Stranded at the Headwaters of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Before risking deadly deserts and a perilous Mediterranean crossing, the first steps of a desperate attempt at a new life cross Sudan.

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Haben dreams of Europe, but he’s witnessed the nightmare of the journey to get there. He has been through what his compatriots fleeing Eritrea dread most: After crossing the border from Eritrea to Sudan in a five-day-trek in January this year, Haben (whose name has been changed) was kidnapped by smugglers and held captive for a month. “The samsara took me to the desert and beat me to tears,” he said, using the local Arabic term for smuggler.

After his family paid $600 in ransom, raised through donations from their local church and relatives abroad, Haben was set free. He then paid another smuggler to be taken to Khartoum. But despite this ordeal and the growing cost to his family, he wouldn’t hesitate to put his life into the hands of yet another samsara.

“I don’t know how, but it’s my dream to reach Europe,” Haben said, shifting restlessly in a plastic chair in a small, poorly lit restaurant in Jerif. The area is home to many of the tens of thousands of Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants living in Khartoum. Haben has yet to secure a job to fund the expensive journey. It’s a problem shared by many of his new friends. They sit with him idly at the restaurant as Eritrean music blasts from the speakers. Still, for these men, reaching Europe is a goal of a lifetime.

Sudan is a major transit country for migrants and refugees from the Horn of Africa en route to Europe. According to interviews with officials from the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR), approximately 1,500 new asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea, register every month at refugee camps in eastern Sudan. The government estimates that actual arrivals, including those who cross the border undetected by authorities, could be three times as high — a calculation corroborated by interviews with officials from the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The majority of asylum seekers and migrants move on to urban centers like Khartoum to work, until they earn enough to be taken to Libya and, eventually, Europe.

The route is extremely dangerous, with migrants risking abduction, abuse, extortion, and being abandoned in the scorching heat of the desert with no food or water.

European leaders have pressed for more action to curb irregular migration following a record number of deaths in the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2015. With the incessant tide of migrants washing up at European shores, IOM predicts total arrivals this year to at least match, if not exceed, the 2014 figure of 283,532. In response, the EU recently adopted a 10-point plan that aims at fighting smuggling networks in Libya and neighboring transit countries like Sudan.

But unraveling Sudan’s long lasting and underground smuggling network is likely to prove difficult. “There are connecting points set up from Eritrea all the way to Tripoli,” a man nicknamed Hassan Adaroub, who claims to be involved in the smuggling business in eastern Sudan, said in an interview in Khartoum. “The smugglers use their social connections within tribes, and they have connections at the governor and minister level,” he added quietly, pausing the conversation whenever a stranger passed our table.

Adaroub, a member of the Shukria tribe, said he turned to smuggling when he failed to find a steady job for seven years after graduating from university. He claims border communities lack other employment options and will do whatever it takes to hold on to the lucrative smuggling business.

While he admits to being involved in kidnappings of Eritrean migrants like Haben, the 39-year-old smuggler faults the Eritrean regime for the problem. “The Europeans tend to blame the smugglers, but we are just helping people fleeing desperation,” Adaroub said.

With 34,586 arrivals in 2014, Eritreans constituted the second-largest nationality registered in at the EU’s external borders, trumped only by Syrians. Escaping political persecution, forced conscription into the country’s national services and extreme poverty at home, many are willing to face enormous risks.

“A lot of migrants who want to go to Europe or Khartoum don’t really think that hard about how they get there. They trust complete strangers and they often don’t know where they are going,” said Sarah Elliott, a counter-trafficking consultant for UNHCR in eastern Sudan, via a phone interview from Kassala.

Women are reported to take birth control in advance of the journey to avoid getting pregnant should they be raped. Abuse and beatings are common. Based on 113 cases of what Elliott calls “smuggling with other criminal elements involved” reported to UNHCR last year, 95 percent of abducted females fell victim to sexual gender-based violence, including rape. The actual number of abductions is expected to be considerably higher than the cases brought to the attention of the United Nations.

The Sudanese government has only recently started to acknowledge the extent of the problem. Last year, it passed a new anti-trafficking law and set-up a national committee tasked with its implementation. But law enforcement remains a challenge amid allegations of involvement of security services and border police in a country that placed third from the bottom in Transparency International’s 2014 corruption rankings.

In a rare public report, a Sudanese newspaper revealed in late April that two military officers were apprehended for transporting 65 Ethiopians in an army vehicle across the border. Nonetheless, government officials deny systematic involvement of authorities in smuggling. “Maybe a person or two can get involved, but at a normal level you can find anywhere,” said Awad Dahia, head of passports, immigration, and civil registration at the Ministry of Interior.

Sudanese officials have called on greater technical and financial support from the international community to fight smuggling and trafficking. “We as government, we did our part, now we are waiting for the international community,” said Hamad Al Gizouli Morowa, Sudan’s commissioner of refugees affairs. Officials in Khartoum have demanded the lifting of U.S. sanctions on Sudan, first imposed in 1997 for alleged support of international terrorism and again in 2006 for human rights violations in Darfur, which they say have thwarted the government’s ability to adequately equip border surveillance teams.

With the launch of the Khartoum process last year, an initiative by African and European leaders to curb irregular migration in the Horn of Africa, international cooperation seems to be gaining momentum. The process was hosted by Sudan and brought together countries of destination, transit, and origin — including Eritrea. The initiative presented a policy shift by engaging governments often ostracized by the international community due to human rights violations, a move that raised concerns among rights activists.

In an effort to contain irregular border movements closer to the point of origin, the EU has earmarked over $50 million in funding for programs linked to the Khartoum process. But convincing transit countries like Sudan to take responsibility for what is largely considered a European problem remains a challenge. “We should ensure that any moment the countries of the region feel the ownership. It shouldn’t be imposed on them because without their genuine cooperation, we cannot achieve anything for the citizens of Europe,” said Tomas Ulicny, the EU’s ambassador to Sudan.

Yet even as the international community gears up to crack down on smuggling, migration experts fear that current efforts fall short of fully addressing the heart of the problem. “People will continue moving, and we should aim to provide them with a safe and humane way to do so, for example by promoting labor migration schemes for all skills levels, not only between the Horn of Africa and Europe, but also between Horn of Africa countries,” said Renata Bernardo, project coordinator at the IOM in Khartoum.

Experts say that migrants would settle closer to their home countries if given the opportunity to work. But with youth unemployment exceeding 20 percent in many north and east African nations, many find themselves forced to venture far abroad.

The killing of Ethiopian migrants by the Islamic State in Libya in April sparked outrage at the Ethiopian government — which likes to pat itself on the back for its growth agenda — for not creating enough opportunities for the youth population. The killings also sent a shock through the migrant community in Khartoum. Next to the Ethiopian Embassy, a large billboard was erected to commemorate the executed migrants.

Sitting on the grass next to the billboard, a group of young Ethiopians from Hawassa, debate whether traveling to Libya from Sudan is still worth the risk. “I don’t want Europe or any other country,” said 30-year-old Mohammed Awal, one of few in the group with a steady job. Awal recalled the story of a friend who made it to Britain, but hasn’t been able to find work there either. “You just support the smugglers with no guarantee for anything,” Awal said.

His younger friend, 25-year-old Noureldin Khidir, insists on trying his luck. A recent arrival in Khartoum, his drive for a better future hasn’t lost out to disillusionment: “I am not afraid. I want to work and make money.”

Photo credit: ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/Getty Images

Simona Foltyn is a journalist based in Baghdad. Twitter: @SimonaFoltyn

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