How the European Union finances oppression

May 26th, 2023 - written by: Reta Barfuss

The cooperation of the European Union and the Rapid Support Forces in Sudan

For decades, the European Union (EU) has been cooperating with non-European actors to control migration far from European shores. This cooperation, among others, happens with actors known for their brutal rule – such as in Sudan. The EU has time and again been accused of financing the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary structure in Sudan that has its roots in the militias that committed war crimes and genocide in Darfur. The EU denies this support and hard proof of direct support is rare. More important though, is to consider the logic and structures of the EU and European member states’ cooperation with Sudan in the area of migration and border control to understand the connection of the EU to the RSF. This connection, however, is far from simple to understand: It is concealed within multiple official and secret forms of cooperation. This article aims to capture the connection of the EU to the RSF in its opaqueness, opening up more questions than answering. It should become clear, however, that there is and has been European support to the RSF in multiple, opaque forms – and that the opaqueness is no coincidence.

On the 15th of April, intense fighting broke out between the Sudanese armed forces under al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces of Hemedti. One month into the fighting, it has led to more than 600 deaths and at least 5100 people wounded. More than 700’000 people fled into another region within Sudan. Estimates are that 800’000 people might escape from Sudan due to the fighting.

But it is not alone an armed fighting, but “there is an ideological […] battle being waged around how to frame this war: as one between two options, the RSF or the military, or rather as one between the militarized state in all its forms and the revolution.” Sudanese civil actors continue to stress that it is not about siding with one of the parties and thus legitimizing one of them: The social forces who are pushing for fundamental and democratic transformation and the transition to a civilian government make clear: it is not about siding with one of the armed parties, but to continue to demand real change and demilitarization.

Both Hemedti and al-Burhan have undermined the promised transition to a civilian government: Their interest has been to secure and expand their dominance in Sudan – by military means.

This process, however, would not have been possible without support of international actors, including the EU: for example through arms exports to Sudan – due to the arms embargo also via third countries such as Uganda, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the export of components rather than arms to not fall under the arms supplies embargo. As a result, the Sudanese Military Industry Corporation produces Keckler and Koch G3, MP5 submachine guns and MG3 machine guns. The armament of the parties fighting at the moment has been going on for decades, as well as the political and financial support of them. An important driver of the ongoing and ever increasing support has been the control of migration: Sudan is a country of departure and a country of transit for migration towards Europe. This made it an important focal point of European investment in order to control migratory flows from and through Sudan.

This article attempts to shed light on this support from European actors in the name of the control of migration, focusing especially on the role of Mohammed «Hemedti» Daglo’s Rapid Support Forces. By doing so, it does not touch upon the role of al-Burhan and the European cooperation on this side. This does not aim to legitimize al-Burhan and the Sudanese armed forces and their role in migration control measures, which needs to be examined carefully as well. However, to shed light on Hemedti and RSF and their cooperation with the EU and European actors in the context of migration control is important in order to encourage recognition of the ruthlessness with which the EU enforces and externalizes its migration regime. A rationale which creates deep insecurities, precariousness and violence – as shown these days in Sudan.

The RSF and their beginnings

The RSF has its origins in militias that formed in the 1980s. During this time, the fighting in Southern Sudan resumed and the then president Gaafar Mohamed el-Nimeiri countered the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army SPLA with mercenaries and militias from southern Darfur. Fighting the independence movement with militias, enabled el-Nimeiri to present the fighting as a “mix of banditry and inter-tribal fighting.”[1] In 1985, after the ousting of el-Nimeiri, the Transitional Military Council continued this approach and adopted a militia strategy to fight the SPLA, mobilizing and arming militia from cattle-herding Arab tribes of southern Kordofan and southern Darfur.[2] These militia further fought in the border conflicts with Chad and Libya. In this climate of multiple militia and informal armed groups operating in Sudan – in particular in Darfur – the region turned into a scene of armed conflicts over borders, land rights and access to resources.

