Sudan: Combating human trafficking in the east

19 December, 2013
Shagarab, Sudan: Young girls attending a school at the Shagarab Refugee camp near Sudan's eastern border. Thousands of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants are at risk of being trafficked every year in Sudan's east. Credit: UNHCR
Shagarab, Sudan: Young girls attending a school at the Shagarab Refugee camp near Sudan's eastern border. Thousands of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants are at risk of being trafficked every year in Sudan's east. Credit: UNHCR

19 December - In Eastern Sudan, thousands of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants from neighbouring countries are at risk of being trafficked every year. Leaving behind lives of poverty, discrimination and exploitation, these people risk everything in the hope of a better life. Tragically, this exodus from a life of suffering is often more perilous than they anticipated.

Those most vulnerable are newly-arrived asylum seekers, mainly of Eritrean origin, who cross the border into Eastern Sudan. Both 2011 and 2012 saw a significant increase in the number of asylum seekers being kidnapped and trafficked in the east. In 2012 the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported an average of 30 kidnappings per month. However, this number is likely to be much higher as many people are kidnapped before they have the chance to register as asylum seekers. Many trafficking victims may also initially give their consent to being smuggled, only to be coerced later on.

UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) are implementing a comprehensive strategy to support the Government’s efforts to protect migrants, as well as other potential victims, from the risk of human trafficking.

A strategy to end human trafficking

At its core, this strategy highlights the need for a range of responses to address human trafficking. According to Kai Nielsen, UNHCR’s Representative in Sudan, the fight against human trafficking cannot be separated from the extreme vulnerability of migrants.

“We cannot lose sight of the underlying reasons why human trafficking has become so pervasive,” Nielsen says. “Addressing human trafficking means we must also address issues such as the exploitation of migrants, gender discrimination, poverty and the legislative capacity of authorities across the region.

“It is important that we develop a more focused and regional strategy which recognizes that the problem of human trafficking extends far beyond the East, Khartoum and even Sudan itself.”

UNHCR and IOM, in collaboration with the Government of Sudan, have developed a range of interventions. Improving security in border areas has been a key part of the response, with the opening of a new Reception Centre at Hamdayet on Sudan’s border indicative of efforts to establish a secure point of first contact for asylum-seekers and migrants within Sudan.

Additional responses include improving security in refugee camps, expanding psychological treatment offered to trafficking victims, developing the legal means to prosecute traffickers and establishing special programmes for unaccompanied children.

Significant progress has been made

Significant progress has already been made says UNHCR’s Nielsen. “The Government of Sudan has been very determined in its efforts to combat human trafficking. Since 2012 the Government has prosecuted 25 traffickers. Furthermore security in refugee camps, and in areas between Sudan’s international borders and refugee camps, has been stepped up.”

The overall number of kidnapping and trafficking incidents has decreased substantially in 2013, with a total of 89 incidents reported to UNHCR up to the end of November, compared to 324 cases in the same period last year.
UNHCR and IOM have appealed for US$5 million to continue this work in 2014.

The lucrative business of human trafficking

In Kassala state on Sudan’s eastern border there have been numerous reports of migrants, including women and children, being kidnapped and forcibly taken to other areas of Sudan or neighboring countries.

Unaccompanied minors and children separated from their parents are particularly vulnerable, with traffickers often viewing them as easy kidnapping targets. Many of these minors are first hosted in the unaccompanied children’s centre at the Shagarab refugee camp. However, according to UNHCR the relative security provided in Shagarab is short-lived, with two-thirds of children leaving the camp shortly after arrival, increasing their risk of being kidnapped and trafficked.

The issue is not merely confined to Sudan’s eastern border regions. Khartoum has reportedly also become a hub for the trafficking trade, acting as both a transit and destination point for traffickers. The lack of registration of refugees in urban areas has complicated efforts to protect vulnerable people in the capital from human traffickers. However, through the recent resumption of refugee registration in Khartoum, increased community outreach and active protection interventions, UNHCR has been able to support more victims in urban areas.

Trafficking victims are routinely held hostage for long periods of time, and their families are often contacted with extortion demands ranging between $5,000 and $40,000. Accounts of severe sexual and physical violence are frequent. When families are unable to pay the ransom, the violence intensifies.

“The abuse, exploitation and violence inflicted upon so many trafficking victims demonstrates a complete disregard for human life,” says Mark Cutts, Head of OCHA in Sudan. “No matter who the victims are or where they come from, we must do everything we can to end this abhorrent practice.”

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