By Sally Hayden

Nurah suspected her 13-year-old son was dead when the smuggler who claimed to be holding him hostage refused to put him on the phone. That was three years ago, but that series of events still runs through her mind every day.

Her son had left home, without warning and leaving no good-bye note or clue to his destination. Nurah was already anxious because just a month before, her older son had abandoned Sudan, hell-bent on making it to Libya and then across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. 

And then the angry man called, demanding a ransom of $2,000. “I said if my son was alive, I wanted to hear his voice, but they didn’t put him on,” she recalls, hunched over in a hot, cramped room in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, her eyes staring firmly at the tiled floor.

The case of Nurah – who requested we withhold her real name for safety reasons – is just one of many in Sudan, where young people are disappearing with startling frequency – encouraged by smugglers to leave for Europe without telling their parents, who they hope will pay the costs later.

A man approaches the fence which surrounds Shagarab camp in eastern Sudan, on July 20, 2017. Despite the fencing, security guards admitted anyone can access the camp. Residents worry Eritrean security will come after them there. (Photo by Sally Hayden)

Most want to go to Europe because it’s seen as the closest safe region, but that dream is becoming increasingly unlikely. Along with vast increases in European Union funding to Libya, Sudan and other countries aimed at stopping the flow of refugees, have come EU training for the Libyan coastguard to crack down on boats leaving from their shores, and new restrictions on nongovernmental search-and-rescue missions run off the Libyan coast.

However, that doesn’t mean desperate people will stay still. Reporting from central and eastern Sudan – a major origin, transit, and destination country – it is clear that many will continue to look for routes into a life with more security and opportunity.

In Kassala, on Sudan’s eastern border, and in Sudan’s capital, smugglers are easy to find. In Khartoum, they are the Eritreans that have cars, one refugee told me. In Kassala and in the refugee camps along the Eritrean border, smugglers come through recommendations – just ask a few people and you’ll get set up with one. 

“Smugglers are very organized, it’s organized crime,” said Ismail Omer Teirab, deputy chairman of the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCT). He believes that the gangs are often working with the security forces. “First they bribe policemen. Otherwise, they couldn’t go through the checkpoints.”

An Eritrean teenager sits on his bed in the unaccompanied minors section of Shagarab refugee camp, eastern Sudan, on July 20, 2017. (Photo by Sally Hayden)

For those like Nurah fleeing Eritrea because of forced military service or severe oppression, a journey from Kassala to Khartoum costs $300 to $450 for boys and men, and $750 for women whose families will pay more to ensure their safety.

For those wanting to carry on, the trip to Libya costs between $1,600 and $1,800, while getting the whole way to Europe from Khartoum will come to $4,000 to $5,000, a small fortune even for working refugees, who earn as little as $50 a month.

When a ransom is added, the price may climb much higher. If the deal goes wrong, some even end up paying with their life.

Many of the migrants who brave the voyage end up falling into the hands of militias who are operating a vicious slave trade inside Libya – a country with multiple governments and many tribes.

Refugees and migrants who unsuccessfully attempted the journey to Libya say that smugglers will often sell them on once they draw near the Libyan border. At that point, they no longer know who is in charge of them, and the terms of their “contract” can change. While some are held in detention, suffering malnutrition and often physical or sexual abuse, others are forced to work until their smugglers decide their debt has been paid off.

“Traffickers don’t keep their agreements. They’ll increase or double it and sell them to other traffickers,” said a 27-year-old Eritrean. His friends had set out on the journey, but cannot reach them to find out what happened to them. For him, Europe “is only a hope, a wish.”

The Khatmiyah mosque at the base of the Taka mountains in Kassala, Sudan, on July 19, 2017. The town is close to the Sudanese-Eritrean border which sees many refugees pass through. (Photo by Sally Hayden)

”Go now, ask for money later.”

The Central Mediterranean is currently the deadliest route to Europe. Some 600,000 people have crossed since 2014, while around 12,000 are feared to have died at sea. More than 2,700 are believed to have died so far in 2017.

Migrants and refugees who come through Sudan often originate in Eritrea, where they’re fleeing forced indefinite military service. In Sudan, their movements are limited. They claim they face harassment by the police, and those who manage to get permission to work are often paid very little, and much less than a local would get.

Often those who try to get to Europe are young, the second generation of refugees who came to Sudan, many Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants told me. They see their parents being paid low wages, and suffering discrimination, police brutality and corruption, and decide they don’t want the same life.

Meanwhile, smugglers search out young people and convince them to make the journey without telling their parents.

“Go now, ask for money later,” the smugglers tell them. “That way, no one can stop you.”

“I hid it from my family. I won't tell my parents until I get to Libya,” explained one 24-year-old woman with delicate features in Khartoum. She said her parents had properties in Eritrea they could sell, a sacrifice that would leave them with nothing. If she is caught, though, she knows they will have to pay. “I will be exposed to slavery and sexual violence if they don’t pay.”

A young girl stands in a dormitory in the unaccompanied minors section of Shagarab refugee camp, eastern Sudan, on July 20, 2017. (Photo by Sally Hayden)

Another 24-year-old, a nurse from Eritrea who wants to be a doctor, said she was aware of the dangers. “I know, but there is no more miserable life than this that I am now living,” she said. “I want a chance… a better life.”

Two weeks ago, her 18-year-old sister tried to follow her to Khartoum, but was kidnapped on the Eritrean border. They have been told the ransom is $5,000, an impossible amount, but they worry that if they don’t pay up, the girl will be moved up to the Sinai desert in Egypt. Among Eritreans, there are rumours that there is a trade in organ harvesting in that area, although the UN Special Rapporteur for Eritrea said she has not found enough evidence to prove those claims.

“There are many who tried to go to Libya and they are dead,” said Azgiamin Tesialassi, an Eritrean woman with braided hair, speaking in a dark, stone-walled room in a cheap neighbourhood popular with refugees. “Some are lost in the desert and some at sea. For those who are dead, no one can help.”

As we speak, she keeps repeating the words delalti haisebat – which means human smugglers in her language, Tigrinya. “Our children are being kidnapped by smugglers here.”

Boys sit in their dormitory in the unaccompanied minors section of Shagarab refugee camp in eastern Sudan, on July 20, 2017. (Photo by Sally Hayden)

Stopping the flow?