The violence continued. In the early 2000s, those government armed militias carried out brutal raids and attacks against the civilian population in Darfur, targeting villages and killing and displacing thousands of people. The Sudanese government accepted this as the militias soon took a central role in oppressing the Darfurian resistance - and thus in maintaining the government's power. In 2003, the Justice and Equality Movement JEM and the Sudanese Liberation Army SLA attacked state infrastructure that led to a brutal response: the Sudanese government ramped up its support for the militias which were mostly recruited from Sudanese-Arab tribes. It supplied them with weapons and communications technology from the Sudanese intelligence service - to the point of organizing them as a counter-insurgency force that became known under the name Janjaweed. What happened next is known today as the ethnic cleansing of the Zaghawat, Masalit and Fur. In close cooperation of the Sudanese air force and the militias, hundreds of thousands of people were murdered and millions displaced in and out of Darfur. The then president al-Bashir denies to this day that the militia was created in close cooperation and that the genocide was linked to his government.

The international pressure on al-Bashir to stop the militias in Darfur increased. Al-Bashir responded by attempting to control the militias. Until that time, his support for the groups had not led to the government gaining control over them. To achieve this, al-Bashir placed some of the militias that had led the genocide in Darfur under the formal command structure of the Sudanese Armed Forces and declared them Border Guards corps. He appointed former militia leader Musa Halil as head of the Border Guard corps. In the coming years, Musa Halil gained more and more power in this position and started to work against al-Bashir. In order to regain control and not have his power threatened by the rising Musa Halil, al-Bashir restructured the Border Guard Corps again: In 2013, al-Bashir “carved the RSF out from the Border Guards” and chose the longstanding head of one of the militias Mohammed Hamdan Daglo, also known as Hemedti, as its leader. Hemedti made his first appearance as the leader of the RSF in Khartoum when his forces killed more than 170 protesters in September 2013: The protests were directed against al-Bashir's regime, restricting access to basic commodities and fuel. For the first time, Hemedti fulfilled his role of supporting al-Bashir's regime also in Khartoum, securing the role of the indispensable to al-Bashir's hold on dominance.

Al-Bashir placed the RSF under the National Intelligence and Security Services N.I.S.S., which took over the operational command. In 2015, Sudan’s Parliament undertook constitutional amendments: These amendments granted the N.I.S.S. and thus also the RSF the status of a regular armed force. The operational command had not changed, but from then on, the RSF had been under direct control of al-Bashir. In 2017 the Parliament adopted the RSF act integrating them into the Sudan Armed Forces SAF. Furthermore, the RSF for the first time received public funding, thus becoming more and more integrated into the state structure. Their past as ruthless militias was to be forgotten – but their brutal operations have continued ever since. And their leader Hemedti has been expanding his power ever since - among other factors through the control of the most important gold mines in Sudan, through mercenaries and through the RSF and its role of controlling migration according to European interests.

Current developments around the RSF

Today, the RSF mainly assume the function of border control forces. They control large parts of the Sudanese borders and intercept migrants mainly at the northern borders. They also cooperate with the immigration police and the regular police when they conduct operations in the border areas. However, the RSF's activities are not limited to border control. It is widely known that they have become a central player in the migration business. They control border crossings, extort money from migration facilitators and migrants and function as organizers of border crossings. They do so with extreme brutality ruthlessness, as becomes evident from repeated reports of torture and killings of migrants at the hands of the RSF. From time to time, a member of RSF reports to a researcher, “we intercept migrants and transfer them back to Khartoum, in order to show the authorities that we are doing the job.” But most of the time, the RSF member states, the forces transport migrants to Libya themselves – and thus profit from the business with migrants.

The RSF are not solely present at the borders. The paramilitary structure has long served to keep former president al-Bashir in power and suppress opposition. This changed in 2018 when their leader Hemedti opposed the former president al-Bashir and participated in his ousting. Hemedti became part of the transitional government composed of civil society democratic forces and military components. In the time after al-Bashir’s ousting in 2018, Hemedti had the RSF crack down on protests against the dominance of the military component in the transitional government: the RSF killed at least 128 protesters on a single day in 2019.

