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European Union and the Securitization of Migration in the Horn of Africa

Salahadin Ali, Makerere Institute of Social Research

The Horn of Africa is one of the major refugee producing and refugee-hosting regions in the world. Anxious about an ever-increasing onward movement of these forced migrants to Europe, the European Union has for long been working with the states in the region to stem the flow. In 2014, that effort culminated in the creation of the European Union – Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative, otherwise known as the Khartoum Process. The stated objectives of the initiative include ensuring “effective protection to refugees, asylum seekers, as well as to internally displaced persons” and addressing “the root causes of irregular migration.” However, the concrete outcome of the process, so far, has been an elaborate arrangement in which host/ transit states in the region are getting financial and material incentives to seal their borders and curtail the onward movement of migrants. 

Through a closer examination of the living conditions of Eritrean refugees in Sudan, this paper shows how, under the auspicious of European financing, the Khartoum Process worsened the life of migrants in and from the Horn. These outcomes mirror the negative effects of EU-supported policy changes on informal migrants in West Africa described in Balkissa Diallo’s contribution to this collection. This paper is an introductory note to a proposed larger ethnographic study on the modes of refugee political subjectivities in the region as they respond to broader structures of international law and international relations.

The Khartoum Process: Text and Context

The European Union’s Global Approach on Migration and Mobility (GAMM) represents its current policy framework on migration. The main objectives of GAMM are said to be: “better organising legal migration, and fostering wellmanaged mobility, preventing and combatting irregular migration, and eradicating trafficking in human being, maximising the development impact of migration and mobility [and] promoting international protection, and enhancing the external dimension of asylum.”

The GAMM is often criticized for prioritizing border control over protection of migrants. Yet, despite such criticism, entangling security and migration remains the main feature of the framework, as it has been in the other EU-Africa initiatives which operate under the GAMM’s overarching framework (see Diallo, this collection). The security approach that pervades European Union’s response to irregular migration in general also constitutes the hallmark of the Khartoum Process, with devastating effects on the lives of migrants in and from the Horn of Africa. Before examining this aspect further, however, a brief discussion of the regional context that led to the advent of the initiative is in order.

Since WWII, the Horn of Africa region has been an extremely troubled region. The experience of colonization and decolonization5 dragged the region into inter- and intra-state wars earlier than the rest of the continent. Those conflicts, compounded with arid and semi-arid climatic zone which results in recurrent droughts and famines, have been the cause of migration and displacement for seven decades. Thus, in 2014 and 2015 alone, 60,000 migrants from the Horn entered Europe. They also represented 10% among the deaths in the Mediterranean. 

One of the main source countries of refugees in the region is Eritrea, which is currently experiencing unprecedented migration of its people. Many writers explain the mass flight as being driven by the massive militarization and grave human rights abuses committed by the state. To avoid excessive presentism, however, it is important to look at the long history of conflict, poverty and militarization across the region which drives the large number of migrants to irregularly enter Europe and/or die trying.


On 28 November 2014, alarmed by the escalating and large number of migrants from the region, the European Union, following the Rabat model initiated the EU-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative, otherwise known as the Khartoum Process. The composition of initial signatories to the Rome Declaration (a foundational legal instrument of the Khartoum Process) reflect the wider scope of the initiative and includes countries from North and East Africa. More recently, in June 2021, IGAD Council of Ministers adopted the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons and Transhumance. Funded by the EU Trust Fund, the Protocol’s underlying objective is to facilitate free movement of people and it is hoped that the Protocol will improve labour mobility in the region. Member countries have yet to nationally rectify the Protocol and its full implementation may take some time.

Several earlier efforts had been made to regulate these migration flows. In 1998, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) adopted the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons, Labour, Services. Since its adoption, however, only handful of countries have signed it and it remains unimplemented. In 2006, the Rabat Process was established as a platform of migration policy dialogue between EU and the North and West African countries. The official website of the Rabat Process claims that the aim of the initiative is to “foster solidarity, partnership and shared responsibility in the joint management of migration issues in full respect of human rights.” To its critics, however, the concrete achievement of the Process remains “the setting up of a common EU coast guard that was tasked to patrol the waters between the African mainland and the Canary Islands”.

