreans fled their country than in any of the preceding years. The EU agency ECHO counted 27,500 Eritrean asylum applicants in Ethiopia from the opening of the borders to the end of December.[69] ‘I just sometimes wonder who is left inside the country,’ Naser Haghamed, head of one of the largest international NGOs, Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW), is quoted saying in December 2018.[70]

The backdrop is the fast and undeniable political rapprochement between Eritrea and its former arch-enemy Ethiopia. On 9 July, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed a joint declaration with President Afewerki which stated that the ‘state of war’ was over.

It was almost like the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when in September 2018, after more than two decades of conflict, Africa’s best secured border was suddenly opened. From one day to the next, free movement replaced fire trenches and deadly border patrols. Hundreds of Eritreans flowed across the border with fully loaded cars and donkey carts. Ethiopian Airlines resumed daily connections to Asmara after 18 years. An advertisement called the maiden flight in July 2018 a ‘bird of peace.’ Flights were booked out at once.

The EU continues to hope that the regime will limit the national service, since the Ethiopian threat is over now. But most Eritreans in exile have little faith in the internal political developments. ‘The only thing that’s changed so far is that even more Eritreans are fleeing now,’ says the director of the Eritrean refugee organization Africa Monitors in December 2018. Just after opening the border, he says, Afewerki had ordered the reserve units back to the barracks – old people and invalids, who had returned home after half a lifetime of slave labor. They were to undergo renewed training. The government says that people would now have to work even harder to make up for underdevelopment. ‘If he [Afewerki] again promised the EU to reduce the service, that’s a flat-out lie,’ says Africa Monitors.

Surveys by this international organization have found that only a small number of Eritreans have stayed in Ethiopia. The camps are overcrowded; asylum applications were suspended until November for Ethiopia to decide whether to accept the refugees. Still most fear that they will be deported. Hence most Eritreans sought protection in neighboring Kenya and Uganda. ‘More and more Eritreans are arriving every day,’ reports Africa Monitors from Kampala.

The EU also fears swelling numbers of Eritrean refugees. When in 2018 Ethiopian Airlines announced plans for stopover flights from Addis Ababa via Asmara straight to the EU – to London, Oslo, Rome and Milan – a confrontation between the EU and Addis ensued in the background. A few weeks later, the airline corrected its announcement.