In 2021, the military staged a coup. The military forces in Sudan gained more power and influence, among them the chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces, General Abdelfattah Burhan and his formal subordinate Hemedti with his RSF. But their ideas about ruling, access to resources and the division of power are not the same: The tensions among Burhan and Hemedti are rising. In December 2022, the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Freedom and Change Coalition signed an agreement that is supposed to diminish the political power of military forces – but the agreement might give rise to Hemedti as he and his RSF are no longer in the command of Burhan.

Hemedti’s position remains complex, considering also the competitive relation to Burhan. Hemedti, it is argued, is Burhan’s “most dangerous long-term competitor, yet arguably one of his closest short-term enablers” - Burhan relied on Hemedti's RSF as an enforcer of the coup that led to the rise of Burhan’s power. But the competition between Hemedti and Burhan becomes more and more apparent.

The competition also reflects in disagreements about the operations of the RSF: One example concerns the joint presence of the RSF and Russian Wagner troops in Sudan. The cooperation of Sudan and Russia had been established under al-Bashir: his meeting with Putin in Sochi in 2017 resulted in the signing of agreements concerning mining concessions and oil and gas cooperation in Sudan. Furthermore, it led to the appearance of Wagner troops in the border region of Sudan, Chad, and the Central African Republic. Hemedti continues this cooperation. Multiple meetings took place between Hemedti and Putin. In the meantime, the Wagner troops are deep in the gold business in Sudan and are not reluctant to use force to obtain their profit. Reports suggest that the Wagner troops are under protection of the RSF: “traders described how Russians come to the market to take samples and buy gold ore, paying up to $3,600 for a nine-ton truckload. Sometimes, they said, the Russians were protected by troops from General Hamdan’s Rapid Support Forces.”

Furthermore, the RSF and the Wagner troops are conducting joint operations in the border triangle of Sudan, the Central African Republic and Chad. These joint operations might not be backed from official authorities as the forces are not subject to a central command. In particular, it does not seem to please Burhan. End of January 2023, Burhan met the Chadian military general and transitional president Mahamat Déby in N'Djamena, Chad. Their discussion also touched upon the fact that the RSF began to marginalize the joint border forces that Chad and Sudan had established in 2010. Burhan and Déby decided to counter the dominance of the RSF in the region by strengthening the joint border forces: Multiple conflicting armed groups and forces are operating in the name of border control in this area, fighting over dominance and access to resources. The civil society, however, is exposed to the violence of the forces operating there. Once again, the militarization of border control forces fuels local conflicts and the oppression of local communities - which can itself become a reason for flight. Thus, the role of the EU in supporting the control of Sudanese borders becomes even more condemnable.

This example demonstrates on the one hand, that the RSF operates in the interest of Hemedti, who has free hand to decide upon his forces and their operations. On the other hand, it illustrates that Hemedti is powerful enough to pursue his very own foreign politics: The foreign politics of Hemedti and Burhan are not consistent but are shaped through their struggle for power. This is further reflected in the fact that some of Sudan's international partners support either Burhan or Hemedti, depending on their interest in the cooperation.

Hemedti’s solo effort is also reflected in his latest attempt to redeem himself and the RSF on an international level: In a press conference mid-January he declared that he regretted participating in the 2021 coup and denounced people “clinging to power” – right after Burhan reasserted that the coup was “for the sake of the country.” Hemedti thus positioned himself as a legitimate international partner, in contrast to Burhan. Since then, Hemedti has used this strategic maneuver several times, staging himself as a proponent of civilian rule. This seems opportune for the EU, as Hemedti and his RSF play to European interests – the statement of the European representative Josep Borell from December 2022 bodes ill: “preparatory work can begin on how to resume relations and cooperation whenever a transitional government and constitutional arrangements for the transition period are agreed.”

European political support

For more than two decades, the EU and European Member States have been cooperating with non-European actors for the purpose of controlling migration movements. The basic idea is that migration should be controlled in countries of origin and transit. From a European perspective, Sudan is an important partner in this cooperation: people flee Sudan and important migration routes lead through Sudan - people from neighboring states pass through Sudan on their journey towards North African or European states.

