Abdullah Tesfay*, an Eritrean refugee living in Khartoum, was in touch with his friend, a young woman refugee and her child, hours before they were deported to Eritrea in late May 2016. Like thousands of Eritreans before her, she attempted to make the journey to Europe through Libya. She arrived in Omdurman carrying her daughter and got on a truck that would have made its way west onto the Libyan desert. From there, she would have taken a boat from the Libyan shores to Italy, Europe’s gateway for most refugees coming from the African continent.
“They were arrested in Omdurman, she was with over 400 Eritreans who were going to make the same journey, they took them to Al-Huda prison in Omdurman then to another prison in Kassala,” said Tesfay in an interview.
In Kassala, she called him and asked him to send clothes for her daughter. He quickly went to the market, bought what she needed, and took the package to the land-port area of Khartoum and found the nearest bus heading to Kassala, a town in Eastern Sudan.
“I called to tell her that I was sending the package and to arrange how she would receive them, a soldier from the prison picked up her phone and said that they were gone, he doesn’t know where they were taken,” said Tesfay.
On May 24, his friend called him one last time from Tesney, a border town in Eritrea and asked him to retrieve some money from the middle-man and give it to her brother, that day, the refugees were deported back to Eritrea.
Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean-Swedish activist who specializes on Eritrean refugee rights told me that “the refugees were put on trucks and dumped at the border with Eritrea and after that, the majority never made it home to their families.”
Six days later, Human Rights Watch said in a press statement that “the Sudanese authorities deported at least 442 Eritreans, including six registered refugees, to Eritrea” in that fateful month to “likely abuse”.
Once the deported refugees landed in Eritrea, they were divided into groups. The women and girls were taken to Adi-Abeto prison and those who never finished the mandatory military service required by Eritrean men and women were taken to Hashferay.
“The former soldiers or those who worked for the state, we don’t know where they took them, maybe they were even killed,” said Tesfay.
Tesfay arrived in Sudan less than two years ago. He is one of 1,000 Eritreans who make their way to Sudan every month according to UNHCR statistics. Sudan has hosted Eritrean refugees since the Ethiopia/Eritrea conflict began in 1968 making the Shagarab refugee camp, which is the largest refugee camp in Eastern Sudan hosting Eritreans one of the oldest refugee camps in Africa.
Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a long battle, one that saw Sudan play a critical role, a generous host country for Eritrean refugees as well as a support base for the Eritrean rebel groups that fought for independence from Ethiopia. After a thirty-year long battle, the new government quickly turned the country into one of the most repressive states in the world as it banned freedom of speech and assembly and forced all Eritreans to complete a military service that should officially take 18 months to complete. The refugees fleeing Eritrea are mostly young men and women who are escaping the military service which often extends to years and even decades.
“The military service is a life sentence, it stops you from working or marrying or leading a normal life, you can’t even leave your house or travel around the country safely if you can’t prove that you’ve completed it,” said Tesfay.
For the thousands of Eritreans who leave their country every year without proof that they’ are exempt from military service, they are sentenced to a life in exile as returning means life imprisonment.
“In Eritrea, there is no trial or court and no one even tells you what charges you are facing or how long you will be imprisoned for, it was better for the refugees to face 100 years in prison in Sudan than to be deported to Eritrea,” said Tesfay.
A UN report published in June this year has accused the Eritrean government of committing “crimes against humanity” against its own population. The most evident proof to Eritrea’s oppressive environment is the fact that it is becoming one of the fastest-emptying countries in the world
A Long History in Refuge
For decades, Eritreans coexisted with Sudanese communities, in fact two major tribes of Eastern Sudan live on both sides of the border making it common for Sudanese families in Eastern Sudan to have family members from Eritrea. In recent years, especially since 2013, the situation has become more difficult for Eritreans as the economic situation in Sudan deteriorated and anti-migrant sentiment increased.
“Sudan was our safe haven, now everyone in the community tells you that you can’t be safe in Sudan,” said Tesfay.
Salih Ammar, a Sudanese journalist specializing on human trafficking said that deportation of Eritrean refugees has increased in recent years as Sudan is increasingly using the Passport and Immigration Law.
“Sudan uses Article 30 of the Passport and Immigration Law which punishes illegal entry into the country with deportation, although refugees are smuggled into the country, the law is not sensitive to one’s refugee status which should give them protection as opposed to normal migrants,” said Ammar.
Between 2013 and 2014, the number of Eritreans seeking refuge in Europe went from 13,000 to 37,000. In the same period, UNHCR wrote that young Eritreans “ deprived of any prospects for a better future and feeling that they have nothing to lose, many fall prey to unscrupulous smugglers and put themselves in danger by trying to cross the Mediterranean on overcrowded and unsafe boats.”
In 2014, the European Union began dealing with another refugee crisis stemming from Iraq and Syria and as a result began reaching out to countries for partnerships on migration issues. By that time, Eritreans were a quarter of migrants making their way to Europe just after Syrians.
