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Diaspora in despair: Darfurian mobility at a time of international disengagement

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By Jérôme Tubiana, Clotilde Warin, and Mahamat Saleh Mangare

Darfur’s fade-out from international headlines and Western interests over the past several years has fostered a false narrative that the conflict there is over, despite stark evidence to the contrary. Linked to this narrative, the paralysis of internal and international engagement on Darfur has compelled Darfurians—civilians and combatants alike—to increase their outward mobility in search of safety and livelihood opportunities in neighbouring African countries or further afield into Europe.

Diaspora in Despair: Darfurian Mobility at a Time of International Disengagement, a new joint report from the Small Arms Survey’s Human Security Baseline Assessment for Sudan and South Sudan (HSBA) and Security Assessment in North Africa (SANA) projects analyzes several components and consequences of this increased mobility. The report finds that highly mobile Darfurian rebel groups have found fertile ground for lucrative activities such as cross-border smuggling in neighbouring countries—particularly Libya. The study also notes that the harsh conditions encountered in Libya by non-Arab Darfurian civilians have compelled many to seek asylum across the Mediterranean in Europe.

Executive summary

In recent years many members of the international community have increasingly appeared to accept the narrative espoused by Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir’s regime that the Darfur conflict was over. Darfurians, including civilian victims of government-related forces and combatants opposed to the government, have reacted to the internal and international paralysis that has resulted from the adoption of this narrative with increased levels of mobility, moving or attempting to move both to and between neighbouring African countries and to Europe.

This report analyses several components of this increased mobility. Darfur rebel groups have proved to be particularly mobile in their quest for foreign support, rear bases, and refuge from increasingly successful government counter-insurgency tactics. This holds true not only in Sudan itself, but also for countries neighbouring Sudan, that is Chad, the Central African Republic (CAR), South Sudan, and, more recently, Libya. In Libya these armed groups are able to operate in a familiar desert terrain where lawlessness since the fall of the Qaddafi regime has allowed them to participate in various cross-border smuggling activities. Darfur’s non-Arab civilians, many of whom have been displaced since 2013, have been forced to cope with diminished international aid both in Darfur itself and in refugee camps in Chad. This, coupled with pressure to return to what remains of their homes, has prompted many to move further, joining former rebel kinsmen in gold-mining activities across the Sahara, and attempting to find sources of income and safety in Libya. These non-Arab Darfurians are increasingly going beyond Libya to Europe, where those who survive the perilous Mediterranean crossing often have a good chance of being granted asylum.

Key findings

  • Recent Darfurian mobility differs from earlier Darfurian migrations and other contemporary migrations because it involves both combatants and non-combatants (civilians). These categories are porous, and role changes from civilian to combatant (and sometimes back again) often occur.

  • In Libya, Darfur rebels and former rebels have been involved in many lucrative and dangerous armed activities. These activities include proxy fighting; cross-border smuggling; and sales of stolen vehicles, fuel, and sometimes weapons. Some have become road bandits, notably targeting drug convoys, while others have acted as escorts for these convoys. Both Darfur rebels and civilians alike have taken up gold mining across the Sahara.

  • The Sudanese government’s current main paramilitary group, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), appears to be much more involved in smuggling and trafficking migrants to Libya than Darfur rebel groups.

  • The lack of prospects of the Darfur rebellion and the financial opportunities offered by the RSF have pushed an increasing number of non-Arab Darfurians to join the RSF. This is likely to increase with the recent rapprochement between the RSF leader, Mohammed Hamdan Daglo—known as ‘Hemeti’—and the rebel movements, who share a common fear that they will be sidelined by the regular army—the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF)—and by civilians from central Sudan.

  • Non-Arab Darfurian civilians in search of both safety and jobs continue to migrate to Libya. But the abuses they suffer there—including forced recruitment into local armed forces—pressure them to seek asylum in Europe. The actions of the international community, including the decreased provision of international aid in both Darfur itself and camps in Chad hosting Darfurian refugees, help to drive this phenomenon. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has tried to encourage refugees to return to Darfur, but this has had counter-productive effects and has itself resulted in Darfurian migration to Libya and Europe. Indeed, the funds UNHCR allocates to the returnees often finance their journeys further north.

Read the full report here.