Human trade: Sudan’s eastern border town of Kassala in front of the Taka Mountains. Security forces are supposed to have intensified their patrols along the border with Eritrea in a bid to curb migrant smuggling
Hussein Salman seemed to live a charmed life. Despite driving around in an undocumented car, which attracted nine separate police reports, he was never arrested. Nor was he ever arrested or charged for the wide range of serious crimes in which police in Sudan’s eastern state of Kassala suspected his involvement. These included smuggling, human trafficking and kidnapping.
On April 28 this year, Salman’s luck finally ran out — he was finally arrested. Just days before, police had also arrested Colonel Awad Muftah, the director of the department of central criminal investigation in Kassala state. Muftah was sacked on the recommendation of a secret tripartite investigative committee formed by the federal ministry of the interior. In its final report, the committee accused Muftah of colluding with top human traffickers in Kassala state.
The arrests of Muftah and Salim did not come as a surprise. It confirmed what many in Kassala state had suspected for some time: police and elements of the national security establishment were working with human traffickers and smugglers.
Based on a series of interviews with police and security forces, it is clear that, despite the arrests, the links between the security establishment and human traffickers continue. This is despite Sudan’s professed commitment to shutting down migration routes through the country, and the money that the government has received from the EU to do so.
Kassala state is a hot spot for smuggling and trafficking migrants. Its location, on the border with Eritrea and not far from Ethiopia, makes it a prime crossing point for Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants trying to get to Europe.
Official statistics reveal the magnitude of the problem: between April 2016 and March 2017, police on average filed two reports related to smuggling and human trafficking every day, and arrested 600 suspected human traffickers (Including 298 Sudanese, 159 Eritreans, 55 Ethiopians and 22 Libyans).
Despite these arrests, police officers interviewed by Ayin claim that the flourishing trafficking trade in the area is heavily linked to senior officers. Human smugglers pay large sums for this collusion, which ranges from providing valuable information to arranging cover-ups.
Sources interviewed were from the Wad Alhilo, Hamadayat, Qargaff, and Shajrab refugee camps and the city of Kassala. The city is the central human trafficking hub in eastern Sudan, where various trafficking routes intersect.
Collusion between security forces and human traffickers in eastern Sudan is not a new phenomenon. In June 2013, the United States state department said that, in Kassala state: “The [Sudanese] government did not report investigating or prosecuting public officials allegedly complicit in human trafficking, despite reports that Sudanese police sold Eritreans to the Rashaida [a group associated with kidnapping and smuggling migrants] along the border with Eritrea.”
In 2011 and 2012, Human Rights Watch interviewed 13 Eritrean migrants who had been handed over to human traffickers by police. In eight of these cases, police did so inside Kassala police station.
[On guard: Members of the Sudanese border security patrol along the Sudan-Eritrea border (Ashraf Shazly, AFP)]
Abdul Rahman is a member of the community police force in the city — a citizen-driven residential monitoring group — and claims human trafficking gangs are active in the al-Khatmiya and Sawaki neighbourhoods of Kassala, where dozens of houses act as hiding places for Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees. Some influential government officials live in al-Khatmiya, Rahman said, and provide cover for human trafficking and smuggling activity.
The region’s diversity — it is home to people of Sudanese, Ethiopian and Eritrean descent — means that migrants can move and hide easily within communities. The same also applies to the southern neighbourhood of Sawaki, Rahman said, where relations of kinship between smugglers and colluding security forces allow the illegal business to thrive.
Deep collusion, deep silence
According to one officer who patrols Hamdayet, a border area between Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea, the collusion between security forces and smugglers is pervasive and deeply rooted. The officer, who requested anonymity, recalls the arrest of one security officer in mid-May this year in al-Lakdi, a town near Hamdayit. The arrested officer was accused of assisting human smugglers in return for bribes amounting to 90 000 Sudanese pounds (about $5 000). Despite concrete documentary evidence, local authorities did not charge him.
On the borders, the relationship between smugglers, police officers and security agents is almost impossible to report on. Without obtaining prior permission from police headquarters in Kassala State, the presence of journalists in that area is strictly prohibited.
Tarig Salman (a pseudonym) is a police officer based in the Wad al-Hilo area, which is on the human trafficking route. According to Salman, some police officers allow smugglers to bypass checkpoints and evade more honest patrols in the area. He indicated that collaboration with the smugglers is not necessarily money-driven. In many cases, social ties play a critical role.
Salman recalls patrolling the roads linking Kassala to Wad al-Hilo and other known smuggling routes. He stopped a car carrying a group of Eritreans and Ethiopians with a local driver. The group had no travel permits and, by law, should have been arrested. “We found ourselves in a tricky situation because of our relationship to the driver,” Salman said. “After consulting my colleague, we decided to let him continue his journey as his arrest and custody may cause us great embarrassment with his family and clan.”
Early warning system
Information exchanges and early warnings are one of the key “services” police and security officers provide to human traffickers in Kassala. For the right price, traffickers can obtain reliable information about security movements and how to avoid potential arrest. Officer Issam Mahmoud (also a pseudonym) is a senior security officer who was close to the recently dismissed police director, Colonel Miftah.
“We do not doubt that our efforts to arrest smugglers and human traffickers have been thwarted by individuals informing them of the plans and the movements of our forces,” Mahmoud said. “Agents accused of leaking this sensitive information are from both the police and the security services.”
Not only do police and security officers provide information to smugglers, in some cases, police provide vehicles to transport migrants. On June 15, the Kassala Criminal Court sentenced a corporal of the Central Reserve Forces to 10 years in prison for being involved in trafficking and smuggling activities.
According to the court proceedings, the corporal used a government vehicle to transport victims to the southern neighbourhood of Sawaki in Kassala, with the help of three foreigners.
Refugee camps/transit centres
According to Human Rights Watch, refugee camps in eastern Sudan have become transit centres. Refugees are routinely smuggled out of the camps and across Sudan’s western border or, in other cases, kidnapped and held for ransom. In 2012, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported about 30 kidnapping cases a month, although it is likely that this number was much higher.
Whether purposely smuggled or kidnapped, the refugee camps shelter few migrants for long. An example of this is Shagarab Camp, located roughly 100km southwest of Kassala, hosting refugees from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. According to official statistics, roughly 20% of newly registered refugees flee the camp every month — an average of five to six refugees a day. This is despite the security barriers that surround the camp.
Mohamed al-Taher, a resident of the camp with links to the police and security officials in the area, confirmed that smugglers have strong ties with security and police officials. Al-Taher routinely provides authorities with information about the smugglers’ activities in the camp but these leads are rarely pursued, he said.
The Khartoum Process
Although it is impossible to gauge how widespread the collusion between security personnel and traffickers may be in eastern Sudan, it is clearly prevalent and remains a lucrative practice for Sudanese security and police officials alike. This long-term collaboration exists despite the EU’s ongoing anti-migration programme, known as the Khartoum Process, which funnels millions from the EU into Khartoum’s coffers to prevent migrants from transiting through Sudan to reach European shores.
The UNHCR commends the role Sudan’s authorities have played in reducing the flow of migrants to Europe. It also claims that the security of asylum seekers has improved in eastern Sudan.
Nonetheless, the migrants keep coming — and, with the illicit assistance of Sudanese officials, the camps in eastern Sudan continue to be a key transit point.
This report is the second in a series published by the Mail & Guardian in collaboration with Ayin, an independent Sudanese media house, which provides a platform for Sudanese journalists to report on sensitive issues. For their own safety, the journalists write anonymously