Hibiscus with Ginger

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What Happens When You Ignore a Region

This week, Human Rights Watch released a report on human trafficking and torture in East Sudan and in Egypt, focusing on Eritrean refugees. Since 2004, over 130,000 Eritreans have registered as refugees in Sudan, with even more entering without documentation. Of these, many move quickly, facing poor conditions in refugee camps as well as fears that they might be sent back to Eritrea, where they would face extremely harsh penalties (including execution) for dodging military service or leaving without an exit visa. While some move to Khartoum, others travel through illegal channels to Libya and Egypt with the goal of getting to Europe and Israel.

This sort of migration is extremely dangerous. The report details one particular risk: traffickers, rather than bringing people to Egypt or Israel, will abduct them instead and demand ransoms from their families. Not everyone they abduct is trying to go to Israel either; indeed, there have been reports of people kidnapped just outside of the refugee camps themselves.

It makes sense that HRW would hold the Sudanese and Egyptian governments accountable for this. Governments are legally responsible for crimes that occur in their country when they make no effort to stop them from occurring. In this case, local officials (both in Sudan and Egypt) even collude with traffickers— which just shows how little attention the governments are paying. These abuses are the result of a larger system—that people are moving in a region almost completely ignored by governments, and as a result, others are able to take advantage.

Most of the discussion of trafficking focuses on Eritreans, who are fleeing from a government that imposes very heavy demands on the population in terms of compulsive military service (and also limits the media and cracks down on all forms of dissent in extreme ways). At the same time, Ethiopians and Somalis also travel along similar routes, with many stopping in Sudan before traveling elsewhere. In Khartoum, one only has to go to neighborhoods like Al Daym to see vibrant Ethiopian and Eritrean communities. These communities are integrated in the local economy, with migrants working as house cleaners, waiters, and tea servers (among other professions). At the same time, many do so with the intention of leaving after having saved enough money.

When people try to move, they draw on resources and interact with groups that cross borders, including relatives and extended networks already residing in Sudan and Egypt. They also work with groups that operate in these areas outside of government control. As mentioned briefly in the HRW report and elaborated on by a UNHCR publication, the Rashaida, a nomadic tribe with roots in Saudi Arabia that lives both in Sudan and Eritrea are active in moving trafficking people both to Sudan from Eritrea and from Sudan to Egypt.

Rashaida traffickers are able to operate likes this because of their isolation. In Sudan, they have very little contact with the government or the rest of Sudanese society—they rarely socialize with outsiders, and they’re regarded with suspicion by others in the East. Local officials are reluctant to interfere in their activities because they don’t know the community well and are intimidated by the possibility of violence (since the Rashaida also participate in smuggling arms in the region). They gained some political representation as a result of the Eastern Sudan Peace Agreement in 2006, but not all portions of the agreement have been implemented. Development of the region has been extremely slow, to the extent that there’s concern that conflict might reoccur (although without the support of Eritrea, such violence will likely not be a threat to the regime). Whatever development has occurred has not fundamentally changed their status in society or their relationship to local authorities.

These dynamics have begun to change (to some extent) in the past year. In July, the Sudanese cabinet endorsed a law to specifically outlaw human trafficking, and this law was debated by parliament in December. Additionally, the government has prosecuted fourteen cases of human trafficking, which, while small, is more than has occurred in the past. It’s clear that this is becoming less of a taboo subject, and that the government, at least on the national level, is more willing to acknowledge and address the issue.

Too often in Sudan, marginalization and poverty are only discussed when they lead to mass violence. The problem with this is that other pervasive and damaging social phenomena can continue without real discussion. This sort of movement and the crime it inspires should be seen as the result of massive neglect, not only of refugees but also of the East as a whole.

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Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia

We seem to have disappeared for the past few weeks—largely because we got a bit more involved with schoolwork. At the same time, events in Sudan and South Sudan have continued politically and economically in largely the same way they’ve been going. In South Sudan, it turns out that Salva Kiir did in fact dissolve SPLM governing structures, a move that has caused a lot of criticism and will likely foster splits in the SPLM long-term. In Sudan, economic problems (including the availability and price of bread) have been pretty bad, and war has continued in South Kordofan.

One thing that has been in the news a lot throughout this month, with implications for much of East Africa, is the status of migrants in Saudi Arabia. In early November, Saudi Arabia began a crackdown on migrant labor, arresting and attempting to deport migrants whose current employers were not their sponsors on their immigration documents. This crackdown is part of a “Saudisation” campaign that seeks to increase the number of Saudis in the national workforce by making it more difficult for migrants to stay in the country.

In addition to kicking out undocumented workers, the Saudi government is seeking to deport workers whose visa sponsor is no longer their employer. This means that if a migrant has switched jobs but was unable to update his or her paperwork (whether because the new employer was unwilling to pay the money to be the new sponsor or because he or she had serious problems with the previous employer), he or she will no longer be able to stay in the country.

During the past six months, many have sought to leave the country because they are unable to update their paperwork. In mid-November, when police began to arrest people to begin deportations, resistance to the police prompted serious fighting, injuring many and killing several. Most of those attacked were Ethiopian, although at least some were Sudanese.

The Ethiopian diaspora has responded quite strongly to this violence, with protests around the world at Saudi Embassies, even though the Ethiopian government has prevented people in Ethiopia from demonstrating. At the same time, these deportations do not just affect Ethiopian communities—almost 12,000 Sudanese migrants will be deported this month, with many more likely to follow.

So why haven’t other communities protested to the same extent and why has most of the violence been concentrated in African communities? It’s not entirely clear. Threats of violence are present for all communities facing deportation. Racism might explain why police began the crackdown in African neighborhoods (rather than South Asian neighborhoods—many South Asians are being deported now as well), but that doesn’t explain why Ethiopian communities have drawn more attention to this issue.

Both Sudan and Ethiopia make a significant amount of money off of remittances from communities living in Saudi Arabia. Still, I wonder if the communities are slightly different. Sudanese migrants would have greater knowledge of and access to resources since they were educated in Arabic and thus are likely to be able to communicate with authorities better. While many Sudanese immigrants to Saudi Arabia work as laborers, others work as doctors and teachers, and this might have influenced Saudi authorities’ perceptions of the community (although plenty of Sudanese friends have commented that they experience racism in Saudi Arabia as well).

Of course, it might be something else entirely—the number of migrants, the political salience of this issue in the home country (it certainly seems like the Ethiopian diaspora is paying more attention than other communities), the willingness of migrants to protest, their relationship with their home countries… It also may be that Ethiopian migrants are just treated worse than other groups.

Regardless, this mass deportation will be quite important for Saudi Arabia as well as for all sending countries. In the past four months, nearly a million migrants have left Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi government projects that it will deport another million in the next year. Certainly more migrants will come later, if immigration policy slackens again, but for now, many economies will be affected, and many communities will gain and (and lose) members they were not expecting. This will have an impact on the lives and livelihoods of many, long after the protests have died down.