As UK rushes to evacuate UK nationals from Sudan, will there be ‘safe routes’ for those left behind?, asks Joseph Kelly

Isn’t it just the way it goes … after months of controversy, bad publicity and backlash, you finally get your way and even defy the European Court of Human Rights, and then along comes a flash conflict that throws everything you’ve said right back into the spotlight.

No doubt Suella Braverman has had better weeks, and our Home Secretary has remained predictably reticent and bullish in the face of the Sudan conflict, which has thrown up a whole raft of uncomfortable questions about the UK’s much-vaunted policy on refugees.

Whilst several hundred British nationals have been evacuated from the fighting in Sudan, most common among the questions being echoed around the media and parliament this week was whether or not ‘safe routes’ existed for people who are not British nationals wanting to flee the conflict. Braverman had no hesitation in telling parliament: “We have no plans to do that.”

The current advice to refugees from Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick is that The United Nations is operating “in most, if not all, of the countries surrounding Sudan” and his ‘best advice’ is for “individuals to present to the UNHCR”, the UN’s refugee agency. That’s not a view shared by the UNHCR, which has refuted Jenrick’s statement unequivocally: “There is no mechanism through which refugees can approach UNHCR with the intention of seeking asylum in the UK.”

Speaking to GB News yesterday, Braverman reiterated the ‘UNHCR safe route’ line, and emphasised that UK policy remains that anyone found crossing the English Channel via the ‘small boats’ route was very likely to find themselves shipped straight back to Rwanda – a desperately wasteful ‘air miles’ journey for the hapless refugees. She also said that UK’s priority was to evacuate UK nationals but, with a very flaky 72-hour ceasefire agreed, and so far just a few hundred of several thousand UK nationals evacuated, help for Sudanese refugees is clearly a long way down the road.

All this seems a very long way from the optimism of February, when Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland visited Sudan to try and move the nation towards peace. Unfortunately, whilst the visit was high on hopes and prayers, it was also undertaken in the stark awareness that there was an urgent need for someone to try and kickstart the process of reconciliation in Sudan, which has been torn apart – not only by some 60 years of conflict and division – but by a dogged reluctance on the part of political and social leaders to engage with peacemaking, recognition of atrocities and recompense for bereavement and dislocation.

It is estimated that in the past five years alone there has been some 400,000 deaths in Sudan, millions have been displaced and hundreds of thousands have experienced dreadful famine. This week the UNHCR said it was expecting some 270,000 refugees to cross into Chad and South Sudan, though reports are suggesting the high cost of transport out, a lack of advice and communication from officials at all levels and reluctance to issue travel documents is making escape for many difficult, if not impossible.

“Currently, there are no facilities to receive those crossing the border. Those who have arrived are camped at a school, and there are a few who have occupied a judge’s compound,” James Wani, South Sudan country director at Christian Aid, told The Guardian on Wednesday.

Kathryn Mahoney, global spokesperson for UNHCR, said refugees in Chad also need urgent help. “Most of the new arrivals are women and children,” she said. “They are out in the open, sleeping in makeshift shelters or under the trees. New arrivals need protection and assistance.”

Back here in the UK there has been a worrying lack of coherence from government ministers, giving the impression that whilst the Home Secretary may be in no doubts about her antagonism towards the stranger on our doorstep, others simply have no idea what the government policy on immigration is, or indeed if there currently is one at all.

Just yesterday Foreign office minister Andrew Mitchell appeared on Sky News and, when asked what “safe and legal routes” existed for a Sudanese person to claim asylum in the UK, replied “Well, at the moment those safe and legal routes don’t exist. But the prime minister in the changes that we are making as part of the [Illegal Migration Bill] has said that we will be seeking to set up safe and legal routes.” This is in direct contradiction of what Suella Braverman has been saying since Monday. In the Commons yesterday, foreign secretary James Cleverly even seemed to play light of the Sudan conflict, saying it was just one of many conflict areas in the world, and that the government’s migration reforms would be “as we have promised, establishing safe and legal routes”.

Sadly, a week of dialogue and political debate will sound remarkably familiar to those working in conflict areas, and especially to Catholic and other aid agencies who are invariably left to pick up the pieces when trouble breaks out and politicians just kick the can down the road.

Back in February, when Pope Francis met with people displaced by the decades of conflict in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, he understood that things were about to get far worse.

“I want to renew my forceful and heartfelt appeal to end all conflict and to resume the peace process in a serious way,” he told the crowd of several thousand refugees gathered in the city’s Freedom Hall.

“There is no room for delay,” Francis said to applause, his words echoing his message to the country’s leaders the day before in which he criticised the “stagnant” peace process. In typically blunt and direct speeches across his February Sudan visit he urged the people to build “good human relationships as a way of curbing the corruption of evil, the disease of division, the filth of fraudulent business dealings and the plague of injustice”.

South Sudan has accumulated some of the largest oil reserves on sub-Saharan Africa, but in 2021 a UN report revealed that aid the country’s leaders had diverted “staggering amounts of money and other wealth” from public coffers and resources, and countless covert connections between African leaders and western governments and businesses mean that people typically come pretty far down the list of priorities when it comes to conflict resolution. The UN has warned that Millions of Sudanese civilians are in urgent need of food, shelter, clean water and medical aid, and looting is already rampant across the country, including at warehouses where humanitarian aid and food supplies are stored.

Even before this latest conflict, aid agencies, including many leading Catholic charities, have been providing assistance for some 15 million desperate and displaced people, with little meaningful help coming from the governments of wealthier countries. Over the past 48 hours the UK government may have pledged its support for getting UK nationals out of Sudan, but the stability and future of the country and its 41.8 million citizens remains an obviously low priority.

Those with political and analytical expertise on African affairs have long been warning that darker, larger forces are at work across Africa, with China and Russia in particular said to be keen on encouraging destabilisation, conflict and the seizing of natural resources and territories.

Back in 2014, whilst visiting Italy’s largest military cemetery to commemorate the centenary of the First World War, Pope Francis issued a warning that: “Even today, after the second failure of another world war, perhaps one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction.”

The notion of a third world war being fought by proxy bears a chilling resemblance to what is happening currently in Africa, which by all accounts is becoming both a military and commercial battlefield for hawkish developed nations, the UK amongst them.

Sadly our present government seems either acutely unaware of or disinterested in the dangers of regional conflicts in Africa spilling out into wider warfare, but instead seems naively preoccupied with sealing the UK’s borders – not against military incursions, but against innocent, desperate citizens fleeing conflicts in which we have invariably had heavily-compromised interests.

It has been said by Christian leaders since the days of Jesus himself that until we divest ourselves of the notion of warfare as a means of solving our problems, there will ever be suffering, loss and disruption in our fragile world, and we will be doomed to repeat endlessly the bloody mistakes of our past.

Tragically, Sudan seems destined to become yet another name on the list of such dismal human failures.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and political theologian