Human Smuggling and Trafficking in Eastern Sudan
1.1 Human smuggling and trafficking in Sudan, especially eastern Sudan
Sudan has long been a hub for individuals from the Horn of Africa on their way to north Africa,
Europe, and beyond, and this has only increased in recent years. In particular, eastern Sudan often serves as a passage for migrants from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia who seek to reach Europe and/or Israel (Sudan Tribune 2013). In addition, Sudanese themselves are increasingly using international networks to leave their homes to seek new lives abroad. For example, from 2014 to 2015, the number of Sudanese reaching Italy by sea rose from 2,370 to 8,370—and increase of over 250% (Sahan and IGAD 2016, 12).
Using international smuggling networks to travel abroad presents tremendous risks, however. For example, a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch claims that since mid-2010, hundreds and possibly thousands of refugees (most of them Eritrean) have been kidnapped in eastern Sudan and sold to traffickers in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where they have been held and tortured until their relatives have been able to raise tens of thousands of dollars in ransom money. The report accuses security authorities in Sudan and Egypt of turning a blind eye to this violent trade in men, women, and children and, in some cases, even colluding with traffickers (ibid.; see also Siegfried 2014). They smuggle their captives to the Suez Canal, where they and sell them to Sinai Bedouins, who then transport them across the Sinai Peninsula to “torture camps where their final ‘owners’ collect enormous ransoms” (Connell 2013). Between the early 2000s and 2012, the ransoms demanded grew from US$ 3,000 to over US$ 40,000 (a sky-high amount for Eritrean families). After Israel closed its border with Egypt to refugees in June 2012 (Sherwood 2012; HRW 2012), voluntary migration along this route ceased, but kidnappings continued (Connell 2013).
Unfortunately, human trafficking is nothing new in Sudan, although it is on the rise. The term “human trafficking” was first used in relation to Sudan in the mid-1980s, in connection with the abductions of Dinka women and children from South Sudan by Arab tribes of South Kordofan and South Darfur. These abductions prompted what was then known as the El-Di’ayn Massacre (Mahmoud and Baldo 1987). During the 1990s, abductions took a political dimension, as the practice became linked to the conflict between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and Sudan’s central government. This occurred when “Arab” tribal militias started formally fighting with Sudan’s government and hence became a concern for the international community.
In response to reports of such abductions, the UN General Assembly and its Geneva-based Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) expressed concerns about human rights violations and slavery in Sudan and appointed a special UN rapporteur for the country (Gáspár Bíró), who produced six reports on the “Situation of Human Rights in the Sudan,” covering the years 1993, 1994, and 1995 (UNGA 1993; 1995; ECOSEC 1994; 1995; 1996). The latest of these concludes,
[T]he total passivity of the [Sudanese] Government after having received information for years regarding this situation can only be interpreted as tacit political approval and support of the institution of slavery and the slave trade. (ECOSEC 1996, 12; see also Littman 1996)
The strong international campaign over the issue also prompted an investigation by the International Eminent Persons Group (IEPG 2002), which produced a report Slavery, Abduction and Forced Servitude in Sudan. This report confirmed the existence of slavery in Sudan, a practice used in conjunction with attacks carried out against civilian populations in rebel-held areas by progovernment militias.
Most early NGO reports link the phenomenon of human trafficking in Sudan to the North-South conflict. For example, early US DOS TIP Reports tend to focus in large part on internal trafficking in Sudan, in particular, involuntary transcription of boys into the rebel army (see, e.g., US DOS 2007, 78). After conflicts flared up in Darfur, similar claims were made about abductions, forced labour, unlawful conscription, and exploitation of women and children by nearly all armed parties to the conflict in that region, including the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), the Popular Defence Forces, the Janjaweed (a tribal militia operating in western Sudan), Chadian opposition forces, Sudanese Armed Forces, and the Central Reserve Police (see, e.g., HRW 2002; Darfur Consortium 2008; US DOS 2008, 232; 2014, 358). Other early reports indicate that the practice of kidnapping, then “redeeming” (obtaining a ransom for), victims has contributed to an escalation of the problem because it has created a “business” for middlemen from both Arab and African tribes (HRW 1999; 2002).
Between 2001 and 2013 and again in 2016 and 2017, the US Department of State featured Sudan as a tier 3 country in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, meaning that it was not making “significant efforts to bring [itself] into compliance” with the US Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (US DOS 2001, 5, 98).
Over the years, DOS has highlighted how the brutal combination of ongoing conflict, poverty, and a lack of rule of law and infrastructure have created a climate where Sudan has become a source, transit, and destination country for trafficking victims (e.g., US DOS 2017, 371). Even the earliest reports cite examples of Sudanese being transported abroad through Chad to Libya for involuntary servitude and young boys being trafficked to the Middle East as camel jockeys (US DOS 2003, 141; 2006a, 231).
