Undocumented immigrants arrested last year by Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces. The European Union has made the country a nerve center for an effort to counter human smuggling, but many migration advocates say the moral cost is high. Credit Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
ABU JAMAL, Sudan — At Sudan’s eastern border, Lt. Samih Omar led two patrol cars slowly over the rutted desert, past a cow’s carcass, before halting on the unmarked 2,000-mile route that thousands of East Africans follow each year in trying to reach the Mediterranean, and then onward to Europe.
His patrols along this border with Eritrea are helping Sudan crack down on one of the busiest passages on the European migration trail. Yet Lieutenant Omar is no simple border agent. He works for Sudan’s feared secret police, whose leaders are accused of war crimes — and, more recently, whose officers have been accused of torturing migrants.
Indirectly, he is also working for the interests of the European Union.
“Sometimes,” Lieutenant Omar said, “I feel this is Europe’s southern border.”
Three years ago, when a historic tide of migrants poured into Europe, many leaders there reacted with open arms and high-minded idealism. But with the migration crisis having fueled angry populism and political upheaval across the Continent, the European Union is quietly getting its hands dirty, stanching the human flow, in part, by outsourcing border management to countries with dubious human rights records.
In practical terms, the approach is working: The number of migrants arriving in Europe has more than halved since 2016. But many migration advocates say the moral cost is high.
To shut off the sea route to Greece, the European Union is paying billions of euros to a Turkish government that is dismantling its democracy. In Libya, Italy is accused of bribing some of the same militiamen who have long profited from the European smuggling trade — many of whom are also accused of war crimes.
In Sudan, crossed by migrants trying to reach Libya, the relationship is more opaque but rooted in mutual need: The Europeans want closed borders and the Sudanese want to end years of isolation from the West. Europe continues to enforce an arms embargo against Sudan, and many Sudanese leaders are international pariahs, accused of committing war crimes during a civil war in Darfur, a region in western Sudan.
Mohamed Atta Abbas al-Moula, center left, Sudan’s security chief, in Khartoum last year. The Sudanese officers who patrol the borders have been accused of torturing migrants. Credit Ashraf Shazly/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
But the relationship is unmistakably deepening. A recent dialogue, named the Khartoum Process (in honor of Sudan’s capital) has become a platform for at least 20 international migration conferences between European Union officials and their counterparts from several African countries, including Sudan. The European Union has also agreed that Khartoum will act as a nerve center for countersmuggling collaboration.
While no European money has been given directly to any Sudanese government body, the bloc has funneled 106 million euros — or about $131 million — into the country through independent charities and aid agencies, mainly for food, health and sanitation programs for migrants, and for training programs for local officials.
“While we engage on some areas for the sake of the Sudanese people, we still have a sanction regime in place,” said Catherine Ray, a spokeswoman for the European Union, referring to an embargo on arms and related material.
“We are not encouraging Sudan to curb migration, but to manage migration in a safe and dignified way,” Ms. Ray added.
Ahmed Salim, the director of one of the nongovernmental groups that receives European funding, said the bloc was motivated by both self-interest and a desire to improve the situation in Sudan.
“They don’t want migrants to cross the Mediterranean to Europe,” said Mr. Salim, who heads the European and African Center for Research, Training and Development.
But, he said, the money his organization receives means better services for asylum seekers in Sudan. “You have to admit that the European countries want to do something to protect migrants here,” he said.
Critics argue the evolving relationship means that European leaders are implicitly reliant on — and complicit in the reputational rehabilitation of — a Sudanese security apparatus whose leaders have been accused by the United Nations of committing war crimes in Darfur.
Gen. Awad Elneil Dhia, head of Sudan’s immigration police, says the country is an effective partner for Europe. Credit Patrick Kingsley/The New York Times
“There is no direct money exchanging hands,” said Suliman Baldo, the author of a research paper about Europe’