Despite the Rome Declaration’s preamble’s language that underlines “the need to ensure effective protection to refugees, asylum seekers, as well as to internally displaced persons” and stresses addressing “the root causes of irregular migration,” the Khartoum Process reflects the overarching securitized European approach to migration. It describes the initiative as an agreement “to undertake concrete actions to prevent and tackle the challenges of human trafficking and smuggling of migrants between the Horn of Africa and Europe, in a spirit of partnership, shared responsibility and cooperation.” The ordering and substance of the ten concrete area of cooperation listed in the Rome Declaration reflect the priority given to migration control. Cooperation to ensure sustainable development is only mentioned towards the end of the list, with refugee rights and protection deemphasized and demoted to a secondary place. 

The whole initiative finally boiled down to one core statement of intent: controlling irregular migrants by combating smuggling and trafficking of persons. The statement is problematic on many levels. Firstly, it should be noted that a phrase like ‘combating smuggling/trafficking’ is best understood as a “rhetorical tool for justifying control measures.” Furthermore, drawing direct connections between irregular migration and the crimes of trafficking and smuggling has serious implications to the rights of the irregular migrants. This can be seen from different angles. First, it fails to acknowledge that human smuggling and human trafficking are consequences not causes of migration. Tackling the crimes does not resolve the underlying problem –– the refugees’ need for protection. 

Second, the formulation presumes an inseparable connection between smuggling and trafficking. Though both might be criminal offences, smuggling is not a straightforwardly illegitimate activity. For example, in the Eritrean case “smuggling is a socially embedded collective practice that strives to facilitate safe exit and transitions of Eritrean refugees.” Smugglers are variously viewed as ‘humanitarians,’ ‘protectors,’ ‘traffickers’ or simple as people engaged in somehow legitimate business. For the majority of refugees from Eritrea, recruiting a smuggler is the only available option to illegally leave their country and continue their onward march until they rich Europe and seek protection. A clampdown on smugglers alone, without providing alternative legal channels, would not dissuade people from moving.

Eritrean refugees in Sudan in the Era of the Khartoum Process The European Union sees countries in the Horn as both sources and transit countries with European countries as final destination. While Eritrea is exclusively considered as a source country, Sudan is identified as the main transit country of the migrants (though it also produces its own refugees) ‘from the Horn to Europe through Libya or Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea.’ 

This assumption is, however, inaccurate. The collective designation of Eritrean refugees as ‘transit migrants’ obscures the fact that majority of those who left their country irregularly remain in and around the region. And “for those who do decide to move out of the region, the route to Europe is only one of several routes that can be used. The majority of those who leave the Horn go east, through Yemen to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, while others travel south, through Kenya, to South Africa.”

Nonetheless, based on that assumption and in the name of clamping down on smuggling networks, Eritrean refugees – especially those living in the cities – are exposed to frequent roundups and arbitrary arrests. The intensification of roundups and detention are part of the new drive to ‘combat smuggling and trafficking of persons’ in the wake of the Khartoum Process. One news item from last year, for example, entitled “Further arrests as Sudanese Police Crackdown on Irregular Migration,” states:

Sudanese security forces intercepted four smugglers and 57 irregular migrants ….It is part of their continued efforts to curb irregular migration and human trafficking. The police stormed a house in the East Nile locality, where the smugglers were hiding the migrants, according to Sudan Media Centre (SMC), a local media outlet stationed in Khartoum. The SMC report also revealed that legal action against the traffickers is being taken and that another three traffickers who escaped arrest are being hunted. 

Yet another news item says:

900 Eritreans were rounded up in Khartoum on Monday and that a further 400 arrested en route to Libya have been deported to Eritrea, [this] come amid recent revelations in the British and German media that the EU is planning to deepen its cooperation with a number of African countries, including Sudan and Eritrea, to stem migration towards Europe.

The implication of such measures in the life of refugees is enormous. One Eritrean refugee told an interviewer “I had first planned to go to Sudan and stay, but I had so many of the same problems there as I had in Eritrea. The police started to round us up there too – although it’s not as severe as in Eritrea. So, I had to change my mind and keep going on my journey.”