This strategic position of Sudan is well known to Hemedti, and was known to al-Bashir. The two rulers have also used it time and again to gain political and financial support from the EU. Although al-Bashir is accused of numerous war crimes and the International Criminal Court’s had issued arrest warrants in 2009 and 2010 for genocide, the EU sought cooperation with the Sudanese dictator and channeled funding into Sudan within the framework of multiple agreements, funds, and programs in order to strengthen migration control - and thereby also al-Bashir's power.

The European governments and the EU’s fear of “irregular migration” is also put to use in the case of Hemedti: “If Sudan will open the border, a big problem will happen worldwide.” Hemedti once called for a European «ransom» for the border control activities of the RSF. In another instance he called for the lifting of the economic sanctions on Sudan. His strategy is successful as he once reported: “Some [European] representatives have come with us to the desert to witness our operations and offered trainings.” Their nationalities he kept to himself. Hemedti thus points out: the EU has no choice but to support Sudan and in particular himself and his RSF, for he has the power to control the borders and the connections to cooperate with the multiple tribes and militias in the desert between Sudan, Chad and Libya.

That the EU takes these threats serious became apparent the moment after al-Bashir's fall: Numerous European officials, such as delegations from the UK and the Netherlands, traveled to Khartoum. But the representatives did not come to meet with representatives of civil society, but with the militia leader Hemedti. Also a delegation on the EU level was quick to seek talks with Hemedti: In October 2019, a “high level mission” from Brussel comprising Mr. Jean-Christophe Belliard, Deputy Secretary-General and Director-General for Political Affairs in the European Union External Action Service, Mr. Koen Doens, Director-General for Development Cooperation, and Alexander Rondos, EU Special Representative for the Horn of Africa met Hemedti. In Hemedti these delegations recognized a figure powerful enough to serve their interests - but also powerful enough to threaten them. In order to gain control over migration across Sudan’s border, the EU and European member states accept to support Hemedti and his subordinate RSF, an anti-democratic paramilitary force that is involved in the cruel repression of migrants, civil society groups and the democratic movement in Sudan.

Externalization - Khartoum Process

The political thrust to outsource the control of migration and borders to non-European actors had started in the 2000s. Such externalization policies are based on the idea that the region of origin is responsible for preventing and controlling migration. Sudan had not been an official cooperation partner until the establishment of the Khartoum Process, a “platform for political cooperation amongst the countries along the migration route between the Horn of Africa and Europe." The Khartoum Process, less known as the EU-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative, resulted from a meeting of ministers from European and African states in Rome to discuss their “enhanced cooperation on migration and mobility." The participating ministers, for the first time also the Sudanese minister, adopted the Declaration of the Ministerial Conference of the Khartoum Process, also known as the Rome Declaration of 2014. This declaration is the main strategic document of the Khartoum Process. The declaration contains multiple objectives, including building local capacities and national strategies in the field of “migration management”, measures to restrict “irregular” migration, identification measures as well as the transformation of legal frameworks in countries of origin and transit to criminalize migration, enabling authorities to prosecute migrants or people assisting them.

This thrust is expressed in the range of programs and projects the EU and European member states fund and implement. The funding is opaque, but the main vehicle to implement these politics in Sudan is the European Trust Fund for Africa EUTF. The EUTF finances 75 percent of the programs under the Khartoum process, the rest is sponsored through other EU budgets and 7 percent comes directly from EU member states and other donors. The EUTF is worth 2 billion Euros.According to EUTF data, Sudan “profited” since the creation of the fund from 542.133.026 Euros for national projects, of which 53.020.000 Euros went to projects meant to “improve migration management.” Furthermore, 114.782.852 Euros from the EUTF had been allocated to regional projects aimed at “improving migration management” that also targeted Sudan. This renders Sudan into the fourth-largest recipient in the Horn. Furthermore, it is not clear if projects that do not address migration management are sometimes also used to channel funds into the control of migration and borders: – Importantly, researchers found that only three percent of the funding had been used to create safe and regular routes for migration, even though the EUTF is supposed to address root causes of migration and fighting trafficking and human smuggling.

