Shagarab, Khartoum (Sudan) – Almaz is a 55-year-old woman who has worked for over 20 years in Shagarab, the largest refugee camp in eastern Sudan. One evening, last year, she went out with a friend to pay a visit to her husband who was sick in the hospital. They were kidnapped that night. People had heard them screaming, but there were no traces of them. The same night, five other women had been kidnapped in the camp by armed men of the Rashaida Bedouin tribe, who are involved in human trafficking. When the refugees of the camp protested against the kidnapping of Almaz and her friend, the Rashaida militants reacted with weapons, injuring three refugees and setting fire to some makeshift houses. However, the Sudanese security services only arrived in the camp once the kidnappers had accomplished their mission.
The women were taken either to the interior of Sudan or to the Egyptian peninsula of Sinai, where their families were forced to pay ransoms sometimes exceeding 50 thousand dollars to free them and prevent physical and sexual assaults or even the sale of their organs.
Due to the lack of security inside the camps and bad living conditions, refugees are the ideal victims of traffickers, who offer to take them to Sudanese cities to later reach Libya or Egypt as a gateway to Europe.
It is a dangerous journey from beginning to end. In December 2014, 19 young Eritreans left the Shagarab camp to reach the capital of Sudan by boat. They later discovered they had been sold by the traffickers to the Rashaida militants, who were awaiting them on the other bank of the river, near the Lake Khasan where a clash was taking place. During the clashes, 11 refugees were killed, 7 survived but were kidnapped and only one was able to tell what had occurred and to denounce what had happened to the other refugees before a Sudanese court.
The Sudanese government launched legal proceedings only after this complaint and after the intervention of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which adopted serious measures requiring that refugees be returned to their countries of origin.
Degree of crisis unclear
Nevertheless, the number of refugees who have risked their lives in the attempt to leave the camps in Sudan and reach Europe was about 118,000 between 2008 and 2012. Although reliable statistics are not available, the highest growth of migrants and refugees that the Sudanese authorities have faced was recorded this quarter.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of refugees and asylum seekers in Sudan is expected to reach around half a million by the end of 2015. The largest communities are expected to be Eritrean, southern Sudanese and Chadian.
“in Khartoum between 200 and 300 Eritrean refugees cross the Sudanese borders every day.”
As for economic migrants or migrants in transit to other countries, there are no accurate statistics, yet they are still millions. Speaking of the “immigration issue in Sudan,” Ahmed Atta Mannan, director general of immigration, has explicitly stated that the Sudanese authorities “cannot determine exactly the number of illegal migrants in the country, since these are large numbers, on extended borders through gateways controlled by criminal groups.” Most of these immigrants, however, come from the most densely populated countries, Nigeria and Ethiopia. It’s also worth noting that Sudan shares a 6670 km border with Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Chad and Libya. There is also the whole coastline of the Red Sea, approximately 830 km long.
Sudan: dangerous but practical
Sudan is also a convenient country of transit for Syrians who want to reach Europe since they do not need a visa to enter Sudan, unlike other countries like Egypt. Renata Bernando, coordinator of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Khartoum, manages programs that help Sudan and neighboring countries cope with the migration phenomenon, which has seen significant escalation since the beginning of the year. Bernardo says that irregular migration to and from Sudan is a phenomenon that occurs primarily “along the border of neighboring states, which is difficult to control.”
"Factors contributing to higher rates of irregular migration include a tribal overlap with neighboring countries, which allows large groups of people to move freely and without respecting the borders; the presence of armed conflicts in the region; the lack of state control; and finally migration from West Africa to Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage.”
But the reasons underpinning the increasing rates of irregular migration and law breach have a lot to do with the weakness of Sudanese institutions and the spread of corruption. According to a report on immigrants from Eritrea published in February 2014 by Human Rights Watch, “the Sudanese police in the eastern city of Kassala, near one of the oldest refugee camps in Africa, have found some refugees arbitrarily detained on the border by traffickers and even by police officers.”
As for the Sudanese, migration to Europe has been growing over the past two years, becoming the major destination for those leaving the country, immediately after the Persian Gulf, Libya and Egypt. This migration flow is closely linked to the war in the Darfur region and the general worsening of the economy of Sudan, which has lost three quarters of its income of foreign currency from oil production, following the secession of South Sudan in 2011.
To fix this situation, especially in light of growing international criticism, Sudan has launched a review of the laws on refugees and migrants. In January 2014, the Parliament ratified a new law on refugees and in March 2014, for the first time, a law to fight human trafficking, with heavy sanctions. Sudan has also established a National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking with prosecutors specialized in three major cities of the country. Following the implementation of these measures, attacks on refugees and rates in human trafficking have decreased.
However, the Sudanese laws have faced strong criticism from lawyers and activists, advocates of supportive refugee law. According to Professor Abdelsalam, the system approved a year ago “does not provide support for refugees in terms of social services; it takes into account neither the rights of refugees who are socially integrated in Sudan nor their type of settlement. Finally, it limits the freedom of movement of refugees and their right to work, mobility and property, risking their forced relocation.”
“the Sudanese government does not have a clear strategy or clear policies for refugees and migrants.”
Refugees also face the risk of expulsion from Sudan, as happened following a court ruling issued early last May. The ruling ordered the detention and expulsion of 32 Eritreans that had arrived in Sudan through the Red Sea, risking their deportation to Eritrea, which ranks first in the world in human rights violations.
Bernardo recognizes the problems faced by migrants: “The situation is not easy for migrants. Numbers are significant, yet the Sudanese are facing the same difficulties.” UN estimates indicate that in Sudan, there are about seven million people in need of humanitarian aid.
Nonetheless, Bernardo believes that there is “an improvement in the attitude of the Sudanese government towards migrants. We now have to wait for the decisions to be put in place.”
According to reports by the UNHCR, there are currently no plans for the voluntary repatriation of Eritreans, due to the current political situation in Eritrea; therefore, the decision is up to South Sudan. In the meantime, the IOM has helped stranded people return to their countries, mainly Ethiopia, Liberia and Somalia. This repatriation may be a drop in the bucket, as the main question to be addressed is the “fragile social conditions and political situation of their countries.”
As for those who are left in the camps, the objective is to provide them with the means to live as independently as possible. One year ago, the youth in the Shagarab camp launched the creation of a library in the camp. It was inaugurated this April, after the UNHCR gave them the premises in their international headquarters. Unfortunately, the joy was soon ruined by the Sudanese security forces, who have repeatedly closed the library on several pretexts.
With the continuing deterioration of the situation in the region and within the country, Sudan is facing great difficulty in managing the flows of migrants and refugees. The EU-Horn of Africa Migration Route Initiative, also known as the Khartoum Process, aims to tackle migrant smuggling between the Horn of Africa and Europe. Developed at the Rome conference in November 2014, though, much remains to be done to fully address the current crisis.
Translated by Evelina C. Urgolo
Editing: Naomi Cohen