The detentions were conducted by segments of Sudanese security forces who are beneficiaries of “training, technical assistance and provision of relevant equipment” of European Union under the guise of “capacity-building support.” In fact, the majority of the €40 million budget allocated to the process goes “towards capacity building, and the EU Commission indicates that this is all to be spent on state institutions dealing with law enforcement, the justice sector and border security.”26 From the perspective of refugee rights this is problematic because the criminal justice system in Sudan is said to be ‘grossly deficient.’ Many Eritrean ex-detainee refugees in Sudan have allegedly experienced or witnessed torture and rape. In extreme cases, some elements of the security forces (now empowered by the EU finance) in Sudan are found to have a longstanding links with human trafficking rings and have been handing over refugee detainees to their partners in crime. In 2011 and 2012, for example, Human Rights Watch interviewed a dozen of Eritrean refugees who had been trafficked with the active assistance of the police.

In the wake of the Khartoum process, and largely supported by that initiative, Sudan adopted several legislative measures related to nationality, migration and trafficking. The Asylum Regulation Act of 2014 came as a major reform to the existing law but it greatly “restricts freedom of movement and does not provide for adequate judicial guarantees to challenge deportation orders and revocation of refugee status.”

Following the independence of South Sudan and partly in response to Khartoum Process, Sudan ratified a new Passports and Immigration Act (2015). This act “provides for wide powers of deportation for illegal entry, without judicial review.” Amidst multiple legal reforms and the inefficiency of the relevant institutions to cope with the reforms, hundreds of Eritrean migrants were charged with illegal entry under the 2015 Act and deported back to Eritrea without reference to the rights conferred to them in the Asylum Regulation Act (2014). 

One UNHCR press release in 2016 lamented the trend of “collective expulsions from Sudan of Eritreans to Eritrea.” The press release notes “at least 313 Eritreans were arrested on 6 May in the northern Sudanese town of Dongola. They were tried and convicted of “illegal entry” into Sudan under national immigration laws and were forcibly returned to Eritrea on 22 May. The Office has also learned of a previous collective expulsion of 129 Eritreans back to their country of origin a few days before the 22 May incident.”

This brief case study of Eritrean refugees in Sudan in relation to the ‘Khartoum Process’ is meant to give a glimpse of how the EU’s securitization of migration issue (and the different initiatives and partnerships informed by such an approach) are adversely affecting the status and rights of irregular migrants in regions far from Europe. As many writers suggested the Khartoum Process is being implemented in unusually high level of secrecy. For example, the EU support and financing of the Rapid Support Force (RSF) (the successor of the paramilitary force of the notorious Janjaweed militia which is now playing a key role in cracking down irregular migration) has, for long been, denied by the EU but recently admitted by the head of the RSF. 


Writing after the massive displacements and statelessness of millions of people in Europe between and after the two world wars, Hannah Arendt rejected the metaphysical conception that human rights emanates from our universal common humanity. For her, the notion of inalienability of human rights abstracts the category ‘human” out of its historical, social and political context and “…the paradox involved in the declaration of inalienable human rights was that it reckoned with an “abstract” human being who seemed to exist nowhere.”

The paradox that Arendt refers to exposes the fundamental contradiction in the notion of universal human rights. On the one hand, it speaks to our common humanity by holding that rights are inalienable and all ‘men are born and remain free.’ And all have the right to liberty, property and security. On the other hand, the origins and existence of human rights are very much tied to the existence of a nation state. The latter renders the appeal for our common humanity redundant and, for individuals, having rights is solely dependent on belonging to a political community in the form of a nation-state. For Arendt, therefore, in the global political order characterized by territorial nation states, the category ‘human’, which is the subject of the ‘human rights’ is not a generic one but is only a euphemism for the category ‘citizen’. 

Despite the proliferation of international human rights instruments meant to protect refugees and stateless people, the ‘rightlessness’ of the stateless to which Ardent alluded in the inter-war and post-war period remains with us. As we have seen in the case of Eritrean refugees in Sudan, European ‘migration management’ initiatives are heavily contributing to securitization of migration and are placing refugees outside the realm of rights granted under the international refugee laws.


The dominance of the security approach goes beyond the suspension of refugee rights conferred by relevant international instruments. Even worse, the European Union’s intervention has substantiallyeroded a socially embedded political culture which had been largely welcoming to refugees. Most of the Eritrean refugees who migrated to the Sudan in 1960 and 1970s, for example, had since been integrated into the local communities and many of them acquired Sudanese citizenship. This positive experience is very much part of the popular memories of Eritreans across the border. Recently this has dramatically changed and little remains of such local practices. 

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