While the EUTF website lists a number of projects along the main implementing bodies such as IOM and GIZ, there is no accessible information on the Sudanese national state or non-state actors participating in and profiting from the programs. Mechanisms establishing such public and transparent information on EUTF programs do not function – in general, there has been recurring criticism on the monitoring mechanisms of the EUTF programs, as these programs “rely on opaque selection and monitoring and evaluation processes.” This problem does not concern Sudan specifically, but nothing suggests that accountability and monitoring mechanisms work any better in Sudan – even though this would be indispensable in a state where the control of borders lies in the hands of a former militia as the RSF. This contrasts with the EU's claim that the money does not go to the Sudanese state, but that “all EU-funded activities in Sudan are implemented by EU member states development agencies, UN, international organizations and NGOs,” as a EU spokesperson told Middle East Eye in 2019. This is simply not true.

In addition to the direct financing and support of state structures, there is also indirect cooperation with state structures such as the Sudanese police within the framework of the programs under the Khartoum process. The categorical assertion that in particular «the RSF are not benefitting and will not benefit from direct or indirect support under any current or future EU funded project” is not tenable. On the opposite, political support and indirect support for the RSF from the EU and European member states is certain and in rare cases also direct cooperation can be proven.

EU Programs

The programs in Sudan financed and implemented by the EU to strengthen migration control are characterized by intransparency and rather difficult to comprehend. The Better Migration Management Programme BMM and the establishment of a regional operational center in Khartoum ROCK are of particular note, as these two programs have supported the RSF directly as well as indirectly and will presumably continue to do so.

Better Migration Management Program

The BMM is a multi-annual, regional program that has been established in 2016 by the EU and Germany. It is run by the GIZ (German Agency for International Cooperation) and implemented through numerous EU member states’ bodies such as IOM, UNHCR and the Italian, UK and French Interior Ministries. In 2016 the EU allocated 40 million Euros from the EUTF to this program, a share of 5 million Euro was allocated to the judiciary and law enforcement. The program has caused controversies, in particular regarding the implementation of “capacity building”: “strengthening the capacity of all migration and border management agencies, such as some frontline officials […] in particular through training and technical assistance […] by providing basic tools and equipment to government agencies and border management agencies” – this might pose a risk for the European funding ending up in the hands of the RSF as the researcher Suliman Baldo mentioned. Furthermore, as Baldo puts it straight, “by extending material and technical support to Sudan in order to enhance its migration management capacity, and given that Sudan had designated one of Darfur’s most abusive militias to patrol its borders with Libya and Egypt, the EU risks not only supporting the RSF but also underwriting an elaborate web of economic interests in Sudan’s militia state.»

In concrete terms this meant that the Sudanese Ministry of Interior in 2016 drew up a list of requirements. It included training for border police officers, a range of equipment for seventeen border crossing points such as computers, cameras, servers, cars and aircrafts. Furthermore, the list included the equipment and personnel for a training center in Khartoum. These requirements, apart from the aircraft, have been met by the EU under the Better Migration Management Programme.[3] Journalists found that the Permanent Representatives Committee of the European Committee discussed the issue of sending equipment to Sudan under highest security: The public should «under no circumstances» learn about these plans could harm the European reputation, as the Spiegel cited from internal meeting documents. Furthermore, the EU decided to train Sudanese border police and assist with the construction of two camps with detention rooms for migrants. The EU has stressed that this equipment will not fall into the hands of the RSF. Given the RSF's activities and their close governmental embedding, this claim is not tenable. The journalist Eric Reeves thus predicted that the equipment is going to be used first and foremost from both the N.I.S.S., that had the operational command of the RSF, and the broad net of actors that the state relies on for border control: The RSF is not far, if not central to this net. The European claim that the RSF would not benefit from the equipment becomes even less plausible when one considers that the EU had granted the highest level of secrecy to the discussion of the equipment.[4]

European support for the RSF once more came into focus when journalists found in 2016 that the EU had planned to provide training and equipment to the Sudanese authorities. This was to be implemented under the UN Human Rights Office OHCHR. The plans for once did not deny the cooperation with the RSF: they included human rights training for the RSF, assistance in detecting and identifying migrants, and training in the use of firearms. After this program came under criticism, the OHCHR discontinued parts of the program and the EU launched a campaign to assure that the EU cooperation with the RSF would not take place – not then and neither in the future.