During 2014, Sudan passed its Anti-Trafficking Act (US DOS 2014, 358–359). It also undertook a number of other national efforts, including (among other things) (i) ending “its public denial of the existence of human trafficking in Sudan,” instead acknowledging the breadth of the problem through press statements, conferences, and international efforts; (ii) adopting a joint strategy against human smuggling and trafficking with UNHCR and IOM (in December 2013); (iii) initiating an anti-trafficking section in the Ministry of Labour’s Secretariat of Sudanese Working Abroad to repatriate abused workers from the Middle East (in 2013); and (iv) achieving 70 convictions based on trafficking-related arrests (since 2011) (ibid., 359–360).
Due to these efforts, US DOS’s 2014 TIP Report moved Sudan from tier 3 to the tier 2 watch list, meaning that the country was “making significant efforts to bring [itself] into compliance with” the standards of the US anti-trafficking law, although further efforts were needed (ibid., 43, 357).
Although that report still focuses on cases of internal trafficking in Sudan, especially in areas of conflict, such as Darfur and South Kordofan, it does refer to abductions and brutalisation of Eritrean nationals by “smugglers from the Rashaida tribe,” a group widely believed to be responsible for most trafficking in eastern Sudan (ibid., 357–358; see also Connell 2013;
Mezzofiore 2015). The 2014 TIP Report also discusses some steps to fight human trafficking in eastern Sudan, including the following:
Gedaref state’s enactment of a law against illegal immigration and human trafficking in 2013;
the Sudanese government’s initiation of prosecutions of 25 suspected human trafficking crimes in Kassala state between 2013 and 2014, based on the Kassala Law against Human Trafficking and Smuggling (passed in 2010), and its achievement of 28 convictions;
the government’s establishment of a rapid emergency taskforce and response unit to deal with trafficking crimes in eastern Sudan in 2013; and
the government’s decision in September 2013 to issue work permits to approximately 30,000 refugees (mostly Eritrean) in Kassala (compared to just 180 permits in 2012), which reduces the refugees’ vulnerability to exploitation, forced labour, and trafficking (ibid., 359–360).
However, the 2014 TIP Report also criticised the government for the following:
failing to report investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees helping to facilitate human trafficking, in spite of assertions that police, border guards, and other government officials “facilitated abductions of Eritrean nationals, allowed potential victims to be transported across security checkpoints or international borders without intervention, and failed to take action against suspected traffickers” (ibid., 359);
adopting, at the national level, ad hoc rather than strategic measures to combat trafficking (law enforcement, protection, and prevention), which has resulted in new forms of trafficking arising within the country without being unaddressed in any way;
failing to make public data regarding cases of human trafficking and the government’s efforts to combat the practice; § failing to employ a system for proactively identifying trafficking victims among vulnerable populations or a referral process for transferring victims to organisations and institutions providing care;
failing to make any efforts to assist victims of abduction and enslavement that occurred during the 22-year-long civil war in Sudan or to facilitate their safe return to their families; and
not establishing an inter-ministerial committee to combat human trafficking (ibid., 358– 360) (Sudan’s government did this later in 2014).
Like the United States, other international groups have also begun focusing on the trafficking situation in eastern Sudan in the past several years. Much of the shift in focus has been due to the importance of eastern Sudan as both a destination and a transit country for international migrants, mainly from the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Eritrea), but also from western and central African countries (Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, and Kenya) (Sahan and IGAD 2016). According to UNHCR, by the end of 2015, Sudan was host to some 460,000 refugees and asylum seekers, nearly one quarter of them Eritrean. The large numbers of transit migrants passing through Sudan strongly indicates the presence of a well-organised network of transporters, warehouses, and financial facilitators who collaborate to take migrants to their destinations.
In spite of its efforts in 2013 and 2014, Sudan has again been relegated to tier 3 by the US DOS. Its 2016 US TIP Report states, “The Government of Sudan does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so” (at 348). The relegation back to tier 3 reflects an overall lack of significant anti-trafficking efforts by all levels of the country’s governing structures that bear responsibility for addressing the crime. The report continued to cite issues arising out of the conflicts in western Sudan, but also alleged the involvement of Sudanese law enforcement agencies in trafficking activities (ibid.), an allegation that was confirmed during our research of smuggling and trafficking activities in eastern Sudan and Khartoum. Nonetheless, Sudan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticised the report as “‘biased and intentionally distorting’ Sudan’s efforts to combat human trafficking” (Sudan Tribune 2016b).