In Retrospect

A tinderbox amid tumult

The rise in international movement of people, coupled with fast-evolving drivers of conflict, has created an urge for safety, security and protection of human rights of migrants — as witnessed during the Operation Kaveri

A tinderbox amid tumult

The African nation, Sudan, is in turmoil again. On April 15, fierce fighting broke out between the Sudanese army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF). At least 528 people have been killed, and 4,599 wounded, during the first 16 days of arm conflict. Foreign governments, including that of India, have been evacuating their citizens through air, sea and land operations. On May 2, a UN official said the body’s refugee agency was planning an exodus of 8,15,000 individuals, including 5,80,000 Sudanese people. The country’s population numbers around 46 million. Some 73,000 have already left Sudan, he added.

According to political analysts, this is a power struggle for the control of the country with an estimated population of 4.6 crore. Both groups were allies and they seized power in a 2021 coup. According to Aljazeera, the protagonists in the power struggle are army General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his deputy and the RSF leader, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo — commonly known as Hemedti. In October 2021, al-Burhan and Hemedti orchestrated a coup, upending a fragile transition to civilian rule that had started after the 2019 removal of long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir.

Al-Burhan, a career soldier from northern Sudan who rose through the ranks under the nearly 30-year rule of al-Bashir, took the top job as the de facto ruler of Sudan after the coup. Hemedti, from Darfur’s camel-herding Arab Rizeigat people, assumed responsibility as his number two. But tensions increased over the proposed integration of the RSF into the military. The key question is who is in control and who would be the military’s commander-in-chief during the integration period.

Western powers, including the US, had swung behind a transition towards democratic elections following al-Bashir’s overthrow. Russia has also been seeking to build a naval base on the Red Sea while several UAE companies have been signing up to invest, reports Aljazeera.

India-Sudan relationship

Historical evidence suggests that relations between India and Sudan date back to ancient times. There were contacts, and possibly trade, between Nilotic and Indus Valley Civilisation via Mesopotamia. It is claimed that trade between the Indian and Nubian kingdoms of Sudan via the Red Sea increased towards the end of the 12th century. Sennar, the capital of the Funj Sultanate, had extensive silk, silver ornaments, leather and gold trade with India through Sawakin Port by 1699.

In the early 1860s, a Gujarati trader named Luvchand Amarchand Shah, who imported goods from India, is believed to have come to Sudan from Aden. As his business expanded, he brought his relatives from Saurashtra, who, in turn, invited their own friends and family. This is how the Indian community grew and developed in Sudan. From the small towns in the eastern part of the country, such as Port Sudan and Sawakin, the early Indian pioneers moved into the interior of the country and settled down in Omdurman, Kassala, Gedaref, and Wad Medani.

In 1935, Mahatma Gandhi, on his way to England, stopped over in Port Sudan where he was welcomed by the resident Indian community. In 1938, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru also stopped over in Port Sudan on his way to Britain, and he attended a function at the home of Chhotalal Samji Virani. The Graduates General Congress of Sudan, formed in 1938, drew heavily from the experience of the Indian National Congress.

The first Sudanese Parliamentary elections in 1953 were conducted by Sukumar Sen, who was then India’s Chief Election Commissioner. The Sudanese Election Commission, formed in 1957, drew heavily on Indian election norms and laws. A Sudanisation Committee, established in February 1954 to replace British officials, finished its work in April 1955, with budgetary support from India for compensation payments. India opened a diplomatic representation in Khartoum in March 1955. In April 1955, the interim Prime Minister of Sudan, Ismail Al Azhari, and several ministers transited through New Delhi on their way to Bandung for the first Afro-Asian Relations Conference.

A document from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) reveals that India voted against UN resolutions critical of Sudan in 1993 and 1994, and opposed moves in 1994 to make Sudan compulsorily withdraw from the IMF. In his address on December 31, 2005, on the eve of Sudan’s 50th Independence Day, President Bashir made a special reference to Sudan’s strong ties with India. Strong political relations continue between the two countries in different regional and international forums.

As per a report by The Hindu, before the conflict began in April 2023, the estimated number of Indians in Sudan was around 3,400, including 1,000 Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) who were residing in Sudan for generations.

Operation Kaveri

On April 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the central government had launched ‘Operation Kaveri’ to bring back stranded Indians from conflict-ridden Sudan. India deployed its military planes and warships in the war-torn country. In addition to commercial flights operating from Jeddah, two Indian Air Force C-130J transport planes and the navy’s INS Sumedha vessel are in operation, reported NDTV.