But the EU broke its promise: In 2020, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Peace Mission in Sudan, both affiliated with the Khartoum Process, organized a meeting in Khartoum. High-ranking RSF officials were present at this meeting, including RSF chief Hemedti. This meeting was intended to launch a broad-based training program for the RSF - financed with 10 million euros from the EUTF. This plan not only involved training the RSF with European funding, but also provided for direct payments to the groups infrastructure. Moreover, this program would have allowed the RSF to present itself as a legitimate international partner and thus polish its image. However, this also posed a risk for the EU: in the program description, the risks were described as a possible "loss of reputation due to participating institutions whose members may have committed human rights violations". This led to the early end of the program: the plans became publicly known and the EU had to row back in response to public pressure and canceled the training.

IOM channeling funds into border control

As we can see, open cooperation with Sudanese military and paramilitary forces has repeatedly been met with criticism. In response, the EU has assured critics that European money does not flow to state structures and that the programs under the Khartoum Process are implemented by international organizations only, carried out in cooperation with local NGOs. However, these claims are also misleading, as some of these international organizations work directly with Sudanese state actors and security forces. This is the case with the International Organisation for Migration IOM, an important actor in the implementation of the Khartoum process' aims in Sudan. The head of the IOM unit in Khartoum mentioned: «Of course we’re partnering with the government of Sudan - one of the key functions we do is support institutional strengthening for dealing with migration. We’re not here to combat migration, we’re here to manage migration.» Therefore, the IOM also works in direct cooperation with immigration and police officers: IOM has trained immigration and police officers on border management information systems multiple times. There is no proof of direct cooperation with and support of the RSF – but there is also no proof that the training did not also benefit RSF or forces affiliated with them.

This brings us back to the opaque nature of European funding for migration control measures. In general, the programs the IOM is implementing in Sudan are not transparent. This begs the question, how actors like the IOM can ensure that support of the vast security apparatus does not benefit the RSF in some form, give their close integration into the Sudanese state. The IOMs cooperation partners are not disclosed and their exact activities are not documented. According to its own 2020 factsheet, IOM is implementing programs in Sudan in a wide variety of states, the content of which is described superficially: These include Immigration and Border Management, which is about providing technical assistance to the government and strengthening border management capacities. In the financial reports of the last two years, however, two projects stand out:

First, the IOM claims to support “the installation and use of border management and ensuring the smooth and orderly processing of travelers.” Furthermore, the organization lists technical assistance to expand the capacities of the government of Sudan in immigration and border management, and the “integrated support of the government of the Sudan to manage mixed migration flows and provide direct assistance to vulnerable migrants and host communities in eastern Sudan”. This framing fits to a series of trainings conducted by the IOM, which trained, among others, police officers on “Investigating and Prosecuting Trafficking in Persons” in Dongola.

Dongola is of crucial importance to the control of migration: In Dongola there is a center where migrants arrested at the borders are often brought to and “where one can keep them.” The police forces the IOM has trained in Dongola might be the ones cooperating with the RSF on operations on the Sudanese borders, as General Awad Elneil Dhia, the head of the Sudanese immigration police department, reports: “[The RSF] have their presence there and they can help. The police is not everywhere, and we cannot cover everywhere,” he states. The connections of the IOM to the RSF might perhaps be indirect, but the connections are there.