  1. Sudan Tribune (2016) ‘Sudan says it is combating illegal migration “on behalf of Europe”’, 30 August
  2. Human Rights Watch (2015) Men with no Mercy – Rapid Support Forces attacks against civilians in Darfur’, September 2015 | http://bit.ly/2vfkZpW
  3. Report of the International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur to the United Nations Secretary-General (2005) Geneva, 25 January | http://bit.ly/1V9W2nr
  4. Sudan Tribune (2015) ‘Hametti and his president: war as a livelihood’, 9 May | http://bit.ly/2ucinVw
  5. Amnesty International (2016) El Gizouli, Magdi: ‘Scorched Earth, Poisoned Earth, Sudanese Government Forces Ravage Rebel Marra, Darfur.’ September 2016 | http://bit.ly/2vfH9Z4. Later investigations by other NGOs and secret services indicate that other, non-chemical weapons were used, which nevertheless cause comparable injuries.[footnote]see Loeb, Jonathan: ‘Did Sudan use chemical weapons in Darfur last year?’ Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 17 January 2017 | http://bit.ly/2vlvxoe
  6. Both warrants published on the ICC website | http://bit.ly/2vfKkA5
  7. Elbagir, Nima (2008) ‘Meet the Janjaweed’, ABC News, 3 June | http://ab.co/2tX2JSC
  8. Enough Report (2014) ‘Janjaweed Reincarnate – Sudan’s New Army of War Criminals’, June 2014 | http://bit.ly/2tWKwVz
  9. Dabanga (2015) ‘Constitutional amendments demise of Sudan’s Bill of Rights: Opposition’, 8 January
  10. Sudan Tribune (2017) ‘Sudanese parliament passes RSF Act integrating militiamen in the army’, 17 January
  11. Sudan Tribune (2018) ‘Sudan’s militia leader urges government to provide services’, 25 December | http://bit.ly/2TbvXoW
  12. Associated Press (2018) ‘Sudanese police clash with anti-government protesters’, 31 December | http://bit.ly/2R7ioKP
  13. New York Times (2018) ‘On the Front Line of the Saudi War in Yemen: Child Soldiers from Darfur’, New York Times, 28 December | http://nyti.ms/2VfJcqF
  14. Sudan Tribune (2018) ‘28 illegal migrants arrested on Sudan-Libya border: RSF’, 19 August | http://bit.ly/2PO8tVY
  15. Sudan Vision (2016) ‘Rapid Support Forces Working to End Human Trafficking’, 13 November
  16. Sudan Tribune (2017) ‘Sudan’s RSF militia arrests 1500 illegal migrants near Libyan border’, 8 January
  17. Sudan Tribune (2016) ‘Sudan says it is combating illegal migration "on behalf of Europe”’, 30 August
  18. ZIB 8:00 (2016) ‘Afrikareise der deutschen Bundeskanzlerin’, 10 October
  19. Tagesschau um 17:00 Uhr (2016) ‘Falsche Vorstellungen von Europa – Merkels Appell an Afrika’, 11 October | http://bit.ly/2uQw6U8
  20. Transcript of press conference of Chancellor Merkel and Idriss Déby, President of the Republic of Chad, in Berlin | http://bit.ly/2tREvVO
  21. Press meeting of Chancellor Merkel with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, Berlin 14 October 2016 | http://bit.ly/2ucumlR
  22. ‘EU zieht erste Bilanz der Migrationspartnerschaften mit Afrika’, Press release of the EU Commission’s Permanent Representation in Germany,  Berlin, 18 October 2016 | http://bit.ly/2vbhGAj
  23. Communication no. 1273 from Brussels to the German Foreign Office. 23 March 2016; (authors’ archive)
  24. Internal cable of the German Foreign Office in Berlin, 2 March 2016, (authors’ archive)
  25. This quote and the following ones are cited from interviews with protesters. Berlin, 5 October 2016
  26. ‘Sachstand Sudan’, Internal paper of the German Foreign Office. June 2016
  27. Background conversation between the authors and members of the Committee, Berlin, 12 October 2016
  28. Europäischer Treuhandfonds für Stabilität und Bekämpfung der Fluchtursachen in Afrika, Aktionspapier für die Umsetzung des Horn-von-Afrika-Fensters: T05 – EUTF – HoA – REG – 09, (authors’ archive)
  29. Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe – A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign And Security Policy, June 2016 | http://bit.ly/2uNC1e2
  30. Europäischer Treuhandfonds für Stabilität und Bekämpfung der Fluchtursachen in Afrika, Aktionspapier für die Umsetzung des Horn-von-Afrika-Fensters: T05 – EUTF – HoA – REG – 09, (authors’ archive)
  31. Projektliste Ertüchtigung des BMVg und AA (2016) Berlin, 13 May, (authors’ archive)
