Human Trafficking and Smuggling: The Context and the Implication of the Sudanese Government in the Crimes
Because of its long open borders with two of its neighbors – Ethiopia and Eritrea – and its strategic position in North Africa, Sudan has become a hub for human trafficking and smuggling. The phenomenon has flourished with the ever increasing number of refugees and the presence of organized criminal groups waiting in the wings to exploit the situation and practice human trafficking. Unfortunately, these criminal groups are mushrooming; thanks to a large extent to government complacence and corruption. The involvement of official government agencies and agents in this human trafficking is evident through the participation, facilitation, and protection of some elements of these agencies in this crime.
Despite the absence of exact figures about the victims of human trafficking across Sudan’s eastern borders and the meagre information on traffickers, local and regional human rights organizations and observers have noticed a raise in the number of victims and the activities of traffickers. These increases can be attributed to many reasons including the push and pull factors in both the countries of origin and receiving countries. Chief among the pull factors that prompts the victims to risk their lives when undertaking such journeys, is that Sudan constitutes a springboard and a route to another human trafficking operation that takes the victims to Egypt and Libya and then to Europe. The lack of political stability and absence of border control in Libya, and the flourishing human trafficking between Libya and Sudan, have also encouraged the victims to gamble on the probability of success of such an investment.
The availability of employment in Sudan for the victims of trafficking, notwithstanding the low pay and the unfavorable working conditions, and the affinity of cultures and traditions between the victims’ home and Sudan, are also important pull factors. In addition to these pull factors, the victims have often been pushed from their homeland by the arm conflicts and resulting lack of security for themselves and their families. Other push factors that encourage migration across the boarders are the prevalence of unemployment and absence of hope for the future among the victims and their families.
The migration of Ethiopians and Eritreans into Sudan, either with the objective to take residence or transit onto other destinations, has been in practice for many years. However, recent international attention to human trafficking and refugees’ status, have pushed the Government of Sudan (GoS) to legislate the Human Trafficking Act of 2013 which was passed by the Parliament in March 2014. While this was a positive step and in line with international conventions, recent cases of involvement of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF), the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) and the police in human trafficking, raises serious questions about the credibility and commitment of the GoS in the fight against human trafficking and smuggling. Specific cases of these violations will be highlighted later in this article.
The Human Trafficking Act of March 2014, defines the crime of human trafficking as follows:
‘The crime of human trafficking will be levelled against any party that lures, kidnaps, transports, shelters, detains or prepares ordinary people with the intention to exploit, or use them to realize illicit gains in exchange for the promise of 1. illegal financial gain or the promise thereof, 2. immaterial gain or privileges, or the promise thereof, 3. the gain of any kind of privilege’.
The Act has also stipulated severe penalties, following conviction, against such criminals. The Act punishes those convicted of such a crime with imprisonment for a minimum of five years and a maximum of twenty years when the crime is committed by a criminal group, or if the victim is a female, child or a disabled person. The same applies if the person convicted is a government employee who has misused his or her authority to commit the crime. The law also stipulates that, if the victim died as a result of the crime, the person convicted faces capital punishment.
The legal definition within the Act clearly identifies the smuggling of people across, or from, the eastern borders of Sudan into Sudanese cities and towns as human trafficking. As such, human traffickers are in clear violation of the 2014 Act as well as the Sudanese immigration and refugee laws.
The increasing desire of Ethiopians and Eritreans to migrate to Sudan has prompted an equal desire among individuals, organized criminal groups and members of the armed and security forces in Sudan to engage in human trafficking. The involvement of the latter often takes the form of direct participation in trafficking or indirectly through facilitation of these operations and securing safe passage to traffickers to transport the victims from refugee camps and/or assembly points on the borders to Khartoum or other towns inside Sudan.
A report published on 18 May 2013 by the Sudan Media Centre (SMC), a pro-government news agency, purported that, according to testimonies of eye witnesses, smuggling of Ethiopians and Eritreans into Sudan is a multi-layered operation that involves human trafficking brokers on both sides of the borders. The brokers inside Ethiopia and Eritrea, in coordination with human traffickers inside Sudan, amass an agreed number of paying victims at a set location on a specific day/time. Through communications with the receiving human traffickers at the Sudan borders, those in Ethiopia and Eritrea transport and handover the victims to their Sudanese counterparts who would in turn transport them on a back route to Khartoum or other towns with help of local guides who know these routes. The report, citing eyewitnesses, also pointed out that those victims who are not be able to pay full dues to the smugglers on both sides of the border are usually left at the border, while those who pay in full are taken, under the cover of darkness, through the remote and rough terrains of the Butana, to the Eastern Nile locality of Khartoum State. A third group of traffickers take the victims from to Khartoum City where shelter and food is provided to them in safe houses.