However, the involvement of the EU in Dongola might go even further back: In 2018, plans to create and manage a detention center in Dongola as part of the Better Migration Management Program became public. General Awad Elneil Dhia stated: “the proposal came from us, because we have nowhere to keep people.” This center would be used to “keep” those intercepted at the borders and return them – a role that the IOM assumes in multiple countries, such as Niger. There, the IOM runs a center that "accommodates" people who have been intercepted or pushed back at the Algerian border - on the condition that they agree to a so-called voluntary return. In this way, the IOM becomes a central vehicle for the European Union to push people further and further from the European borders. If the IOM ran this center as it does in other countries, it would mean that the IOM received people from the RSF who have intercepted them at the borders, thus being an integral part of the role of RSF as controlling migration. But what became of these plans is not clear - information on them is hard to find and IOM is not known to provide comprehensive information on its activities.

The aforementioned programs and projects are no hard proof of IOM’s cooperation and support of RSF. But it is important to remember that the IOM likes to present itself as a humanitarian actor, as it does in Sudan. Its programs, however, go far beyond that: Reports demonstrate that IOM is cooperating with but also equipping border guards in multiple contexts, such as Georgia. There is no hard proof of the cooperation of the IOM and the RSF in Sudan. But what is clear: there are strong indicators of links between IOM and the RSF – and if IOM’s support for the RSF is not direct, there is at least a form of indirect cooperation - as shown throughout this article, there are numerous examples of at least indirect cooperation with RSF activities in migration control – and by that is creating ground for its legitimation.

The role of local NGOs

The claim that European funds do not go to the Sudanese state but to local non-governmental organizations is also misleading for another reason: Local non-governmental organizations are either closely tied to the Sudanese state or must be registered with the Sudanese government and its regulating bodies. While the EU enters into a cooperation with one of these registered NGOs, it must approach the Humanitarian Aid Commission that has been a branch of the Sudanese Intelligence Service N.I.S.S. under al-Bashir and is under the transitional government under the control of the military intelligence. Thus, the Sudanese government and security branches closely monitor local NGO’s activities in the migration sector in Sudan as well as their cooperation with international organizations and donors. The experience of local NGOs shows that the moment of registration in particular is used by the Sudanese regime to pocket money – and thus part of the money that the EU claims to put into local NGOs alone flows to the Sudanese state.


Another program financed with 5 million Euros from the EUTF is ROCK, the Regional Operational Center in Khartoum. It aims at sharing police intelligence among Horn of Africa states in order to “improve migration management in countries of origin and transit.” The center in Khartoum has been led and implemented through the French state-owned security company Civipol “for the benefit of a consortium of EU Member States made of France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain as associate partner and Germany as an observer.”

Funding and leadership was provided by European actors. In the center itself, police officers from European states such as Britain, France, and Italy were present, working together with Sudanese staff and a number of liaison officers from states from the Horn of Africa. The operations and work of the there assembled officials relied on information from the Sudanese Intelligence Service N.I.S.S. This means that the center sponsored through European funds and the officials working there cooperate with an intelligence agency to which the RSF are subordinate.

Between June and September 2019 the center got closed and the international staff relocated to Nairobi. Some claim that this temporary closure occurred after allegations that RSF militants were being trained there. EU representatives countered that the closure of the center was solely for the safety of the staff.

The ROCK program is worrisome as it entails the support of control means and training of border guards as a central aspect of the project, without a control mechanism in place to understand if there are connections to the RSF. It is further problematic as it is a form of circumventing the arms embargo. However, a new project is already underway. While ROCK was officially still in operation, the African Union AU set up a continental operational center. The aim is to exchange information for improved migration management. The links between the EU and the AU centers are not transparent. The EU claims that no data received in ROCK would be shared, but the new center would implement lessons learned from the ROCK.

Bilateral agreements: Clandestine training of RSF militias

In addition to the programmes carried out within the framework of the EU's policy there are also bilateral cooperation agreements in place. These agreements contain various foci, including the establishment of deportation policies. In these bilateral agreements and cooperation one can also find evidence of direct and indirect support of the RSF:

The Italian government concluded a memorandum of understanding with the Sudanese state in 2016. This agreement focused on deportations and introduced the practice that Sudanese officials worked in Italy to identify Sudanese migrants for deportation. The cooperation is also close when it comes to migration control measures in Sudan, including with the RSF. Journalists revealed that the Italian military has been conducting clandestine training of the RSF - without the knowledge of the Italian parliament. In 2022, Hemedti visited Italy in a plane of the United Arab Emirates and met key representatives of Turkey, Italy and NATO. During his visit, Hemedti presented a list of requests including equipment for technical assistance and strategic support (i.e. instructors for training courses and weapons). After consultation, the requests were granted, including the provision of drones, which the RSF needs for controlling migration towards Europe. Beside the secret training of the RSF by Italian instructors it was revealed that also the Russian Wagner Group is training the RSF.

