Sudan's immigration policy has been notoriously described as a "Border Control from Hell" by organisations critical of its tough entry conditions. In the past, those restrictions were far more relaxed. Sudan was a haven for political activists from Africa and the Middle East escaping persecution, a safe home for neighbouring opposition leadership campaigning to replace their governments or simply a place for economic migrants willing to work hard to support family members abroad in countries such as Ethiopia and Eritrea.
This week's renewed criticism of its policy was expressed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) over the decision to deport around 30 Eritrean citizens in addition to the 104 migrants that were expelled last month for "illegally entering the country".
The state courts in Kasala ruled that most of the migrants should be returned to the El Laffa crossing a day after their court appearance, leaving no room for appeals and worse still others were sentenced by the court to face terms of imprisonment for "illegal infiltration into the Sudanese territory". The courts claim that the migrants had crossed into the country at concealed entry points designed to "deliberately avoid border controls".
UNHCR complained that Sudan is not allowing enough time for genuine claims of asylum to be adequately heard. "The forcible return of refugees to their country of origin is a serious violation of international refugee law," said Elizabeth Tan, UNCHR's deputy representative in Sudan.
However, recent influxes of migration to Europe through Sudan and via the Libyan border have forced the European Union (EU) to sign co-operation agreements with Sudan to ensure stricter border controls and to clamp down on human trafficking gangs. In response to the migration crisis, the European Commission offered a development aid package to Sudan of $186 million "to tackle the root causes of irregular migration in the country" and "improve migration management processes."
Sudanese border control officials speaking to MEMO described the increased deportations as part of these newly adopted policies. They claim Sudan's Interior Ministry has implemented EU, Italian and British recommendations resulting in a significant reduction in illegal migration and an increase in deportations, although they were unable to offer precise figures.
Prior to the new policies, some estimates put the numbers pouring into Europe from Libya as high as one million; with as many as 40 per cent believed to have travelled by land via Sudan. As many as 8,000 are thought to have perished in the small unseaworthy boats during the crossings to Italy; at one point up to 900 people a week were losing their lives.
In June 2016, although later disputed as being a case of mistaken identity, notorious human trafficker Medhane Yehdego Mered nicknamed the "General" was extradited from Sudan to Italy accused of running a huge network that sent thousands of migrants to Europe. The "General" was heard bragging, on intercepted telephone calls, about the amount of people that had paid him to make the often ill-fated journey.
The customs officers who spoke to MEMO described the pattern of illegal entry into Sudan's eastern border over the years, "The migrants from Eritrea and Ethiopia are mainly young – between 18-30. They are made up of men, women and children. Their aim is to get to the capital, Khartoum, where they can work and make money and then journey to Europe via facilitators operating in the capital. Most of them do not want to claim asylum," said an officer with 20 years of experience in border control.
Another officer explained that for some years the trafficking went unabated with Sudanese nationals financially profiting from assisting migrants by providing them with shelter and a change of clothes allowing them to blend in with the local community and to avoid detection through the various customs and excise checkpoints into the capital. "Once they have entered Sudan the normal route would be through outlying villages like Wad Abu Salih and Al Essalat in the Eastern Nile region and then take a 1-3 hour bus journey into the capital. Many pay thousands of dollars for the privilege."
While the officers did not speak specifically about the latest deportations they denied that border control in Sudan was in contravention of international law or that Sudanese border staff or militia groups were complicit in allowing the trade to continue. "People who want to claim political asylum can come to anyone of the 'reception centres' to have their case heard but if they leave the camp without permission and are caught they could face deportation."
On the question of corruption one of the officers said frankly: "I am not going to say it doesn't happen; it happens. But I have never personally seen anybody take a bribe or letting illegals enter in the country… not with the group of officers I work with."
He pointed to the training and international agreements that regulate their work. Such agreements with the Italian public security department and Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) have been in place since 2014 and more recently the EU proposed providing Sudanese police with sophisticated border surveillance equipment.
It is unclear whether there were genuine asylum seekers in the last batch of deportations but by their own admission, the UNHCR who voiced concerns about this week's deportations have confirmed that the incidents of trafficking and migrant entry from Ethiopia and Eritrea have reduced significantly.
The EU pressure on the Sudan to stem the level of migration and to stamp out the human trafficking trade therefore appears a contributing factor to the country's bolder stance on immigration and to its increased levels of deportation.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.