Title: On the cusp of reaching a crisis situation: Human Trafficking in Eastern Sudan (3) by Tarig Misbah
Author: Tarig Misbah Yousif
Date: 01-20-2015, 10:30 PM
This is the last in a series of three articles on trade in people. The article focuses on eastern Sudan which has recently surfaced as a place where trade in human misery is rife. Despite losing almost one third of its area following the secession of the south back in 2011, the post-secession Sudan is still a large country with porous borders and destitute remote areas.
The State of Kassala had been through some turbulent years as it was severely affected by devastating floods and human displacement. Grievances resulting from abject poverty and lack of development in the region led to an armed conflict which erupted in 1995. Almost a decade later, the armed conflict was brought to an end when a Peace Accord was signed in 2006.
Eastern Sudan witnessed appalling scenes of massive influxes of refugees, notably in the 1980s. Although many refugees were put in designated refugee settlements, thousands of them still live cheek by jowl with the native Sudanese in Kassala, Gedaref, Khartoum and other big Sudanese cities. The region is now back in the spot light (and will probably remain so for years to come), both as a transit and a destination spot for smuggled and trafficked people. Demands for ransoms, often exceeding $5,000 per victim, remain one of the main motives for those who practice these criminal activities. A recent BBC report revealed that in 2014 human traffickers made some three million US Dollar from one single cargo ship packed with illegal migrants and found abandoned in the Mediterranean Sea near the shores of Italy.
Has Shagarab refugee camp become a hub for human traffickers?
Broadly speaking, human trafficking as a phenomenon in eastern Sudan began to hit the headlines almost less than a decade ago. It does seem that human traffickers operate with impunity in a region renowned for its population mobility along its extended borders with Eritrea and Ethiopia. Not only do human traffickers operate in Kassala State, they are also active through complex networks in border areas such as Galabat, Taiya, and Konaina Albeer in the State of Gedaref. It is no secret that some members of the security forces have become part of the illicit activity in the area. As mentioned in an earlier article, corruption among members of the police force, coast guards and other security organs has also compounded the problem. This is particularly evident in countries of origin and transit countries where police and border guards live in miserable conditions because they are poorly paid.
When I was in charge of COR's Budget Department in Showak back in the 1990s, Shagarab was part of Girba Refugee Settlement. The three Shagrabs (Shagarab 1, 2 and 3) were established as refugee reception cenres in the mid 1980s. I can vividly remember the serenity, the peacefulness and the calmness of the camps when I used to travel from Showak to Shagarab for the purpose of monitoring the implementation of the UNHCR-funded assistance programmes. The safety of the refugees staying in the camp was never a problem in the yester years, let alone abductions and human trafficking.
Shagarab is now part of Rural Wadalhilaiew locality, Kassala State (total population of Wadalhilaiew was 84,681 according to the 2008 Census). Hundreds of refugees, mainly from neighbouring Eritrea fall victims to criminal trafficking networks operating in both sides of the borders with Eritrea. They kidnap refugees from Shagarab before selling them to other groups in the Sinai desert, where victims are often subjected to torture in order to extract large ransoms from their relatives. Due to the stealth nature of trade in people, accurate statistics on the numbers of victims remain an unattainable goal. Some reports estimated that between 2009 and 2013, as many as 30,000 people were victims of trafficking and torture in the Sinai Peninsula. Shagarab has predominantly become a kidnap camp rather than a place of safety for refugees. Some of the very refugees who come to Shagarab may end up in the hands of human traffickers. This raises serious questions concerning the protection of refugees in Sudan, mainly adhering to international standards of refugee protection enshrined in conventions such as the 1951 UN Refugee Convention.
As 2014 was coming to a close and people were preparing to celebrate the New Year, in Shagarab, the Sudanese anti-human trafficking forces managed to rescue 16 refugees, 14 out of them were children. Aldar daily news paper reported that the 16 refugees were freed following an exchange of fire with the traffickers. The victims were locked in huts inside the camp and tortured by their captors who demanded huge ransoms ranging (Aldar, issue 7237, 29/12/2014). Torturing their victims is one of the traffickers' tactics to get the ransom quickly. It was also revealed that the refugees were kidnapped from Shagarab refugee camp with the help of some refugees who collaborated with the traffickers. The fact that no arrests were made following the incident means that culprits are at large and they can strike again. The point is that Shagarab has become a hub for trafficking in persons. If the authorities are unable to provide refugees in the camp with the protection they are entitled to, bold decisions such as relocating the camp have to be considered. Shagarab is thirty years old and the location of the camp (which is not too far from the main Asphalte road), has probably served traffickers who apparently find it easy to move stealthily around the area. The government needs to work out a clear strategy to tackle the problem of trade in people, particularly in Shagarab area. UNHCR as a custodian of international refugee legal instruments has to ensure that any future new refugee reception site in eastern Sudan meet the highest standards of refugee protection. The UN refugee organisation needs to allocate more resources in order to put an end to trade in people, particularly in Shagarab refugee camp.
