Gimme did not tell his parents he was leaving for good. The less they knew the better, in case they were later interrogated by Eritrean government agents. The 16-year-old from the city of Keren set off on foot to join the exodus from a country that is emptying out after decades of dictatorship.
His first stop was Kassala in the east of neighboring Sudan. The many checkpoints in Sudan make it almost impossible for refugees to travel without being discovered. Most travelers in Gimme’s situation use smugglers who are either government employees or on good terms with the forces manning checkpoints.
Using extensive interviews with refugees like Gimme, confidential sources in Sudan as well as reporting in Egypt and Sudan, we examine the extent to which the Sudanese government is involved in the same smuggling and trafficking networks it is being paid by the E.U. to contain.
In the last four years, Sudan has gone from being a pariah state to an E.U. partner on countering migration. Roughly one-quarter of the refugees and migrants who cross to Italy from north Africa have transited Sudan.
Partnering with a Pariah
Under the Khartoum Process, begun in 2014, Sudan received $122 million under an instrument called Special Measure for Sudan. It is also receiving money from a variety of other E.U. funds, including support for its security sector.
This money goes to the same regime in Khartoum whose legacy includes civil wars that eventually split the country, and who are accused of genocide in Darfur and crimes against humanity in South Kordofan and Blue Nile state. Sudan is now being invited to European countries like Belgium to repatriate refugees who have fled. Recently, the U.S. has eased sanctions on Sudan, and E.U. members, including the Netherlands, U.K., Poland, Hungary, Italy and Germany, have established diplomatic links with the regime.
Sudan uses the so-called Rapid Support Forces (RSF) to stop refugees at the Sudan-Libya border. This paramilitary group grew out of the notorious Janjaweed, the “devils on horseback” that committed atrocities against the civilian population in Darfur. In 2016, Amnesty International found that the force was involved in the destruction of more than 170 villages.
Our investigation suggests individuals in positions of power within the regime may personally profit from the smuggling and trafficking, while Sudan continues to benefit from its role as a European partner to counter irregular migration.
In Kassala, smuggling people is not considered criminal by much of the local community. The Bedouin tribes who traditionally navigate the sand plains that stretch from East Africa to the shore of the Red Sea also control the smuggling market.
Among them, the Rashaida are renowned as traders and smugglers. This reputation has been helped in part by their recent ties to Sudan’s security services. From 1999 to 2006, a group of the Rashaida known as the Free Lions led by Mabrouk Mubarak Salim, a rich businessman, fought against the government of Omar al-Bashir.
From Free Lions to Regime Kingpins
When al-Bashir signed a peace agreement in 2006, Salim became minister of transport and road construction and went into business with Abdullah al-Bashir, the president’s brother. The Free Lions were integrated in the Sudanese national army and the equally powerful and feared internal security agency, NISS. Salim was contacted by Refugees Deeply but declined to comment for this article.
Suleiman fought with the Free Lions but did not become a member of the army or NISS. He stayed behind in Kassala but still keeps in touch with his former comrades who have joined the security services.
Among them is Ahmed Nameed Nakshi, a Rashaida who climbed the ranks to become a colonel in the NISS. The Nakshi family is feared in Kassala where they are known as smugglers of everything from people to organs to weapons. Suleiman is close to the families of Salim, the minister, and Naskhi, the NISS colonel. According to Suleiman, Nakshi undertakes “special missions” for Salim, including the smuggling and trafficking of people and arms from Kassala to Khartoum.
He said that refugees from Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia are collected in warehouses throughout the region. Many of these waiting stations are in Mastura, a location just outside of Kassala, where many Rashaida stay. The refugees in the warehouses have just crossed the border and wait to be smuggled onward to Khartoum. Suleiman said that Salim guarantees that the Nakshi transports are not stopped at checkpoints. A second source confirmed that the NISS colonel has smuggled scores of people under this arrangement.
Other smugglers in Kassala include Engsoum Waghi, also known as Engsoum Kidani, and Abo Hamdy. Their real names are not publicly known, but multiple sources identified them as important figures in the trafficking and smuggling networks. The men live in the same Rashaida-dominated area in Mastura, also home to many government officials.
“You can not do this dangerous work (smuggling) if you do not cooperate with the security services on some level,” said a former anti-trafficking agent who calls himself Ramadan. Ramadan was a police officer for nine years in the Kassala province. He also worked as a smuggler for one year and knows both sides of the story: “One way or another, you need permission from the authorities.”
Bram Frouws, who was a Sudan researcher and coordinator at the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS), an independent regional monitor, concurs. “It is impossible to travel through Sudan as a refugee or migrant without Sudanese authorities being involved, like police officers or border guards,” said Frouws. The RMMS speaks on a near daily basis to refugees and migrants who have traveled through Sudan, and almost all of them indicate that government officials are involved in smuggling and trade.
The Sudanese government has consistently denied that officials were involved in human trafficking and smuggling. When Sudan was mentioned in the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report from 2016 as one of countries involved in human trafficking, the Sudanese foreign ministry stated that the report lacked accurate information on Sudan and neglected to acknowledge the government’s efforts to end the recruitment of child soldiers and human trafficking.
On arrival in Kassala, Gimme stayed at a relative’s house for two months. With no papers and no money to pay smugglers, he took a chance by taking the bus to Khartoum. He did not even make it out of the station before a policeman asked him for his papers. He was taken to the police station and then to the Shagarab refugee camp, the place he had been warned to avoid at all costs.
