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Why so many Sudanese are prepared to risk their lives to reach the UK

Written by Margie Buchanan-Smith, Susanne Jaspars


The tragic death of Abdulfatah Hamdallah – the young Sudanese man whose body was washed up on the beach in northern France last week after attempting to reach the UK in an inflatable dinghy– has alerted the world to a much larger crisis, which has been unfolding for over six years.

That crisis involves the lives of tens of thousands of Sudanese, mostly young men, fleeing their own country to seek protection in another; protection to which they have a right under the 1951 International Refugee Convention, to which all European countries, including the UK, are signatories.

We documented this forced migration of young Sudanese fleeing Sudan for Europe in a 2018 study. We focused particularly on the plight of the Darfuris: who was leaving Sudan and why; what were their experiences after leaving their own country; and what happened to them when they reached Europe.

The study findings, published by ODI and SOAS, provide sober reading. They reveal a fundamental failure to protect Darfuris, not only within Sudan – which is the reason so many young people leave – but even when they reach Europe, a continent that aspires to abide by international conventions and human rights.

Why make the dangerous journey to Europe?

Abdulfatah is reported to have left Sudan in 2014. This was when the number of Sudanese arriving in Europe, having crossed the Mediterranean from Libya to Italy, was beginning to peak.

The reasons they would be prepared to take such a risk lie in the long-running conflict and violence in Sudan. This affects Darfur in particular but also other parts of Sudan such as neighbouring Kordofan, Abdulfatah’s home, and Blue Nile state.

Our study provided substantial evidence that young men from these regions of Sudan were subject to persistent and systemic persecution, including attack, arrest and surveillance. Particularly so if they were from ethnic groups associated with the opposition and with the rebellion against the dictatorship of former President Bashir.

Many Darfuris who left Sudan for Europe had spent much of their lives in camps; some had experienced multiple displacements within Sudan. They also faced discrimination in the workplace. Effectively living in a police state, the depths of despair experienced by many young Sudanese was striking.

With few other options available to them to reach safety – for example, migration to South Sudan and Egypt had become increasingly difficult due to conflict and political instability – many, like Abdulfatah, fled to Libya.

Libya has long been a destination for Sudanese migrant labourers. But in 2014, instead of a thriving labour market they found a country embroiled in its own civil war in which they became pawns.

The Sudanese are some of the poorest of the African migrants in Libya. They were therefore especially vulnerable to being kidnapped, held for ransom and sold into slavery or bonded labour. If they managed to escape, or earned their freedom, they were desperate to leave Libya.

Many were forced to attempt the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe. Again, as some of the poorest of the African migrants, the Sudanese ended up in the least seaworthy and most dangerous boats.

Thousands perished – we will never know the number. They were well-aware of the risk. But this was seen as temporary and short-term compared with the long-term and continuous risk of staying in Sudan.

The family member of one migrant, whom we interviewed in Darfur in 2017, explained: “They choose to migrate because staying in Darfur means a slow death. Because of this, quick death is better than a slow one”.

Why is the UK their destination?

For those who reached European shores their suffering continued. Many want to reach the UK because of Sudan’s historical colonial ties with the UK, because of the English language – for many this is the only European language they speak – and because of the presence of family and friends in the UK.

In the words of one Sudanese refugee we interviewed for the study: “I knew the UK was the former occupier of Sudan, that it was democratically governed, and that it respects human rights”. 

But the only way they can claim asylum in the UK is if they actually reach British soil. Therein lies the ‘Catch-22’. There are no safe and legal means whereby they can enter the UK. So they have to risk life and limb, literally, to claim asylum.

When we interviewed Darfuris in the UK in 2017 we heard horrific stories of how, in an effort to claim asylum in the UK, they had travelled under buses, in the backs of lorries. Now, like Abdulfatah, they are prepared to attempt the Channel crossing in flimsy unseaworthy rubber boats.

What happens to those unable to make it to the UK?

The near impossibility of reaching the UK means that tens of thousands of Sudanese are living in limbo, in countries like France and Belgium, without protection or welfare and in conditions that Europe should be ashamed of.

Some apply for asylum in Italy, France and Belgium. In Belgium, however, first asylum decisions were stalled after the Sudan revolution and second with Covid-19: applying for asylum has now become much more difficult.

Some Sudanese are forced to live under the radar because they fear the consequences of the Dublin III Regulations which mean they have to return to the European country they first entered to apply for asylum, but they want to reach other European countries where they have stronger connections, especially the UK. As a result, many are living rough, in Europe’s parks and forests, undocumented and without legal status. And their conditions have worsened because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

What does the Sudanese Revolution mean for refugees?

Just over a year ago Sudan experienced a remarkable revolution which finally overthrew President Bashir and captured the world with its images of young people defying the security forces. However, a secure and safe future for young Sudanese is still far from assured.

After 30 years of brutal dictatorship the country is currently navigating a highly unstable transitional phase and a severe economic crisis.

Violence has recently flared up in parts of the country, including Darfur. The deep state security apparatus of the former regime has yet to be disentangled. A secure and safe future for young Sudanese is still far from assured.

The UK government’s duty to protect

The UK government must recognise its full duty to protect those fleeing persecution; as long it fails to provide safe and legal channels for migrants to reach the UK, for their asylum claims to be lodged and assessed, smuggling networks will proliferate.

For those, like Abdulfatah, who cannot afford to pay the smugglers, they will continue to risk their lives in desperate attempts to reach the European country with which they have the greatest connection, and where they expect their human rights will be respected.