In an anti-human trafficking conference held in Khartoum in 2014, the Sudanese Minister of Interior admitted that traffickers are active in refugee camps in eastern Sudan. The point is that many new arrivals in Shagarab appear to be using Sudan as a transit point to Europe via Libya and Italy or to Israel via Egypt. Human Rights Watch reported that some members of the Sudanese and Egyptian security facilitated trafficker abuses rather than arresting them and rescuing victims.
Sudan's efforts to combat trade in people
Rather than nipping the problem in the bud, there was repudiation on the part of the government and attempts to suppress the news of human trafficking. However, the aggravation of the problem in the last three years or so has put the Sudanese government under immense pressure from the international community. Eventually, Sudanese officials seem to have acknowledged the existence of the problem of human trafficking, especially when Sudan began to surface in the US Department of State's Annual Report on Trafficking in Persons. For instance, according to the 2014 annual report on trafficking in persons published by the US Department of Foreign Affairs, Sudan improved their rating in relation to combating trafficking in persons (elevated from Tier 3 to Tier 2). Obviously, mounting international pressure has resulted in some government's anti-human trafficking measures.
In October 2014, Khartoum hosted a regional conference on combating human trafficking. The conference was organised by the African Union (AU) in collaboration with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the Sudanese government. Although the government expressed its readiness to cooperate with neighbouring countries and the international community to end the practice, but words need to be translated into deeds. The conferees reiterated that volatile situation in the Horn of Africa are driving large numbers of people out of the region. Given their vulnerability, most of them often fall in the hands of traffickers and smugglers.
In December 2014, the Sudanese Parliament passed an anti-human trafficking Bill amid calls for tough and deterrent penalties against those involved in human trafficking. However, prosecution of those involved in this criminal practice in Sudan is still low. UNOCHA Sudan reported that since 2012, only 25 human trafficking cases have been prosecuted.
Given the major role of the source countries in the exacerbation of the problem, something has to be done, mainly in Ethiopia and Eritrea, if Sudan anti-human trafficking endeavour is to be successful. It can also be said that the Eritrean Diaspora, particularly in America, Canada and Europe has benefited traffickers who get their money from the relatives of the victim. Indeed the role of the Eritrean Diaspora is seen by many as encouraging smugglers who make fortunes from ransoms paid by the victims’ relatives living in the West. Rather, the Eritrean Diaspora should look for ways to lobby governments in the countries they are living in, and urge them to exert more pressure on the Eritrean regime to respect the human rights of its own people. In her Refugees and the Rashaida’s report, Rachel Humphris (2013) pointed out that stringent restrictions to get passports and exit visas which are unlikely to be eased, force Eritreans to resort to illegal routes. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), since 2004, more than 200,000 Eritreans have fled repression in the secretive Red Sea nation, often dubbed ‘the North Korea of Africa’. The point is that there is a sore need to strike with vigor at one of the root causes of human trafficking by putting pressure on the Eritrean regime to stop human rights violations which happened to be a major contributory factor to human trafficking in Sudan. Also, poverty and penury work in tandem to make young cohorts vulnerable to human traffickers.
However, Sudan's efforts to combat trade in people should not be done at the expense of the country's obligations to observe the international standards of refugee protection. Just last year, it was reported that 74 Eritreans were deported to Eritrea via Laffa area near Kassala. The deportations were a violation of Article 33 of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and could put the lives of deportees in jeopardy. There were also reports that the Sudanese authorities handed 30 Eritreans over to security forces from their homeland, including six who were registered refugees." (Sudan Tribune, Wednesday, 9 July 2014). By singling out young Eritrean girls and boys for deportation, probably the Sudanese government wants to be seen taking action against human trafficking. The assumption is that these young Eritreans use Sudan as a transit point in the hope that they will carry on with their journey to Europe or Israel.
By way of conclusion, human rights violations, unequal distribution of wealth and lack of development in source countries seem to have pushed many people to Shagrab. A lot of them fall in the hands of human traffickers. Beyond doubt, greed and the lucrative nature of the criminal activity are among the cardinal contributory factors to the spread of the phenomenon in eastern Sudan.
The responsibility of combating human trafficking lies with all countries of the globe, affluent and poor. All those concerned must have a strong political will if the concerted efforts are to bear fruit and make a difference in Shagarab and elsewhere. Despite the significance of the anti-human trafficking legislation, legislation alone cannot resolve such a complex problem.
Awareness-raising and sensitization are key to the success of any anti-trafficking endeavours. Anti-human trafficking organisations can use the internet to get the message across. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media outlets can also be effective tools of change. Blogging and Soapboxing can also be useful in raising people's awareness. Research is crucially important as it can provide accurate and reliable data for decision makers and can also give voice to the voiceless victims.
Tarig M. Yousif (PhD) is a freelance researcher in the field of forced migration and human displacement. He worked for many years as an aid worker in refugee camps in Sudan. He is reachable at: mailto:[email protected]@hotmail.com