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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.