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The Future of Sudanese Refugees in the West

The Naivasha Protocols signed between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in Nairobi on Jan. 9 has been viewed as an optimistic sign to many westerners, to whom the ongoing conflicts have until now seemed both interminable and inexplicable. Despite the accord, however, the violence has continued. In places like Darfur, it has even intensified. More than 100 people were killed in a recent raid there by the Sudanese Air Force, which destroyed an entire village in order to make a point to the civilian population of an entire district. The struggle between the Sudanese government and the SPLM, which has trapped a largely defenseless civilian population in the middle, is far from over.

The civil war has already killed nearly two million and displaced four million. Many of the war’s victims have remained inside their country, described in the language of international relief and diplomatic discourse by the misleadingly innocuous term, “internally displaced persons.” In the everyday parlance of blunt American English, we would call them homeless victims, brutalized by men with guns, their homes destroyed en masse, their women and girls gang-raped before the eyes of their fathers and husbands, their crops and livestock stolen or slaughtered, their communities wiped off the face of the earth.

These internally displaced persons have already spent years in poverty and absolute destitute, lived in camps, and hoped to return to their villages and homes. Some left for Chad, Egypt, and others reached far-away lands in Asia and Europe. Will the new peace agreement result in a different outcome? The Sudanese migrants and refugees are doubtful.

The Naivasha Protocols have not changed the facts on the ground for these people. Alarmed by the premature Western optimism over the Protocols, which they fear will become an excuse for further disengagement by the West from their plight, many displaced Sudanese are anxiously watching both the new peace agreement and the West’s response to it. They are skeptical of any prospect of lasting peace, stability, and economic recovery in their country. There have been many failed peace accords in the past. Each time more violence followed, poverty remained, and living conditions worsened. And the sea of internally displaced and migrant Sudanese continued to move desperately, inexorably, to the West. While traveling during the past two years in the secret communities across Europe of migrants from North Africa and the Middle East, I met many such Sudanese migrants in Turkey, Greece, France, and Britain. They live in overcrowded safe houses, squat homes, or sleep on gravel beds alongside railroad tracks. They are men and women from all walks of life, who have clandestinely crossed many borders and faced life-threatening situations. But ironically, despite these hardships, they usually avoid any talk of the prospects for peace in Sudan. They fear losing any chance of being granted asylum if the European immigration authorities claim that the end of Sudan’s suffering is at hand. And their fears are well-founded.

“I hope the peace talks would fail. No country will accept us if they think there is peace in Sudan,” Hafiz, a twenty-seven year old Sudanese told me in an overcrowded safe house in an Istanbul ghetto in the winter of 2003. He left SudanSudan in 1995 to escape mandatory military service and fighting in the civil war, the war he did support. . Working illegally in Lebanon for eight years, he made his way to Turkey with the hope of clandestinely crossing the border to Greece and applying for asylum somewhere in the European Union. His chances were nil. Twice, he was arrested and returned from the border. He was rotting in Istanbul. But, he wished to not return to his place of birth. He was haunted by the specter of peace.

“Do you wish to go back to Sudan?” I asked Nur, a Sudanese woman who was once a mathematics teacher in her country. In April 2003, Nur left her home with her husband and her one-year old daughter. For fourteen days and nights they stayed in the bottom of a ship. Cheated by their smuggler, they were dropped off in Istanbul instead of Italy. The family made many attempts to flee to Greece. All failed. A year after arriving in Turkey, Nur became separated from her husband and her daughter. They made it to Greece. She did not. Two months later, she gave birth to a little girl. Everyday, she took her daughter and stood by the sea, imagining to be reunited with her family. Nur was a non-Arab Muslim and a victim of ethnic rivalry and war. But, peace meant returning to old animosities and sub-human conditions in her place of birth. “I have nothing in Istanbul. I have no money. I have no house. Things are bad. But, I think, someday, they will be different. Everything will change when I travel to another country. This will not be the same all the time. But, in the Sudan, nothing will change. Sometimes I dream that I am back in the Sudan. I am teaching. When I wake up, I am very sad.”

Nur’s fears were echoed by the Sudanese who succeeded reaching the heart of the European Union. “I will wait until they accept me somewhere. I will not return,” a young Sudanese once told me in Calais, a port in northern France. He slept outdoors by the railroad tracks near a canal away from the town center and waited for the opportunity to hide in a trailer aboard a ship and reach England. The young man wished to apply for asylum and become a British citizen. He too was fearful of the talk of peace in his place of birth.

Fearing to Follow the Fate of the Afghans

The Sudanese refugees have seen doors closed to the Afghani refugees and migrants since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, and they fear becoming the next group of desperate migrants to be denied protection in the West.

In the winter of 2001, the Americans freed Afghanistan from the Taliban, and ended one of the most horrific regimes of modern history. Many refugees returned to their villages, and to what was left of their homes. Others chose not to return. Frightened by the renewal of local tribal and religious violence in their homeland, and the prospect of poverty in a country whose infrastructure and economy had been destroyed by the Taliban and war that ended its rule, these migrants continued their search for a new home in a Western country that would accept them. As the poverty in Afghanistan has persisted and its instability continued, still another wave of Afghans has joined the ranks of these migrants.

The fall of the Taliban became the occasion for the end of the West’s sympathy for displaced Afghans. Afghanistan was declared a safe country. Western states closed their gates to Afghanistan’s poor and war-stricken citizens, and encouraged them to return home and rebuild their country. War was over. Reconstruction had to be started. As a result, a population of wandering Afghans emerged-driven from their places of birth, and kept behind closed doors elsewhere in the world. A similar prospect may await hundreds of thousands of desperate Sudanese migrants.

The recent peace accord in Sudan is only a beginning in a long journey to peace and stability in Sudan. And it may not even be that. It may be a tactical false-start. The conflict in Sudan dates back to conditions created before its independence in 1956. With independence came a war of national identity and domination among the various ethnic groups and tribes; the Arabs of the north imposed Arabic as the national language on the non-Arab south. The south rebelled. Periods of violence followed, violence embedded in changing ideological and ethnic alliances, betrayals, maneuvers, and continuous fighting. But, in all of this, a single pattern remained: the indiscriminate assault on the civilians of all ethnic groups. The war has been marked by fighting, often with the goal of displacing civilians and controlling the depopulated territories, the denial of resources to opposing fighting alliances, and large-scale looting from civilians of their food-stocks.

Haunted by this collective memory, the Sudanese refugees are pleading for help and genuine understanding. The severity of the conflict and failure of past peace efforts make it incumbent that the West and multilateral agencies like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) treat the new agreement with equal parts of cautious optimism and grim determination to see after the needs of this struggle’s victims. The UNHCR must urge the EU and other Western nations not to assume that the new peace accord is a conclusion to the refugee problem. The Sudanese are still fleeing war and its devastating economic and social consequences. The gates to the West should not be closed to the refugees.

BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN is the author of Embracing the Infidel: The Secret World of the Muslim Migrant by Bantam Dell/Random House (forthcoming, 2005). He can be reached at Behzad.yaghmaian@gmail.com.

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