Eritreans have been seeking asylum in east Sudan for more than four decades and the region now hosts more than 100,000 refugees1. East Sudan has also become a key transit region for those fleeing Eritrea. One route, from East Sudan to Egypt, the Sinai desert and Israel has gained increasing attention. According to UNHCR statistics, the number of Eritreans crossing the border from Sinai to Israel has increased from 1,348 in 2006 to 17,175 in 2011. Coupled with this dramatic growth in numbers, the conditions on this route have caused great concern. Testimonies from Eritreans have increasingly referred to kidnapping, torture and extortion at the hands of human smugglers and traffickers.
The smuggling route from Eritrea to Israel is long, complex and involves many different actors. As such, it cannot be examined in its entirety in a single paper. This analysis consequently focuses on the movement of people from Eritrea to east Sudan, and from east Sudan to Egypt. A review of testimonies from Eritrean refugees and key informant interviews provide an understanding of the situation from the available data.
The paper is structured as follows. Following brief contextual information the paper opens with an examination of motivations and aspirations to leave Eritrea based on testimonies collected by UNHCR and NGOs in Israel and Cairo. This includes an overview of the current situation in Eritrea and the importance of the Eritrean diaspora in decision making. Section two addresses the changing refugee dynamics in east Sudan and why Shagarab refugee camp has become predominantly a place of transit rather than refuge.
The following section examines the role of smugglers in east Sudan. One group of smugglers mentioned in many testimonies are from an ethnic group known as the Rashaida. In order to explain their ubiquity in testimonies this section places human smuggling in the context of wider processes of trade, underdevelopment in the region and Sudan-Eritrean relations. It argues that the actions of a small number of Rashaida involved in the process of smuggling Eritreans are one of the products, not causes, of insecurity in the region. However, this should not detract from or lessen the human rights violations taking place along the route. To conclude the challenges and possibilities for protection, assistance and security are reviewed.
This paper is not a definitive guide to the situation and some pertinent limitations should be stressed. The situation is highly complex, fluid and subject to rapid change. There is currently research being undertaken that will detail specific routes, locations and individuals involved whereas this paper will outline trends and historical developments from the available literature. It is also important to note the testimonies examined in this paper were collected from those who had reached NGOs and UNHCR offices in Egypt or Israel and had specific protection concerns.2 There is therefore a bias within the testimonies and they do not reflect the myriad journeys and experiences of those who did not reach either of these destinations.