Ahmed* was 17 when he decided that there was no future for him in Darfur, the region in western Sudan infamous for its long-running ethnic violence and a genocide that claimed the lives of around 300,000 people and forced 2.7 million from their homes.
“I went through a lot at a very young age,” Ahmed tells VICE News. “I was targeted by the Janjaweed [the Arab armed militia active in Sudan, accused of systemic violence against civilians] and tortured for days, until I managed to escape and eventually arrive to the Netherlands.”
Ahmed is now 22. He obtained asylum in the Low Lands and was in the process of applying for a permanent residence permit when last May, he received a letter from the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND) informing him that unless he changed the grounds for his application, he would be compelled to return to Sudan.
“I was very surprised,” he adds. “This is the Netherlands, how can they do such a thing?”
Like many others, Ahmed, who arrived in the Netherlands in 2015, obtained the status of refugee through The Aliens Act 2000, which states that a person is entitled to protection if “at risk of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment upon deportation and return”. Now, his prospects for the future look bleak and uncertain. Ahmed’s story is not an isolated case. According to the IND, by November, up to 100 asylum applicants from the Sudanese war-torn regions of Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, will receive the letter informing them about the reassessment of their residence permit.
In recent years, the Dutch government has ordered several deportations of Sudanese refugees back to regions of Sudan that were alleged to be at great risk of systemic violence. In 2017, when the ex-strongman of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir was still in power, the Dutch immigration authorities deported a Sudanese activist from the Nuba Mountains, an area in Southern Kordofan, back to Khartoum. This ignored the blatant threats that independent activists faced under al-Bashir’s repressive regime.
The difference this time lies in the glaring fiction of a much-improved security climate in Sudan.
Responding to VICE News, Steffart Buijs, spokesperson for the Dutch Minister of Justice and Security Ankie Broekers-Knol, explains that “in the past the Dutch asylum policy on Sudan stated that, as a consequence of the armed conflict, the situation in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan was so dangerous that every person who lived there was at risk of suffering severe harm irrespective of their personal situation - a so-called 15(c)-situation”.
Buijs is referring to Article 15(c) of the European Parliament Council Directive, which stipulates that anybody whose life is threatened by reason of indiscriminate violence in situations of armed conflict is should be protected.
Buijs explained that “based on the country report dated the 3rd of October, 2019, it was concluded that the situation in these regions was no longer so volatile that it could be qualified as a 15(c)-situation”. Therefore, despite the ongoing violence, “it can no longer be stated that the mere fact that someone is from these regions is enough to assume that they are at risk of suffering severe harm and they require asylum protection”.
Unless the refugees are able to prove that the reasons that forced them to flee Sudan persist, they will face deportation.
According to human rights activist Yousif Fasher, the government has come to this disappointing decision based on unfair and false information. “The Dutch government is not giving enough importance to what’s happening in Sudan,” he said. “Al-Bashir was removed, but the Sudanese people are still not protected. Look at the reports regarding the security situation in those regions. They all confirm that these are unsafe or no-go areas.”
Political activist and artist Ehsan Fardjadniya investigated the report published by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in October 2019. He questioned the decreased number of fatalities on which the State Secretary based her decision, and found outdated figures that did not reflect the current security situation in Sudan.
In another report addressed to the UN Security Council, and dated January 2020, the Panel of Experts on the Sudan stated that following the removal of President Omar al-Bashir and the instalment of the new interim government in September 2019, the general climate has mostly remained unchanged and the security situation has been characterised by an increase in localised security incidents.
The last of these incidents occurred at the end of July, when 60 people were killed - mostly unarmed civilians - as a result of some 500 armed men attacking Masteri village, in West Darfur.
According to the experts, tribal conflicts and Janjaweed militia violence continue to represent a security threat to many communities, including the 1.6 million IDPs – internally displaced persons – that are unable to return home as these areas remain insecure.
“It breaks my heart to see people oversimplifying the situation, because they haven’t lived through it,” Niemat Ahmadi, president of the US-based NGO Darfur Women Action Group and first-hand survivor of the 2003 genocide, tells VICE News. “If they did, they would understand what it feels like for a person to run away from their own country. I haven’t been able to go home for more than ten years because of my political advocacy. With an American passport, they would grant me entry. But if I went back to my city of origin, the Janjaweed militia would shoot me.”
The position of the Dutch government remains clear, “although these incidents are very saddening, they do not lead to the conclusion that the situation can be qualified as a 15(c)-situation, and therefore do not give rise to a change of the current policy”.
The aforementioned COI- report came at a crucial moment in Sudan’s history. For the first time since the coup d’état that brought Omar al-Bashir to power in 1989, the country saw a return to a quasi-civilian rule.
The dictator, who ruled Sudan for nearly three decades, was overthrown in April 2019. After months of protests, negotiations led to a joint civilian-military transitional government to govern the country for a period of 39 months. However, Sudan’s political transition remains tenuous, and even before the coronavirus pandemic, the risks of failure were many.
Although there has been some progress in the pursuit of a comprehensive deal with armed groups and new security sector arrangements to maintain the peace in the conflict-affected areas of the country, the transitional government seems to be struggling to develop practical means to accelerate the peace process.
“Sudan is a country that needs to be rebuilt from its ashes,” Fasher believes. “We need effective national reconciliation, and independent legislative and judiciary systems. It’s not a country on which you can decide after a few months or years how it is heading forward. It’s a process. It needs time. Now I can’t see any substantial change”.
Ahmadi believes that unless the “disarmament of the militias, the withdrawal of the Rapid Support Forces – a Sudanese paramilitary group led by Gen. “Hemeti” Dagolo and accused of multiple war crimes – from civilian-inhabited areas, the integration of their forces into the national army, and their complete removal from Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan,” take place, more killings are to be expected, especially among women and children who remain the most vulnerable to attacks and rapes.
But Fadel*, who spoke with VICE News from his office in Khartoum, is of another opinion. According to him, claiming that nothing has changed since the removal of al-Bashir is “wrong both factually, and morally.” He adds: “This is an insult to the sacrifices of thousands of Sudanese young people who tried to make a change”.
The security situation in those regions has remarkably improved, he said, because now there is a civilian-led administration working with the military side of the Sovereign Council, “but indeed, there is still much work to do”.
One thing is clear: the history of the Sudan and its never-ending intra-wars is a complex one. It is a “blame game” between different parties and warring factions. The result is that the situation is still fractious, incredibly intricate, and it would be premature and untruthful to claim otherwise.
By November, around 100 Sudanese refugees will receive the letter from the IND informing them about the reassessment of their residence permit. With the help of his lawyer, Ahmed started a legal proceeding against the decision of the Dutch institution. Six months later, still no answer. There is much uncertainty among refugees about what’s to come.
“I have been waiting since May for a decision. I’m working and studying at the same time, but I lost my motivation now. The stress is too much to handle,” he says, “but I have no choice but to move forward”.