Darfuri Migration from Sudan to Europe: From Displacement to Despair

Susanne Jaspars and Margie Buchanan-Smith

Research and Evidence Facility (REF) and Overseas Development Institute (ODI), September 2018



This study examines the trends, causes and consequences of migration from Darfur, Sudan to Europe. Key findings include:

  • Migration has long been a livelihood strategy in Darfur. Darfuris have traditionally migrated for work (seasonally or longer-term) and in response to food insecurity or famine, within Darfur, to central Sudan, to neighboring countries such as Libya, Chad and Egypt, and beyond to the Gulf countries. The outbreak of conflict in Darfur in 2003 disrupted traditional migration patterns, and forcibly displaced millions of people. When the crisis became protracted, migration resumed to Libya, and young Darfuri men also fled to Chad, Libya, Egypt, South Sudan, and Israel.
  • Migration to Europe increased from 2013 coinciding with renewed violence and forced displacement in Darfur, and as a consequence of restricted options in the region (due to political instability in Egypt, deterrent measures in Israel, deteriorating conditions for refugees in Chad). The collapse of the Libyan state enabled smuggling networks to flourish, and migration for gold in Chad and Niger provided a new source of income for migration. An estimated 8,500 Sudanese arrived in Europe in 2015, 9,300 in 2016 and 6,200 in 2017.
  • The majority of Darfuris migrating to Europe are young men from the Zaghawa, Fur and Masalit ethnic groups, which formed the main support base for the rebellion. Most are poor; Darfuris are among the poorest migrants travelling from Africa to Europe. Most have little education, but there are also considerable numbers of students. The consequences of being less well-educated and with minimal or no European-language skills compared with many other migrant groups puts Darfuris at a disadvantage in Europe. Most had a history of displacement; their migration journey began well before their decision to leave Darfur.
  • There are multiple, complex and interlinked causes migration including: (a) systematic persecution, surveillance, harassment, attack or arrest by government forces, paramilitary groups and militia; (b) loss of livelihoods and access to land due to displacement, discrimination and limited freedom of movement; and (d) social and family pressures, particularly for young Darfuri men, who are unable to meet their social obligations or get married. There is a deep sense of despair about the situation in Darfur; conditions in Darfur mean that migration is largely forced.
  • Migration to Europe occurs in stages, not all of which are planned in advance. Destinations change en route, e.g. untenable conditions in Libya forcing migrants on towards Europe. Once in Europe, onward movement is largely determined by the circumstances Darfuris find themselves in, or the information they receive from other migrants. Routes change quickly in response to border controls, however border controls have not stopped migration. Increased border controls and the effects of the Dublin III regulations have left Darfuris stuck in circular movements within Europe. Some Darfuris have been forcibly returned to Sudan, or return themselves, with little or no follow-up.
  • Smugglers are key facilitators of migration from Darfur to Europe. Paying in installments has enabled poor Darfuris to migrate to Libya and on to Europe, but they risk being held for ransom, sold or drafted into forced or slave labor. Darfuri migrants usually stayed in Libya for 2–3 years before accumulating money to cross the Mediterranean.
  • Social media and information networks are important facilitators of migration. Most young men got their information via social media from friends and relatives who have gone before, painting a much rosier picture than the reality. They made the decision to migrate to Europe on their own, preferring the short-term risks over “a slow and miserable death in Sudan”. There is a lack of knowledge among potential Darfuri migrants about their rights when they reach Europe.
  • Darfuris experienced exploitation, discrimination and physical violence throughout their journey. The most extreme cases of abuse and exploitation occur in Libya, where most Darfuris experience some form of detention during which they may be beaten, tortured and deprived of basic necessities. Darfuris who reach Europe face a combination of border controls (Italy–France and France–UK), slow asylum procedures and poor provision of assistance (France and Italy), use of force by police, lack of protection or assistance for those without legal status, and the possibility of arrest, detention and forced return to Sudan. Large numbers of Darfuris in transit in Europe are living rough. The physical and mental health of Darfuris in Europe is poor, with high levels of trauma.
  • Migration of a son to Europe can have positive and negative economic, social and political consequences for family left behind. This depends on whether the son makes it safely, whether the family has to pay a ransom, whether he is granted asylum in Europe and whether he finds work. In the longer term, the flow of remittances could become a vital source of income for families left behind. Families left behind also suffer the emotional pain of separation.
  • Lack of accessible legal migration channels fuels irregular migration and the use of smugglers. Migration policies of European governments focus on deterrence and containment of irregular migration, and do little to address the root causes of migration from Darfur. Deterrence measures and border controls are expensive and mostly ineffective, influencing migration patterns rather than volumes, driving migrants to take more dangerous routes, and encouraging smuggling networks.

The authors recommend:

  1. Addressing migration management as one of a complex set of challenges facing Darfur after years of conflict and a protracted humanitarian crisis: Effective migration management within Sudan requires an understanding of the causes, drivers and consequences of migration, and approaching migration from protection, humanitarian and livelihoods perspectives. Aid programs tackling migration must be politically informed and conflict sensitive.
  2. Addressing the root causes of migration of Darfuris to Europe: This requires ending the persecution of particular Darfuri groups, addressing the unresolved causes of conflict and ongoing violence, stepping up monitoring of protection for IDPs and students, and supporting livelihoods.
  3. Addressing protection and humanitarian needs along the migration journey: Decisions about returns should be informed by the findings of this study regarding the systemic persecution of certain groups. The authors also advocate for: addressing inconsistencies in asylum regulations and increasing burden-sharing; providing adequate assistance to refugees in transit and those waiting for asylum claims to be considered; ending police violence; providing treatment for trauma for Darfuris in transit and in destination countries; and improving communication about asylum procedures and rights in Europe.
  4. Increasing opportunities for regular migration and legal pathways to claim asylum.