The Indian embassy in Sudan’s capital Khartoum announced on Thursday that they had achieved one of the most ‘herculean tasks’ of ‘Operation Kaveri’ on its ninth day, successfully evacuating Indians stranded in the conflict-hit city of El Fashir. According to a statement issued by the Indian embassy, two buses carrying 80 Indians from El Fashir located in western Sudan, safely reached Port Sudan after travelling for over 48 hours, reported Hindustan Times. Five Indian naval ships and 16 Indian Air Force aircraft, including one from Wadi Sayyidna military airbase, have been utilised to transport the evacuees out of Port Sudan. Till May 4, the taskforce has successfully moved a total of 3,584 stranded Indians.

Other major evacuation operations

During the last thirty-odd years, the Indian government had to undertake quite a few evacuation operations — mostly in the Asian and Eurasian region. Here are few major ones, as reported by Jagran Josh:

* Operation Ganga 2022: A massive evacuation operation was undertaken in 2022 to safely evacuate 20,000 odd Indians who got stranded in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. The Indian Air Force had been given the responsibility to evacuate people from March 1, 2022. The evacuation flights operated mainly via the neighbouring countries of Poland, Hungary, Romania and the Slovak Republic, reports Outlook.

* Vande Bharat 2020: During the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government of India launched the Vande Bharat Mission to bring back Indian citizens stuck in foreign countries. About 60 lakh Indians were brought back as of April 30, 2021 in multiple phases.

* Operation Samudra Setu 2020: It was a naval operation to bring home Indian citizens from other countries during the COVID-19 pandemic. 3,992 Indian citizens were brought back to their homeland through this mission.

* Evacuation from Brussels 2016: In March 2016, Belgium was hit by terror strikes at Brussels Airport in Zaventem, and one at Maalbeek Metro station in central Brussels. A total of 242 Indians, including 28 crew members, returned to India on a Jet Airways flight.

* Operation Raahat 2015: In 2015, a conflict raged between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels. Thousands of Indians were stranded. Under Operation Raahat, India evacuated nearly 5,600 people from Yemen.

* Operation Maitri 2015: In the aftershock of the 2015 Nepal earthquake, the joint Army-Air Force operation brought over 5,000 Indians back from Nepal by Air Force and civilian planes. The Indian army successfully evacuated 170 foreign nationals from the US, the UK, Russia and Germany.

* Operation Homecoming 2011: India launched this evacuation operation to bring back Indian citizens stranded in conflict-torn Libya. Under the operation, India evacuated 15,400 Indian nationals. The air-sea operation was conducted by the Indian Navy and Air India.

* Operation Sukoon 2006: Israel and Lebanon broke into military conflict in July 2006. India rescued its stranded citizens by launching this operation. It is famously known as the ‘Beirut Sealift’. The taskforce evacuated about 2,280 people, including some Nepalese and Sri Lankan citizens as well. It took place between July 19 and August 1, 2006.

* Kuwait Airlift 1990: It was arguably the largest and most challenging evacuation operation undertaken by the Indian government. In 1990, one lakh Iraqi soldiers, armed with 700 tanks, marched into Kuwait overnight. Over 1,70,000 stranded Indians were airlifted and repatriated to India.

Protection of civilians

International humanitarian law is founded on the principles of humanity, impartiality, and neutrality. The development of modern international humanitarian law is credited to the efforts of the 19th-century Swiss businessman Henry Dunant. In 1859, Dunant witnessed the aftermath of a bloody battle between the French and Austrian armies in Solferino, Italy. The departing armies left a battlefield littered with wounded and dying men. A group known as the Committee of Five, which later became the International Committee of the Red Cross, was formed in Geneva in 1863 to act on Dunant’s suggestion. Dunant also suggested a formal agreement between nations “for the relief of the wounded.”

Several months later, diplomats from 16 nations, assisted by this committee, as well as representatives of military medical services and humanitarian societies, negotiated a convention (treaty) containing 10 articles. Known as the Geneva Convention, this agreement became the foundation of modern international humanitarian law, which now encompasses four conventions and three additional protocols. Collectively, they represent modern efforts to protect people in times of armed conflict.

