Sudan: From People Smuggling to Human Trafficking

9 January 2019
Research Innovation

Sasha Jesperson  | Co-founder and Director, ITERU
Michael Jones  | Research Analyst, RUSI

In contrast to other countries, much of the migratory movements through Sudan begin consensually. Sudan has long been a hub for migration in multiple directions. Corruption, conflict, concurrent levels of deprivation and rapid economic expansion, porous borders and transnational kinship ties all help encourage, facilitate and expedite irregular migration. But the recent flows of Eritreans, fleeing conscription and political violence, into Sudan with intentions of continuing to Europe, has resulted in increased attention on irregular migration in the country.

As a source, transit and destination country for migrants from across East and Central Africa, criminal networks have emerged to service these flows with the provision of logistics, accommodation and transportation. Rather than relying on kingpins or mafia-type criminal organizations, the smuggling market in East Africa is mostly saturated with small competing cells subscribing to the “supermarket principle”: high volume with low costs, high turnover and mass movement. Driving 4×4 pick-ups and Hino ZY trucks, local smugglers in Sudan tend to ferry migrants for a certain stretch before offloading them to the next smuggler, leveraging their territorial knowledge and buy-in from host communities.

Bosses with political or social connections may control specific bottlenecks, such as crossings along the Eritrean-Sudanese border, but this monopoly dissipates in relatively open, unregulated contexts like Eastern Sudan and Darfur, where barriers to market-entry are far lower. The industry is therefore defined by a spectrum of ‘loose’ relationships forming, dissolving and re-forming along specific routes, flows and opportunities. This devolved structure means low-level Sudanese smuggling networks are extremely versatile, adapting to the closure of routes and scaling to manage fluctuations in demand.

While this structure is indicative of a business-like smuggling network, the movement of people has moved from people smuggling to human trafficking in many cases. Most Eritreans begin their journey consensually – seeking out smugglers to assist their transit out of the country. But, the economic opportunity that irregular migrants represent has resulted in increased exploitation, particularly as the Sudanese economy has worsened.

Desert. Unsplash/Joshua Sortino.

In 2014 Human Rights Watch reported that thousands of refugees were kidnapped between mid-2010 and 2014 and either ransomed or sold into trafficking markets across Libya, Sudan and the Sinai Peninsula.  The prevalence of domestic servitude, forced labour and sexual exploitation led the US to grade Sudan as Tier 3 since 2016 in its Trafficking in Persons Report for not fully meeting the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and making significant efforts to do so, although as of 2018 Sudan has been lowered to the Tier 2 watchlist.

The type and form of exploitation is generally aligned with the resources of aspiring migrants. Migrants who can afford to pay upfront usually have the most protected journey, especially if they purchase ‘full-package’ solutions. Research by the Sahan Foundation and IGAD Security Sector Programme describe how migrants with ‘sufficient money and connections’ can purchase a four-wheel drive vehicle to take them to Khartoum and arrange flights to various international destinations. They are not immune from risk and their wealth does raise their profile as lucrative kidnap targets, but their contacts are normally able to quickly pay to secure their release, and the ransom is often negotiable.

Migrants who can cover a proportion of costs upfront have some protection, but if they need to work enroute to finance later legs of their journey they are susceptible to exploitation. These migrants tend to retain some agency, and have some control over the duration and type of labour in which they engage. But as they are relying on a profit-oriented criminal network for transportation, they remain vulnerable. For instance, despite agreeing to an initial price before their departure, many Ethiopians smuggled to Khartoum were extorted by secondary brokers once across the border. Even though they agreed to travel, they were deceived about the conditions of travel and subjected to significant price hikes when they were at their most vulnerable. Those able to pay continued their journey, and those migrants that could not were either sold to other trafficking groups or held in debt bondage until they had ‘worked off’ an inflated fine.

Those who cannot pay at all are the most vulnerable. This cohort has no agency or financial leverage, and is typically forced into illicit work gangs without any indication of how much debt they need to repay or what other obligations they are required to fulfil. Anecdotal reports describe the confinement of victims in isolated plantations or townships in Kassala and Khartoum State, where they toil for as long as traffickers deem necessary to pay for the next leg of their journey. Once their tenure is complete, migrants are often sold to other criminal outfits and repeat the cycle again.

Compared to other case studies, the movement of people through Sudan by people smugglers has become criminalized, but in a cell-based way with each node cooperating with contacts further up and down the migratory route. While this suggests that illicit movement has become very business-like, people on the move have few options which leaves them vulnerable to exploitation, transforming people smuggling into human trafficking.

Sasha Jesperson is the Director of the Transnational Challenges Practice at Aktis Strategy.

Michael Jones is a Research Analyst in the National Security and Resilience Team focusing on conflict and countering violent extremism at RUSI.

This article has been prepared by Sasha Jesperson as a contribution to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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