The Minister of Interior, Lt General Ismat Abdulrahman, while addressing the conference on Human Trafficking in the Horn of Africa convened in September 2014 in Khartoum, said that 70% of the Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants had come from refugee camps to take residence in the cities and towns of Sudan. Here they are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. He demanded substantial improvements in the living conditions in the refugee camps to discourage these refugees from fleeing them.
The Role of Members of GoS Forces in Human Trafficking and Smuggling
It is unconceivable that complex human trafficking operations, whether they start from within refugee camps in Sudan’s eastern states or across the international borders with Ethiopia and Eritrea, could be accomplished without the protection of some elements of the GoS forces that guard the borders, the refugee camps and the 24/7 check points along all major routes inside Sudan. Eye-witnesses have recounted many stories where some elements of these forces collaborate with, and provide protection for, human traffickers and in some cases practicing human trafficking themselves.
One clear example of a member of GoS forces being complicit in human trafficking was reported by local media in 2014, when a Major in the SAF, was arrested by Military Intelligence (MI) personnel at alKhayari checkpoint located on the borders between AlGadarif and Gezira. The SAF Major was in a private vehicle, in full military uniform, when he tried to smuggle four Ethiopian females across the checkpoint. Following a skirmish with the MI officers when faced with the human trafficking allegation, he was led to the Fao town police station and charged with violating the immigration and human trafficking laws. He was later convicted and sentenced to a six-month suspended imprisonment and a fine of ten thousand Sudanese Pounds (SDG).
In another similar incident, a Sudanese citizen was arrested driving a privately registered station wagon vehicle, accompanied by a SAF Captain in a military uniform, while smuggling a group of Ethiopians females. According to official notes and eyewitness statements, the two men were regular smugglers of refugees and the presence of the SAF Captain in uniform inside the vehicle, was intended to provide protection and guarantee a safe passage through checkpoints. Fortunately, the MI received intelligence about the involvement of the Captain and his companion in previous human trafficking operations and accordingly stopped and arrested the suspects at the checkpoint. However, because of the influence and connection of the Captain, he was later released under the pretext that he was not the owner of the vehicle used to commit the crime, did not know any of the Ethiopian females in the vehicle and it could not be proven that he was in the vehicle to provide protection.
Testimonies of the Human Trafficking Victims
It was not easy to gather information about human trafficking and smuggling in Sudan because of the victims’ fear of reprisal by those involved in the operations, especially security forces. Also due to the trauma experienced, some of the victims prefer not to recount their stories. However, it is important to understand from the victims the challenges they faced during their journeys, the financial cost and the parties involved. From such testimonies, some of the darker corners of human trafficking have been illuminated. It’s also become evident that victims often face similar situations and challenges, as illustrated by the two stories detailed below.
An Eritrean victim of human trafficking, who currently sells tea at a street corner in a Sudanese town, said that she had been planning for a long time to migrate to Italy via Sudan and Libya. With the help of her family and friends, she managed to raise the equivalent of USD $1000 to cover the cost of the Ethiopian and Sudanese human traffickers, the transport and food. She paid USD $300 to the Eritrean smugglers to transport her with other victims to the Sudanese border and from there, she walked across the border to Shajarab Refugee Camp – located south of the Sudanese town of Kassala. Once inside the camp, she submitted an application to secure refugee status, but did not receive a reply for two months. When the situation became unbearable in the camp, she contacted an Eritrean acquaintance who had good connections with Sudanese traffickers, to arrange for her trip to Khartoum. After negotiating, she paid 500 SDG to the Eritrean mediator and 1,500 SDG to the Sudanese human traffickers.
The journey to Khartoum started at dusk, in the back of a Toyota truck together with nine other victims (three females and six males). The vehicle travelled at high speed across the bumpy dirt road until it stopped at midnight at a mud house in a remote village not far from Khartoum. The victims were told to stay inside the house at all times and never to venture outside. At sunset the following day, a Sudanese and an Ethiopian came to the house in a mini-bus and drove them to AJiraif neighborhood in Khartoum State, where they were distributed across a number of safe houses for shelter with other previously smuggled victims from Ethiopia and Eritrea. The new victims were asked to pay 250 SDG (the equivalent of $60) for the cost of transportation from the last stop and to cover accommodation and meals for the first day at the safe house. As she did not have enough money for the rent, she was kicked out of the safe house within a few weeks. She then moved to another part of Khartoum where she was able to find work as a helper to a tea seller. She is now settled and relatively better-off as she managed to learn Arabic, which helped her to find a better job, but she has abandoned the dream of traveling to Europe due to the high cost demanded by human traffickers.
