By Amelia Smith
For so many people they didn’t arrive, they drowned in the Mediterranean; some of them died in the Sahara desert of hunger.”
Slavery in Libya
With the path to Egypt becoming less popular, the road to Libya is flourishing. To get to Libya refugees must first spend days making an increasingly treacherous journey across the Sahara. Last year the EU poured money into clamping down on this route, arresting smugglers, confiscating their vehicles and installing extra security controls and checkpoints.
In response smugglers simply go out of their way to avoid the extra restrictions, taking little known tracks away from the main roads, water sources and basic services. They get lost and abandon their passengers, who die of thirst in larger numbers even than those in the Mediterranean.
Mohamed – who escaped the country after being beaten in the middle of the night – was one of the thousands that chose to make this journey and stayed in Sudan for just two months before moving onwards. There were 15 of them, all from the Keren area in Eritrea, that met in Sudan and went together.
“Going to Libya was the hardest thing ever, even harder than prison,” he says. “The reason I went was that I felt I was either going to die or go to Libya. I had nothing to lose so I went to Libya.” Mohamed says reaching the Libyan border was like entering into slavery; he and his traveling companions had no right to ask for anything from their traffickers. If you asked for water you could be abandoned in the desert.
“The Libyans told us whatever food we brought from Sudan could not be taken in the vehicles so we were forced to leave it in the desert. If we had died from thirst they would literally have buried us in the desert,” he recalls. If you asked for water you could be abandoned in the desert.
Members of the group who could speak Arabic translated instructions like this for those that could not understand. They warned the others what the consequences for disobeying were: “They will make you drink gasoline to stop you talking.”
Mohamed heard stories of others who left Sudan after them, who paid $10,000 because people would kidnap them and hold the vehicles and the people aboard hostage. Other people reported being intercepted by the Libyan police, bought back by their traffickers for $600, and then their families footed with a $1,600 bill for the effort.
According to opposition leader Moussa the main gangs operating this route are protected by Libyan security guards and corrupt Sudanese officials and are connected to intelligence services within the Eritrean regime. Just like the traffickers and the brokers, they are out to make money from the refugees’ misery.
Mohamed says that some people making the journey would pay at the Eritrean embassy in Libya so that officials back home wouldn’t hassle family left behind, arrest them, or confiscate their property.
Moussa reckons that in total a refugee seeking to travel with any of these groups can expect to pay around $4-5,000 and if it is known they have family in the West the price moves upwards.
According to a recent report from Unicef and the International Organisation for Migration, black people are more at risk of being exploited, beaten and abused along the way. Traffickers charge them higher prices because, due to discrimination, it is more difficult to move them through the country.
Even paying such a high price does not protect them from the horrors of such a journey. Like Salim – the refugee from Asmara who escaped military service – many are sold into slavery by the traffickers or by Libyan authorities and forced to work without pay. Mohamed also confirmed that Libyans put Eritreans to work and then withhold money from them.
When Mohamed and his fellow travellers reached the Libyan capital Tripoli their phones and any other electronic devices were confiscated. Mohamed describes spending around one month completely out of communication with the world.
Mohamed was taken to the abandoned site where Gadhafi’s navy was once stationed and kept in what would have been the officers’ lodgings along with 100 other people. The Arabic speakers among them, including Mohamed, were taken on boats to oil rigs in the middle of the sea where they pumped oil every day for a month.
Some of the people he was with worked for up to four years, others he is unsure of their fate: “Out of these people you don’t know who made it or who was taken to work permanently, you’re under their control,” says Mohamed.
One day traffickers came to tell him a ship had arrived from Tunis. “If the ship sinks,” the smugglers told Mohamed and the other passengers, “we’ll lose $500 but you’ll lose a lot more. You’ll lose your life”.
Fortunately for Mohamed and the other passengers they reached international water after one night, the Italian navy rescued them and took them to the sea port. Mohamed had been travelling for four months in total and had paid $3,500.
