People who sought route to Europe before fighting erupted in Khartoum speak of police brutality, torture and homelessness
Ever since fighting erupted in his home town of Nyala, the state capital of South Darfur in Sudan, in mid-April, Khaled’s mobile phone has not stopped ringing. Family members, friends and acquaintances want to know how to reach north Africa and which country is best for departing for Europe.
The 17-year-old, currently living in the Tunisian capital, Tunis, wishes he could tell them that the journey is simple and that countries like Tunisia and Libya are welcoming and safe.
However, the reality could not be more different. Khaled, tortured in Libya, expelled by Morocco, kicked by Algerian border guards, beaten by the Tunisian police and today homeless on the streets of Tunis, knows this very well.
“They ask if they can come to Libya or Tunisia and how to get here,” Khaled said. “I say, ‘No, don’t come. Here there’s just suffering for you. Tunisia or Libya are not safe countries.’ But they are desperate.”
Khaled said the people he had spoken to were particularly afraid of the Rapid Support Forces, the paramilitary group that grew out of the Janjaweed militia responsible for genocide in the war in Darfur that broke out in 2003.
According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), more than 800,000 people may flee Sudan as a result of the fighting that erupted between the army and the RSF last month.
“There are about 334,000 people already displaced in Sudan and over 100,000 have already left the country,” said Matthew Saltmarsh, the head of news and media at UNHCR. “Given the speed at which events are moving, numbers of new refugee arrivals are expected to increase further.”
Mohammed, 35, comes from Kutum, a town in North Darfur state. Like Khaled, he is also now living in Tunisia.
“It’s not going to be easy,” he said. “I feel that my friends and relatives in Sudan will have to save themselves to find a safe place to live.”
The UN has urged Sudan’s neighbours to keep their borders open, but they are mostly ill-equipped, so not everyone can offer a long-term stay.
Egypt remains the main destination at the moment, with more than 40,000 Sudanese crossing the border. However, Cairo appears either unprepared or unwilling to accommodate thousands of desperate people, and Sudanese people have spent days in the open air waiting to enter.
“There are no easy escape routes right now,” said Michelle D’Arcy, the Sudan country director for the Norwegian People’s Aid organisation. “The route they might choose depends on their location, connection and privilege as it is costing more and more to leave the country every day.”
Aid workers said the refugees’ priority at the moment is saving their lives, but in the near future, thousands of them could be forced to attempt the dangerous journey to Europe. In the absence of humanitarian corridors, the fastest path is the one that passes through north Africa.
Libya, which shares a 237-mile (382km) border with Sudan, was until recently the main departure point for people trying to reach Italy by boat. The country is in the hands of gangs and arms traffickers, and the risk of ending up in prison or tortured is high.
Khaled, who arrived in Libya in 2019 at the age of 14, made three failed attempts to reach Europe from there.
“I left Sudan alone when I was just boy, because my parents could not sustain me and my five sisters,” he said. “I was the only one who could emigrate and try to send money to my family. I spent almost three and a half years in Libya, in the east of the country, in Ajdabiya and then Tripoli.’’
The first time Khaled tried to cross the Mediterranean on a small boat was in 2019, from Zuwaara, but 50 metres from the shore, the Libyan coastguard intercepted his vessel. He tried again in February 2021, but the Libyan authorities pulled him back and dozens of people who had left with him drowned.
“I tried to reach Europe by sea from Zawiya for the last time in January 2022,” he said. “But that time we were stopped even before boarding the boat.”
As a result, Khaled was transferred to a Libyan prison where he says he was tortured for 36 days.
“There were 400 of us in that prison … If we didn’t have money, we would never have left,” he says.
In October 2022, Khaled tried to reach Spain through Morocco and Algeria, but border guards in both countries had sealed off the crossing into their territories, deploying hundreds of police officers ready to use violence.
“They beat me as soon as I got close to the border. For an entire day we were between them at the borders. Eventually, me and other asylum seekers spent many days walking until we entered Tunisia.”
The Guardian met Khaled and dozens of other Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa in a makeshift tarpaulin tent outside the offices of the UN migration agency in Tunis. They have been living there without water or electricity, with the sole assistance of aid groups, for at least two months.
Since February, when the Tunisian president, Kais Saied, made a racist speech in which he claimed that irregular migration from other parts of Africa was part of an international plot to change Tunisia’s character, black immigrants in Tunisia have been living in increasing danger. Soon after the speech, many were evicted from their homes, and entire neighbourhoods were raided.
“I get calls from friends and relatives,” said Mohammed. “When they ask if they can join me in Tunisia, I tell them it’s not safe for us here.”
Following Saied’s speech, Khaled, who had found work on a horse farm, was fired and forced to live on the streets. In April, he was arrested during a protest outside the UNHCR building in Tunis.
“They took me to the police centre of Buhayra together with nine other people and tortured us with electric cables,” Khaled said. “The Tunisian police told us, ‘Why don’t you cross the sea and go to Italy?’”
Tunisia has replaced Libya as the main point of departure for refugees in north Africa, with 20,000 people having attempted the crossing so far this year. However, more departures also mean more deaths, to the point that authorities in Tunisia are considering building new cemeteries, as the country runs out of space to bury the dozens of bodies washing up every day on its shores.
“Sudanese refugees should not have to even consider the perilous channels to reach Europe,” said D’Arcy. “European countries should be thinking how they can provide legal channels of asylum, welcoming them with the same generosity they offered to Ukrainian refugees.”
Khaled is no longer afraid to risk his life. Having survived a four-year ordeal, he has nothing left to lose.
“After my experience, as a black and Sudanese refugee, I don’t believe any state will treat us well,” he said. “It’s been like this for me up to now. It will be the same for all the Sudanese who pass through here after me.”
Source: The Guardian