The other account comes from an Ethiopian victim who used to work as a security guard for a Sudanese businessman in Ethiopia. He told a Sudanese co-worker about his desire and intention to travel to Sudan and, eventually, to Europe. The co-worker introduced him to an Ethiopian smuggler, who demanded USD $400 to arrange for his journey from the Ethiopian town of Shahidi to Khartoum, without passing through any of the refugee camps. When he reached Abu Ghamul, on the Ethiopian-Sudanese border, he was met by two Sudanese government officials from the border control. They put him into a vehicle, with other victims, to transport them directly to Khartoum. The journey ended at a poultry farm in the outskirts of Khartoum, which he later found out belonged to the same businessman that he used to work for in Ethiopia. The victim currently works at a farm but is not happy with the monthly pay, the work restrictions and the unknown immigration status. This situation has increased his determination to save enough money to continue his journey to Europe via Libya.
These testimonies, and many other similar accounts, of victims of trafficking across the eastern Sudanese borders, reveal the great difficulties and challenges they face in their journeys to Khartoum and other towns in Sudan. Most of the victims complained about the behavior of the human traffickers on both sides of the borders. Victims reported being robbed and left in remote areas by the smugglers after disagreements with brokers or drivers. An excuse used by the human traffickers for abandoning the victims is the presence of patrols or checkpoints. When they do get stopped by a patrol, more money is demanded from the victims before they are allowed to continue their journey to Khartoum. If any victim refuses to oblige, they are subjected to punishments such as work without pay. Female migrants are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment, assault and even rape.
In addition to untold suffering at the hands of human traffickers and the evident role played by Sudanese officials and regular forces, the testimonies also reveal two other kinds of criminal activity, namely labour and sexual exploitation.
The rise in the volume of human trafficking and smuggling have led to a sharp increase in the number of Ethiopians and Eritreans in Sudan and the high supply of cheap labor in the labor market. Many employers have exploited this high supply in multiple ways. Apart from the low wages, victims are not afforded legally binding employment contracts, health insurance, holidays and sick leave. They are also often subjected to demeaning and harsh treatment, long work hours, and termination of their employment without notice and compensation. In the absence of GoS protection, the victims realize that they have no option other than to endure these conditions in order to survive and pay their bills.
Sexual exploitation, often of women and young girls, is one of the worst and most alarming consequences of human trafficking and smuggling. These female victims, especially those employed as domestic workers, usually rely on their male employers for protection from immigration laws. However, such a need for protection puts them at the mercy of those very employers who can sexually, verbally and physically assault them. Their vulnerability is increased by being in a patriarchal society that discriminates against them simply for being female and Ethiopian or Eritrean. The situations that these women are exposed to, in some cases pushes them to work as prostitutes – especially when it is difficult to find decent work to earn a living. This leads to further maltreatment, and in some cases injury, illness and death.
However, many of the refugees interviewed said that, despite the dangers they faced, the exploitation they had to endure at the hands of their smugglers and employers, the high financial cost and the physical and psychological hardships, the migration to Sudan and to Europe was certainly worth the sacrifice. To them, arriving in Khartoum as their first destination en route to Europe, means their dream is just beginning to come true.
Key Measures to Combat Human Trafficking
Sudan, as a host country for victims of human trafficking, has certain responsibilities, the most salient of which is to apprehend and prosecute the individuals and groups involved in these crimes. When the culprits are government officials or members of the armed forces, police and NISS, the punishment must be more severe to deter such practice.
Protecting, hosting and helping victims of human trafficking and smuggling can only be upheld when the anti-trafficking international and regional conventions and regulations are fully incorporated in the constitution and the law of the land and implemented. Sudan must abide by the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, ratified by the GoS on 10 December 2004, and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, ratified by the GoS in December 2014. The importance of these international responsibilities and commitments was reiterated at the conference on Human Trafficking in the Horn of Africa that was organized by the African Union (AU) in collaboration with the Government of the Sudan, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and convened in Khartoum in September 2014. Being the first of its kind, the conference attracted a wide gamut of African and Western participations. The Khartoum Declaration required the GoS to strictly observe the recommendations, strategies and work plans of the conference which include the following;
1- A call to all participating countries to ratify the regional and international agreements on human trafficking and smuggling.
2- A call to develop close cooperation and coordination between all regional and international parties to implement the recommendations of the conference.
3- A call to participants’ government to incorporate rules and regulation intended to fight human trafficking, in their overall economic and social development policies and programs.
The alarming raise in human trafficking and smuggling, on national, regional and international levels, coupled with evident roles of government officials and members of SAF, police and NISS, require an honest discourse and discussion of this crime. A more comprehensive approach to addressing this phenomenon and its fallouts is to involve the victims, their families, civil society organizations and the public at large. This is especially true in light of the questionable determination of the GoS in combating this crime.