Mohamed and his fellow passengers may consider themselves reasonably lucky not to have been rounded up by armed men and sent back to Libya where they would be crowded into one of the detention centres the North African country has now become famous for.
Inside hundreds of people are crammed together without adequate food, access to sanitation facilities and little funding from the Libyan government. Many women have reported sexual abuse and invasive body searches.
Others picked up from the shore have reported being sold from here into slavery and being forced to work in exploitative industries such as the sex trade.
Eritrean smugglers who have phoned in to activist and journalist Meron Estefonos’ radio show reckon there are around 10,000 Eritreans waiting in smugglers’ connection houses to leave Libya. Whilst they continue to suffer the traffickers are rolling in money.
They pay $100,000 for a boat, says Moussa, and send 400 people across the water on it: “They take $3,000 from each one of those 400, that’s like a million dollars they make in one trip.”
When he first paid his money Mohamed said he gave it to a Sudanese guy who sent it to Dubai. From Dubai the money was distributed first to traffickers in Sudan, who took $1,000, then to the traffickers who took them from the Libyan border. They took $600. Then the Libyans who took them across the water received $1,800 of it.
“It’s like a network,” he explains.
Curbing the industry
Fatimah 2 recalls three cases that have moved her deeply. The first was a young woman who was raped, fell pregnant, and gave birth to her perpetrator’s baby.
The second is a young man who was tortured so badly his skin shrunk and became disfigured from his left armpit downwards; “it was completely deformed,” she says; “as if it was burnt”. Both were asylum seekers from Eritrea Fatimah was representing on behalf of an NGO based in Sudan that offers legal assistance to refugees.
In both instances Fatimah’s clients trusted traffickers to transport them safely out of their home country Eritrea, escort them through Sudan, and onwards towards Libya where they would become one of thousands of refugees hoping to climb aboard a rickety fishing boat and make the treacherous journey across the sea towards Europe.
Both only got as far as Sudan before the abuse started. Neither of them had enough cash to pay their debts to the smugglers and were waiting in Sudan for their families to save up so they could leave the country.
Before they could do this Sudanese authorities found out, arrested them and referred them to the Commission for Refugee Affairs, a section within the Interior Ministry that determines who is an asylum seeker and who is an illegal immigrant and offers refuge to the first and deportation to the latter.
Emigration from Eritrea is illegal and those that leave or are caught trying to leave are considered deserters and face severe punishment in the form of torture and forced labour, just as Samir did, or even death by firing squad.
The Sudanese government has been criticised for forcibly deporting Eritrean refugees back home, which is ultimately against international law if they have not been allowed to apply for asylum and their cases have not been considered.
In 2017 UNHCR voiced concern over the return of 66 Eritrean nationals to Eritrea, who they were unable to get access to. UNHCR have said that to their knowledge no recognised Eritrean refugee has been forcibly returned to Eritrea but that “UNHCR had no access to the individuals who were returned and was therefore unable to verify if any had asylum claims,” says Mohamed Elfatih Alnaiem, the UNHCR spokesperson in Sudan. But in 2016 Human Rights Watch condemned the deportation of some 442 Eritreans, including six registered refugees, back to Eritrea in May that year.
“It is illegal for Sudan to do this because these people will suffer there, maybe they will kill them,” says Omer Zerai, manager at the Horn of Africa for Development and Information (HADI), on the issue of forced deportations. “They wanted to stop people; they wanted these people to be an example.”
At the same time the Sudanese government has made attempts to crack down on this multi-million dollar trade and as part of this the government has formed a special unit to fight trafficking, set up special courts and drawn up new legislation. In 2010 they passed the Kassala Law against Human Trafficking and Smuggling and the 2014 Anti-Trafficking Act.
Khalid Al-Mubarak, the media counsellor at the Sudanese embassy in the UK, admits there is a problem with his country’s eastern border, largely due to Sudan’s lack of resources: “The facilities available to Sudan to guard the crossing point are not adequate for financial reasons. It’s a long stretch and it’s very treacherous. So there is a problem in the border area.”