“If I had had the money, I could have bribed the policeman,” said Gimme.
More than 100,000 refugees live in camps in eastern Sudan, according to the U.N. refugee agency. Among them Shagarab is considered the worst, with a reputation for lawlessness and kidnapping by traffickers.
Refugee Camp or Prison?
Abdullah, now 23, was born in the camp. He describes it as a prison. The only time he was able to legally come and go from Shagarab was during high school.
Abdullah escaped Shagarab in 2016 and made it to Cairo, but has since returned to work with the Sudanese Red Cross. Abdullah said that security personnel allow Rashaida kidnappers to enter the camp where they take refugees who are then ransomed or sold. Sometimes Bedouin tribes buy them and take them to the Sinai desert. If families do not pay for their relatives fast enough, the kidnappers torture the victims and call the family while doing so in order to pressure them to pay up.
“Members of the police are known to collaborate with human traffickers,” the RMMS states in a unpublished report. “There have been numerous reports of police arresting irregular migrants, only to then hand them over directly to traffickers for payment. These exchanges have taken place in a variety of locations including police stations and checkpoints. A former member of the Red Sea State parliament in eastern Sudan, for example, alleged that police officers and intelligence agents were directly involved in human trafficking.”
Abdullah conducted a survey in Shagarab on behalf of the Sudanese Red Cross. He asked the refugees about the living conditions in the camp. “People’s answer was, how can we live safely in Shagarab when the security services steal our children?”
Stuck in Shagarab, Gimme was told the only way out is to pay Eritrean intermediaries and Sudanese smugglers to get to Khartoum. He approached one of them, Robert Saddam, who asked for $280. But Saddam said there was another option. If Gimme could recruit another five paying refugees from the camp that would pay for his own passage with them. He found them. One evening they were told to get into a Toyota Land Cruiser, the kind of vehicle that commonly used by the Sudanese security forces, with blacked-out windows. They were not stopped at any checkpoints, and the next morning Gimme was dropped off at dawn in the Jerif in Khartoum, a district where most Eritreans live.
For three months, Gimme worked as a dishwasher and prepared water pipes in a cafe. Money was still tight, and as he was unable to bribe police officers he had to remain constantly on guard.
Every day, he was approached by touts talking about the route to Libya, but Gimme feared crossing the desert where one of his cousins had died. So Gimme chose to go to Egypt.
Many smugglers, traders and intermediaries have their base in the souqs (markets) of Khartoum and Omdurman, the trading hub on the opposite bank of the Nile. In Khartoum, their offices are in the al-Souq al-Arabi area, the city’s busiest market. There are at least nine offices in one building, known as Alsalam, where smugglers negotiate their prices through open windows that look out onto the street.
In Omdurman, the Afranji market and the Souq Libya are places to go if you want to leave Khartoum and travel to Egypt or Libya. Smugglers charge between $500 and $800 for the journey to the border. Omar Al-Ginaid, a trader who has been in the business for six years, said refugees from East Africa pay the least and Syrians the most. “African refugees pay less but are forced to work more often. They are almost treated as slaves,” he said. “Syrians have money and want to go to Europe as quickly as possible.”
Gimme raised $700 from an aunt abroad to pay a go-between called Yonas. As soon as the money was transferred, Gimme was instructed to pack some clothes and go to a playground in the evening. A van would be waiting to pick him up.
The owners of these transports are high-ranking soldiers or former military personnel, according to Abel, an Eritrean in his 60s who recently moved to the Netherlands from Sudan. Now in Terneuzen, in the southwestern Dutch province of Zeeland, his nervousness about the reach of Sudan and Eritrean security forces means Abel keeps his blinds drawn at all times.
Before he came to the Netherlands, Abel lived in Khartoum for 30 years. Since the mid-90s he was a member of an Eritrean opposition party and closely involved with Eritrean refugees in Sudan. He maintained a good relationship with the Sudanese government and contacts in the security services.
“Everyone who flees Eritrea prefers to go to Khartoum first and travel to Europe from there,” said Abel. There are only a few main smugglers who control the trade in Khartoum.
Depending on the area in Eritrea where you come from, you look to get in touch with a smuggler network in Khartoum, says Abel. There is great distrust between people and groups of other nationalities or ethnicities. The bosses of the networks control a network of touts, who in turn are charged with gathering refugees. They pick up refugees and transport them in rickshaws – motorized three-wheelers that dominate the roads in the capital – to a meeting place like the playground where Gimme and Abel were told to go.
Vans stand waiting to transport the cargo, 15 to 20 passengers at a time, Abel recalled. His group was driven to warehouses in Omdurman owned by the soldiers, he explained. Groups of up to 70 refugees waited there until transport arrived to take them to the border with Libya or Egypt.
Abel’s sequence of events fits seamlessly with Gimme’s account. A van picked him up, took him to a warehouse in Omdurman where another 70 or so refugees – Eritreans, Somalis, Ethiopians – waited. After two days in the warehouse more pickups arrived to drive them to the border with Egypt.
This is the first of a two-part series. The second part will be linked here as soon as it’s published. To protect their identities, sources referred to by a first name only have had their names changed. This story was reported with the support of the Dutch Free Press Unlimited Postcode Lottery Fund.
Read Part 2: Passports for Sale: How Sudan Profits From Syrians