Skip to main content

A boat carrying dozens of Sudanese refugees—including survivors of atrocities in Darfurcapsized in the Mediterranean on February 7 after leaving Tunisia. Only 2 people survived, and an estimated 40 are dead or missing.

The tragedy exposes the devastating impact of Europe’s outsourcing “migration management” to governments that largely fail to protect people who flee war and misery. It also highlights Europe’s failure to seriously address the reasons why people flee in the first place.

The refugees who drowned had fled Sudan and South Sudan, countries facing horrific conflict and widespread violence against civilians. Many on the boat were registered as asylum seekers with the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, awaiting formal refugee status. They had taken to the seas hoping to reach Italy and the safety that had eluded them in every country they had passed through.

Since fighting broke out in Sudan last April between the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), warring parties have killed and injured thousands of civilians. Some of the worst abuses have occurred in West Darfur, where the RSF and allied Arab militias have targeted non-Arab civilians with mass killings, sexual violence, and arson.

Relatives and friends said that at least 15 people on the boat that sank were from El Geneina, West Darfur’s capital, the site of widespread atrocities.

For Human Rights Watch, I spoke to one of the survivors, a 22-year-old ethnic Massalit man from El Geneina.

“I left Sudan in October because of the war,” he told me. “Massalit people in Geneina are being attacked by militias, buried alive. My cousin was killed.” He showed me his UNHCR asylum seeker card and a horrific video of his cousin’s death. “I went to Libya, to Tunisia, but I couldn’t find any safety. There is racism, no work, no money for food... I’ve been living on the streets.”

His brother was among those lost at sea. Now the survivor is again homeless in Tunisia, where humanitarian support is limited, resettlement options are scarce, and migrants and refugees have suffered serious abuses by security forces and racist attacks by citizens. “Take me away to any other safe country,” he pleaded.

Sudan’s current conflict has forced over eight million people from their homes, including 1.2 million Sudanese refugees in surrounding countries – one of the world’s worst displacement crises. Most have fled to neighboring Chad, Egypt, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Central African Republic.

But Egypt has committed abuses against Sudanese refugees and imposed visa requirements, while the other countries—coping with their own conflicts, insecurity, and humanitarian crises—have scant capacity to host more refugees.

None have received much international support; only 38 percent of the $1 billion [€0.92 billion] needed for the regional refugee response was funded in 2023, resulting in dire conditions in refugee sites, with limited shelter, food and water. This year, $1.4 billion is needed.

It’s not surprising that more Sudanese are fleeing to Libya and Tunisia and onward to Europe. In Tunisia, UNHCR-registered Sudanese increased from 513 in January 2023 to 5,866 by December; in Libya, the number increased by 10,000 from March to December.

A few countries have announced temporary protection or deportation freezes for Sudanese, such as Canada, the US, and Sweden, while Canada also announced a new family reunification pathway. Germany resettled 472 Sudanese refugees in 2023, more than any other European country, but a pitifully small number. The US resettled 1,817 Sudanese; Canada took 674.

Otherwise, Sudan’s conflict has been largely neglected by Europe and the international community, which has failed to provide safe and legal pathways outside Africa, to ensure adequate aid, and to translate calls for accountability into sufficient action.

While the EU, UK, and US have adopted sanctions against companies linked to Sudan’s conflict, only the US imposed sanctions on perpetrators of abuses. Dramatically increased efforts are needed to protect civilians.

European migration control policies have made things worse. The UK’s Illegal Migration Act “extinguishes access to asylum” for anyone arriving in the UK irregularly, affecting Sudanese and others, whom UK authorities may seek to send to Rwanda. Rather than prioritizing search-and-rescue in the Mediterranean, the EU funds North African governments to boost migration control. The EU ignored Tunisia’s migrant rights violations while finalizing a migration control deal last year, just as it has ignored what a UN body said may amount to crimes against humanity in Libya while supporting the Libyan Coast Guard.

Among the stories of eight of the refugees lost in the February 7 shipwreck, shared on X by the group “Refugees In Libya,” nearly all had reportedly encountered EU-supported interceptions by Libyan, Moroccan, and Tunisian authorities.

Europe has proved it can provide humane protection to refugees – as it rightly did for millions of Ukrainians.

But when it comes to refugees from other parts of the world, European officials ignore abuses and pursue partnerships with repressive governments – like Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Rwanda – to keep them out of sight. Instead of this morally bankrupt and shortsighted approach, Europe should take the lead on providing safe passage out of Sudan and other conflict areas.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country