Sudan, he says, is working to solve it as best they can: “The problem of the border is not only a problem of trafficking. Across the border we get terrorists also. Boko Haram infiltrated the Sudan through its western border and they crossed and were handed back to Nigeria. Weapons are smuggled across the border. And more importantly our own rebels have lost all ground in the Sudan now; they have crossed to Libya where they are now fighting as mercenaries and contributing to the destabilisation of Libya.”
Zerai agrees that securing the border is a mammoth task for the Sudanese government: “I think this is over the capacity of the Sudanese government. I know Sudan very well; I know the area, because I lived the life there. There are a lot of people coming from Eritrea. The Sudanese government did a lot to solve this issue. The Sudanese government is trying but it’s not easy.”
Sudan itself is an underdeveloped country. It receives aid from the UK and the US and, despite the recent news that they will be lifted, has suffered sanctions for the last two decades. “We are recipients of help, we are not in a position to help others, but we can’t close the doors because it’s virtually impossible.
So this is the position,” says Al-Mubarak. “As far as migrants are concerned, we are a poor country,” he continues. “They are a burden on our accommodation, they are a burden on our legal system, they are a burden on our health system. But we know they are migrants, we know they have got rights. Our facilities are limited because we are a poor country.”
According to Alnaiem there is a high recognition rate of Eritrean nationals seeking asylum in Sudan – some 95 per cent are recognised as refugees. As for the EU, they have implemented strategies to keep refugees in the region, rather than help relieve the burden and accept them at home.
Following the success of a 2016 EU-Turkey deal that offered Turkey 6 billion euros in return for containing asylum seekers the EU sought to expand this strategy in other major transit countries, one of which was Sudan.
The Khartoum Process, followed by the Valletta Summit in Malta, sought to establish a regional dialogue on how to tackle human trafficking between the Horn of Africa and the EU. Two billion euros was put forward for Africa in the form of four-wheel drives and training for police officers with the hope that it would stop people crossing Sudan’s border.
Al-Mubarak was not the only African leader to complain: “This is very little of course. The share for Sudan is 100 million [euros].” As part of this containment strategy the EU allocated a 200 million-euro, five-year package in development aid to Eritrea to try and improve their conditions at home and stop refugees arriving in Europe.
It’s hardly worth saying how unlikely it is that this money will filter down to people like Fatimah’s clients or the families of Samir and Mohamed. It is simply a reward for the Eritrean dictator’s actions.
The best solution for Sudan, says Al-Mubarak, is not initiatives like Valletta or the Khartoum Process – it’s to help development in countries neighbouring the Sudan: “There is an international financial system which is weighed against developing countries and against their industrialisation and stability. It’s in the interests of certain [countries] to keep it like that.
This is driving the desperate young people to reach the Sudan,” he says. “There was and still is a fierce operation including some Islamophobic organisations in the US who are against this. They’re against the EU helping the Sudan, against Italy, Germany, helping the Sudan which is very illogical because they want to play politics with the fate of young men and women.”
On their behalf UNHCR has appealed for more funding from the international community and more resettlement places. In 2016, about 989 vulnerable refugees were resettled in a third country, though UNHCR submitted over 1,200 for consideration. In 2017 598 were resettled.
On Sudan’s southern border a new emergency is not only unfolding but it is also receiving more publicity than the protracted conflict in the east. South Sudan separated from Sudan in 2011 to become the world’s youngest country, yet since December 2013 447,300 South Sudanese refugees have arrived in Sudan, says Alnaiem.
There are over 1.2 million South Sudanese refugees in Sudan, and up to 2 million refugees in total – that’s five per cent of the total population.
In the UK – which has a GDP roughly 27 times the size of Sudan – there are around 118,995 refugees, that’s just 0.18 per cent of the population. In 2015 they granted asylum to just 45 per cent of cases presented to them.
Amelia Smith is a London-based journalist who has a special interest in Middle Eastern politics, art and culture. She is editor of The Arab Spring Five Years On.