“Eritreans have developed successful migration networks because they’ve done it for so long and as a result, they access many countries in Europe that are hard to reach,” said Ammar.
Sudan, as a host country as well as a transit country and part of an age-old route for many Horn of Africa refugees who make their way to Europe became a main EU partner and as a result, the Khartoum process was born and this put Sudan at the center of a new deal with the EU.
In April 2016, Neven Mimica, the European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development travelled to Sudan and announced a grant of €100 million for Sudan. The money is part of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa which was decided upon in 2015, already. The trust fund is not just supposed to better the situation of IDPs and refugees inside of Sudan but to “tackle instability and the root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement.”
More Money, More Problems
“After we heard that the European Union was going to give money to Sudan, we noticed that the authorities began treating us more harshly. The sweeps by the police increased and they were raiding our houses, churches and picking us up from the streets,” said Tesfay in an interview in Khartoum.
Estefanos said that she is concerned about the escalation against Eritrean refugees.
“Now we are seeing the authorities arresting refugees house to house, they are being rounded up from their houses in Khartoum, Kassala, Halfa and other cities. They are not protected by the government or by the UNHCR,” said Estefanos.
Estefanos told me that all Eritreans in Sudan walk around with a certain amount in their pocket that they know they will have to pay as a bribe if they are arrested, but now, extortion has reached a whole new level.
“Eritreans pay up to 4,000 Sudanese pounds to the police officers to bail themselves out, they can arrest you from your house now and force you to pay for your freedom,” said Tesfay.
Now instead of receiving a bribe from Eritrean refugees to remain in the country, the authorities will soon receive a bribe from the EU to stop Eritreans from making the journey by sea.
As the refugee crisis in Europe gains more attention, it is clear that the strategy is aiming towards one main goal, keep them in this part of the world and stop them from reaching Europe.
“The message that was sent by the EU to Sudan is to stop migration to Europe at any cost,” said Estefanos in an interview.
The cost is too grand to estimate. In monetary format, it is €100 million, but the political price is even bigger.
“The EU is supporting the Sudanese government they are supporting the police and other institutions with equipment in a public away, even though reports show that security and police officers are involved in human trafficking,” said Ammar.
A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) confirmed through testimonies that Sudanese police officers played a role in facilitating the trafficking of refugees in Eastern Sudan especially Eritrean refugees.
“The EU is in talks with the Eritrean government as well, as Eritrea is the first defense line to keep refugees within the country and Sudan is the second defense line to stop them from leaving Sudan,” said Ammar.
In Eastern Sudan, which is the first destination for Eritreans as they cross over to Sudan, the refugee camps are in dire conditions and there is not enough food.
“When I recently visited the camps, the authorities were telling us that it is not our responsibility to feed them, but to give them land to stay and protect them, the living conditions were terrible” said Ammar.
The UNHCR has been operating in Eastern Sudan since the 1960s, however, not only are other refugee crises such as the Syrian one taking precedent, but many countries are closing down refugee camps as they are becoming expensive for the donor community and host communities to sustain.
Only a small proportion of Eritrean refugees make their way to the refugee camps though, the majority make the big cities their homes, however, they face other problems there.
Not only are they forced to pay regular bribes, but they are also subjected to harassment by the authorities and the government refugee body, the Commission on Refugees (COR).
“COR makes it difficult for refugees to be protected, they deny them refugee status and confiscate their refugee cards making them vulnerable to arrests by the police. They are also exploited and blackmailed by the police forces and women refugees working in informal sector are targeted, for example, women tea sellers have their equipment confiscated,” said a Sudanese lawyer working with refugees who preferred to remain anonymous.
The fund that will supposedly change the lives of refugees in Sudan has yet to make its way to Sudan, but a month after Mimica’s visit, it is clear that the Eritrean refugees have started to bear the cost of this new partnership. After the deportations, Sudan sought to prove once again to the EU that it is exerting serious efforts to resolve the issue of irregular migration.
It arrested Medhane Tesfamariam.
How Tesfamariam was Implicated
Medhane Tesfamariam, a 28-year-old Eritrean refugee , came to Sudan just a little over a year ago. He was unemployed and was staying with a friend in Khartoum waiting for his brother to finish his refugee papers to facilitate his formal travel. He can’t speak Arabic or English.
He had known Tesfay and grew up with him back in Eritrea. They stayed in touch and rekindled their friendship when Tesfamariam came to Sudan.
The day Tesfamariam was arrested, he had been in his friend’s humble house. His room is made up of a small bed, a plastic table and a water dispenser.
It was in the evening when a truck carrying officers from the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) arrived at the house, they handcuffed him and took him along.
“His sister called me and told me that her brother was taken by some people, we were confused, we didn’t know if they were thieves, police imposters or a police force carrying out a sweep for illegal migrants,” said Tesfay.