In 1949, an international conference of diplomats built on the earlier treaties for the protection of war victims, revising and updating them into four new conventions comprising 429 articles of law—known as the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949. The additional protocols of 1977 and 2005 supplement the Geneva Conventions.

The Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, more commonly referred to as the Fourth Geneva Convention and abbreviated as GCIV, is one of the four treaties of the Geneva Conventions. It was adopted in August 1949 and came into force in October 1950. While the first three conventions dealt with combatants, the Fourth Geneva Convention was the first to deal with humanitarian protections for civilians in a war zone. Currently, there are 196 countries party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, including this and the other three treaties.

In 1993, the United Nations Security Council adopted a report from the Secretary-General and a Commission of Experts, which concluded that the Geneva Conventions had passed into the body of customary international law, thus making them binding on non-signatories to the Conventions whenever they engage in armed conflicts.

On May 24, 2018, the UN Security Council passed the Resolution 2417 on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. Resolution 2417 calls upon all states to uphold international humanitarian law in conflict, and ensure accountability for mass atrocity crimes. The resolution also reaffirms that states bear the primary responsibility to protect the population throughout their whole territory.

Subsequently, on April 27, 2021, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2573 on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. The resolution strongly condemned attacks directed against civilians in armed conflict, as well as attacks on other protected persons that deprive them of objects indispensable to their survival. Resolution 2573 also reiterated “the primary responsibility of states to protect the population throughout their territories.”

Lack of protection clause in GATS Mode 4

Intergovernmental agreements on temporary migration at the multilateral level have been taking place since 1994 under the aegis of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), as GATS Mode 4 agreements, part of the negotiations on trade in services. Mode 4 (movement of natural persons) refers to services traded by individuals of one WTO member through their presence in the territory of another. It covers employees of services firms and self-employed service suppliers.

After a decline in global migration during COVID-19, it has picked up again during the last two years. In 2021, total global remittances were estimated at USD 781 billion and have further risen to USD 794 billion in 2022. For low and middle-income countries, remittances from migrant workers are a major source of income for the home countries.

The table shows the amount of remittances received by five home countries in 2022. With an estimated USD 100 billion in remittances received, India is said to have reached an all-time high in 2022. For the past 15 years, India has consistently topped the chart of the largest remittance beneficiaries.

The US, the UAE, the UK, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia are the top five major countries from where India receives remittance payments.

It must be mentioned that the inflow of remittance to India has surpassed the inflow of FDI. India received the highest annual FDI inflows of USD 84,835 in FY 21-22. Compared to this the inward remittance in FY 21-22 was USD 89,127 million.

International migration from populous, developing countries is likely to increase in future as the population is declining in many developed countries. Escalating demand for temporary overseas workers necessitates the incorporation of migrant worker protection clauses into any multilateral framework that deals with temporary migration. Analysing existing GATS Mode 4 agreements, Pradip Bhatnagar (2014) found that WTO members have only listed the preconditions for worker entry, which the country of origin of migrant workers had to comply with. No country’s agreement clearly mentions the responsibilities it would willingly undertake for the protection of the rights of migrant workers. International Labour Organisation (ILO), as the leading international organisation on workers’ rights, should initiate a debate on GATS Mode 4 - both by collaborating with the WTO and also independently, by using its unique tripartite structure, international outreach and technical assistance.


In an immensely inequitable, competitive and fragile ecosystem, an international movement of persons is bound to rise in future. Already, conflicts are on the rise. A UN study suggests that the nature of conflict and violence has transformed substantially since the UN was founded 75 years ago. Conflicts now tend to be less deadly and are often waged between domestic groups rather than states. Homicides are becoming more frequent in some parts of the world, while gender-based attacks are increasing globally. The long-term impact on the development of interpersonal violence, including violence against children, is also more widely recognised. Though globally, the absolute number of war deaths has been declining since 1946, yet, conflict and violence are currently on the rise, with many conflicts today waged between non-state actors such as political militias, and criminal, and international terrorist groups. Unresolved regional tensions, a breakdown in the rule of law, absent or co-opted state institutions, illicit economic gain, and the scarcity of resources exacerbated by climate change, have become dominant drivers of conflict, the UN study says.

In such a complex global ecosystem, safety, security and protection of basic human rights of the international migrants must be ensured by both the host and home countries. In addition to the United Nations, ILO and WTO should also be involved in framing and implementing proper safeguard regulations for the growing global migrants.

Views expressed are personal

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