  32. Europäischer Treuhandfonds für Stabilität und Bekämpfung der Fluchtursachen in Afrika, Aktionspapier für die Umsetzung des Horn-von-Afrika-Fensters: T05 – EUTF – HoA – REG – 09, (authors’ archive)
  33. Deckert, Roman (2008 ‘Deutsches Kriegsgerät im Sudan’, 1 July |http://bit.ly/2uO0tfy
  34. Dabanga (2015) ‘Germany restricts Dutch export after providing army trucks to Sudan’, 15 June | http://bit.ly/2tRFuoY
  35. Deckert, Roman (2007) ‘Internationaler Strafgerichtshof: Haftbefehl wegen G3-Lieferungen an Janjaweed’, Kleinwaffen-Newsletter des BITS, June 2007
  36. Interview with Ulrich Delius, Berlin, 5 October 2016
  37. Interview with Abdulman, Berlin, 5 October 2016
  38. EU Strategy Paper Sudan (2016) 17 March | http://bit.ly/2wqWgzq
  39. Ibid.
  40. EU Commission The EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa.| http://bit.ly/1MWApn0
  41. Rom (2016) ‘Polizeiabkommen Italien und Sudan’, 3 August | http://bit.ly/wbIEIF
  42. No-Racism.net (2016) ‘Italy: Deportations to Sudan!’, 27 August 2016 |http://bit.ly/2vfC8Q7
  43. ‘IOM Trains 19 Police Officers on Passport Examination in Khartoum’, IOM press release, Khartoum, 17 November 2016 | http://bit.ly/2vfp3GO
  44. Inquiry and response by e-mail to press office of German Federal Police, 21 October 2016
  45. Sudan Tribune (2016) ‘Sudan, Germany agrees to promote cooperation to combat illegal migration’, 16 October
  46. Interview quoted according to: ‘Report Mainz: Flüchtlingsdeal mit Despoten: Die EU will afrikanische Regime mit Sicherheitstechnik ausrüsten’, 17 May 2016 | http://bit.ly/2tROkmK
  47. EU strategy paper on Sudan, Brussels, 17 March 2016 | http://bit.ly/2wqWgzq
  48. Introduction in: ‘Annex I to the Delegation Agreement CRIS No. [EUTF05 – HoA – REG – 20] – Description of the Action, Better Migration Management’, October 2016 | http://bit.ly/2AI6EUR
  49. Regional Operational Centre in support of the Khartoum Process and AU-Horn of Africa Initiative (ROCK); Action Fiche for the implementation of the Horn of Africa Window | http://bit.ly/2tWuyuy
  50. Deutscher Bundestag 18/12275 (2017) Berlin, 4 May | http://bit.ly/2f1o9aH
  51. Phone interview with Meron Estefanos, 30 September 2016
  52. IRIN (2016) ‘Sudan and Eritrea crackdown on migrants amid reports of EU incentives’, 25 May | http://bit.ly/1VioQce
  53. Human Rights Council (2015) ‘Report of the commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea’, 4 June
  54. Freidel, Morten (2016) ‘Von wegen Freiheit’, FAZ, 12 May | http://bit.ly/2ucycM4
  55. Human Rights Council (2016) ‘Detailed findings of the commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea’, 8 June | http://bit.ly/1MhB1i3
  56. ‘UN Inquiry finds crimes against humanity in Eritrea’, UN press release, Geneva, 8 June 2016 | http://bit.ly/2tX3iMe
  57. Phone interview with Meron Estefanos, director of ERRI, 30 September 2016
  58. Schlindwein, Simone ‘Länderinfo Eritrea: Mit EU-Hilfe in die Weltgemeinschaft’, tageszeitung | http://bit.ly/2vaLLfs
  59. ‘Reise nach Eritrea’, Press release of the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Berlin, 17 December 2015 | http://bit.ly/2ucdL1N
  60. Dept. of International Cooperation and Development: Country overview for Eritrea by EU Commission | http://bit.ly/2uQSdtu
  61. Hellge, Anna; Jakob, Christian; Schlindwein, Simone (2017) ‘Ein Fall für das Fluchtursachenbekämpfungsministerium’, tageszeitung, 28 January | http://bit.ly/2vlJIK6
  62. EU strategy paper on Eritrea (2016) Brussels, 17 March | http://bit.ly/2wqWgzq
  63. Bundestags-Drucksache 18/8216 (2016) Berlin, 25 April | http://bit.ly/2RnOPon
  64. Phone interview with EU delegation leader in Eritrea Christian Manahl, 3 October 2016
  65. Focus Eritrea – Update Nationaldienst und illegale Ausreise (2016) Report of the Swiss State Secretariat for Migration (SEM), Bern-Wabern, 22 June
  66. Reuters (2016) ‘Eritrea won’t shorten national service despite migration fears.’ 25 February | http://reut.rs/2IY2CNj
  67. EU strategy paper on Eritrea (2016) Brussels, 17 March | http://bit.ly/2wqWgzq 
  68. Interview with Africa Monitors, Kampala, 23 November 2018
  69. The Independent (2018) ‘27.000 Eritreans “seeking refugee status” in Ethiopia’, 23 December
  70. InfoMigrants (2018) ‘Eritrea: “I just sometimes wonder who is left inside the country”’, 26 December | http://bit.ly/2LNWGFP 


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