Tesfay began the search journey. He went to all police stations in the area and found no trace. Tesfay was confused until he received a tip from a friend that Tesfamariam was held by the state security prosecution office, but with that, there was a warning that he shouldn’t go there and ask any questions about his friend as it would be dangerous for him.
“They said there was nothing to be done, if you go to that place, you won’t come out again” said Tesfay.
Then, something strange happened. Tesfay found his friend’s pictures all over the internet and social media channels, they were saying that he was one of the biggest human traffickers operating in Sudan. He and other Eritreans knew something that was missed by accident or on purpose by the Sudanese authorities and their European counterparts, they had caught the wrong guy.
“He is innocent, just look at his Facebook page, he uploads his pictures all the time, sometimes in front of his house, if he is a wanted criminal, he wouldn’t expose that!” said Tesfay.
After a few days of arrest, Tesfamariam was extradited to Italy where he will now face criminal charges for his alleged role as a human trafficking kingpin.
Ammar has been trying to identify how the arrest of a known human trafficker went wrong. He said that there are a few possibilities, one of which is that the security and police force are very corrupt and information was leaked to the main suspect. This means the new arrest was cooked as trafficking networks have strong relations with governments allowing them to be safe from the law and to be successful. Ammar added that “another possibility is that the Sudanese government is holding on the real suspect and is putting pressure on Europe to fulfill some obligations and they will only hand him over when they get what they want.”
Meron and Tesfay have worked tirelessly over the past few months to prove that Medhane Tesfamariam is the wrong guy. He only shares two things with the alleged human trafficker, Medhane Mered, he shares his first name and they both know Abdulla Tesfay.
Medhane Mered is in his late 30s. He arrived in Sudan in the early 2000s where he began to work as a raksha (Tok-Tok) driver before moving to Shagarab refugee camp in East Sudan. In Shagrab, he found a new profession for himself, human trafficking. He built a network and began trafficking people from Sudan to Israel at a time when the road between Sudan and Libya was not as open as it is nowadays. It is no doubt that Mered is a human trafficker, the Italian police force estimates that he had sent about 10,000 people on the Libya-Italy route.
But Mered is loved in the community, for some, he is a savior.
“Yes he works in trafficking, but people like him, he helps them, if you don’t have money, he does not charge you, sometimes he gives people money if they are in need,” said Tesfay.
Ammar said that Mered is known for giving better prices for the journey than what other traffickers ask, but this means that the quality of the boats is questionable.
When the Sudan-Libya route became available, Tesfay took advantage and began using it and at one point, re-located to Libya after he had built a network in Sudan that would bring him the refugees to Libya and he handles their Mediterranean journey.
In late 2013, things didn’t go according to plan for Mered who was now back in Sudan. One of his boats sank near Lampedusa, an island off the coast of Italy. It was on its way from Libya and had over 300 Eritreans onboard.
“People blamed him for what happened and they were angry. Many complaints were filed against him in Italy and they were looking for him, he went into hiding,” said Tesfay.
Mered is still in Sudan, it remains unclear if he would ever be extradited. In the meantime, Tesfamariam’s friend, Tesfay, is hoping that the Italians will serve his friend justice.
“The Sudanese authorities are trying to implicate him, but we have evidence that it is the wrong guy. We have testimonies from neighbors and many other written documents. We hope that the court in Italy realizes that his arrest is a mistake,” said Tesfay.
Who will keep Sudanese people inside?
As more investment is poured into turning Sudan from a transit into a host country, little focus is made on Sudan’s internal conflicts and its position as the world’s fifth largest source of refugees and country of widespread displacement. 3.2 Million Sudanese are internally displaced persons (IDPs) and according to the UN, more than 100,000 people became IDPs after fleeing their homes in Darfur in the first few months of this year meaning that Sudan’s displaced population continues to grow.
During 2015, 9,000 Sudanese refugees travelled over the Mediterranean to reach Europe out of 150,000. More importantly, about 100,000 Sudanese leave the country in a legal form every year, mostly to the Gulf countries, a significant proportion will eventually settle into a third country as Arabian Gulf countries do not grant residency or rights for those long-term settlers.
As Sudan’s three internal conflicts are not slowing down and the country continues to face rapid economic deterioration, the number of Sudanese who will make the Mediterranean journey will continue to increase especially as many are creating their own networks
As part of the fund pledged by the EU is set to improve the situation of those living in the conflict areas, it remains clear that the government’s commitment to peace is negligent. War has escalated in Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur in 2016 creating larger waves of displacement and potential refugees.
The Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) is ringing the alarm bell already for the future of the Sudanese people as they are fleeing their homes for safety as their fields are destroyed by bombs and their livestock are killed. Between March and December 2016 more than 4 million people will need humanitarian assistance to survive. FEWS speaks of a loss of harvest by 25% in comparison to 2015.
Conflict and political and economic instability whether in Sudan or in Eritrea remain the root causes behind migration and for this reason, migration will be almost impossible to curb even with millions of euros if the root causes remain unresolved.
Abdullah Tesfay* his/her real name has been withheld to protect their identity.