It did not end there: In the same year, the commander of the RSF received a delegation of Italian intelligence officers in Khartoum, again on a secret visit. Neither the Italian nor the Sudanese governments knew about it. The delegation was welcomed by Hemedti himself. The delegation was carrying a series of large bags and eight backpacks similar to Italian military equipment, as pictures show. The contents remain unknown, but the chronology of events raises suspicion.

The UK started a so-called biannual “strategic dialogue” that centres migration, counter-terrorism and trade.[5] Furthermore, there are bilateral agreements between Germany and Sudan that enable the cooperation of German and Sudanese officials on questions of migration. While there is no particular focus on the RSF, it is known that in 2016 Sudanese and German officials held negotiations on possible technical, logistical and training support to Sudanese police forces. At the visit of a delegation of the Sudanese interior minister in Berlin the parties reached a joint understanding on combating illegal migration and human trafficking. The German part promised, according to the Director General of Sudan’s Police Lieu. Gen. Hashim Osman al-Hussein, that the European state is about to send technologies used for the control of migration to Sudan and provide the Sudanese police with training units. Whether these plans have been carried out is not certain - the details of cooperation between individual European member states and the EU with Sudan are shrouded in secrecy.


This article tries to give an insight into the history and evidence for direct and indirect cooperation between the EU and European member states with the Sudanese RSF. However, many interesting links remained unexplored for a deeper understanding of the ties between European migration control policies and the RSF. In particular, one could dig into the different main actors implementing programs under the Khartoum Process and gain more insight into the arms trade to Sudan that has not stopped – despite arms embargos from the UN and the EU. What this research reveals most of all is the opaque and secretive nature of the cooperation of the EU and European member states with Sudan, making it impossible to draw a comprehensive picture of this cooperation. This opaqueness is most problematic, and one could argue, by design: it remains unverifiable to what extent the EU and European member states cooperate with Sudanese actors - and thus the extent of European cooperation with the RSF also remains in the dark. It is obvious, however, that the EU's claims of not cooperating with the RSF are untenable: Too close are the links between the EU’s migration control policies, the Sudanese military regimes’ past and present, and the RSF. In some cases hard proof of material and financial support for the RSF has come out in the open - and examples like the Italian military’s clandestine training suggest that support to the RSF might in other cases have bypassed public scrutiny and was delivered through secret channels. At the same time, the EU has also proven to be efficient at channeling funds and support through official programs such as the BMM and ROCK to Sudanese armed forces – sometimes to the RSF, sometimes to other actors that cooperate with them.

In recent years, the EU has created an opaque cooperation network in which Hemedti and the RSF became central. Not alone do EU policy makers seem to accept this, but outsourcing migration control the EU further strengthens the power of actors like the RSF. Thus, Hemedti seems to be perfectly right about his importance to the EU, which is dependent on his support and the cooperation with a dominant and brutal force such as the RSF. This relation is programmatic: The cooperation with Hemedti is another example that the politics of outsourcing of migration control is dependent on the existence of powerful actors - ultimately it does not seem to matter to the EU how these actors come to their power, how their power is maintained, and that the EU itself further contributes to the expansion of their power.


  1. Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy, 83.

  2. Sudan’s Unfinished Democracy, 83.

  3. Akkermann, Mark. 2018. Expanding the Fortress. The policies, the profiteers and the people shaped by EU’s border externalization programme. Transnational Institute and Stop Wapenhandel, 59.

  4. Akkermann, Mark. 2018. Expanding the Fortress. The policies, the profiteers and the people shaped by EU’s border externalization programme. Transnational Institute and Stop Wapenhandel, 60.