Ashraf Shazly / AFP / Getty Images

Human smugglers: Exploiters or pioneers of new underground railroad?

Typically described as ruthless, traffickers are seen by some African refugees in Sudan as freedom facilitators

KHARTOUM, Sudan — American rapper Lil Wayne’s lyrics resounded in the minivan as a group of human smugglers sped through the night in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.

“We are going to get the people from the store” said Michael, who had just received a call from a driver taking refugees from Shagarab — a refugee camp in Kassala, a state in eastern Sudan — to Khartoum. The next step was to keep the refugees safe and hidden until another driver would take them to Tripoli in Libya.

It was just a normal night for 24-year-old Michael, looking clean cut in smart clothes, with slick hair and smelling of nice aftershave, and his two assistant samsara, the local Arabic term for human smugglers, who work at night and sleep off the long hours — as well as the whiskey, cigarettes and hashish — the next day.

Michael, whose name — like others in this story — has been changed to protect his safety, used to smuggle in his home country, Eritrea, before fleeing to Sudan, where he continues doing what he knows best. After one year in Khartoum, he controls a significant amount of money and works a network of contacts. This includes guides who lead people out of Eritrea, others who transfer refugees from Ethiopia to Sudan and yet more who drive them through the Sahara to Libya.

Sudan hosts a refugee population of about 160,000, which rises to over 2 million when internally displaced people and asylum seekers are included, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This makes Sudan a major refugee hub in East Africa and a major way station for those hoping to reach other destinations. Neighboring Ethiopia has the most in Africa.

Developing countries host 86 percent of the world’s refugees, according to the 2013 UNHCR Global Trends report. Often these countries already struggle to respond to the needs of their own populations and are reluctant to allow refugees to study, work or move freely in their territories.

Meanwhile, only a few developed countries, such as the U.S., Canada, Australia and a few Scandinavian countries, provide effective refugee resettlement programs. In 2013 only 98,400 individuals — fewer than 1 percent of refugees worldwide — were allowed to move from refugee camps to developed countries. 

A convoy of vehicles carries illegal migrants left by traffickers in the desert near the border between Sudan and Libya.
Ashraf Shazly / AFP / Getty Images

During 2013, smugglers moved about 150,000 refugees through the Mediterranean alone, a figure based on the number of people assisted by the Italian navy. Yet this represents only a small fraction of the actual number smuggled into Europe and other countries.

Smugglers are not the cause of refugees’ problems, argues a variety of scholars, such as Hein de Haas, a co-director of the International Migration Institute, and Nando Sigona, a senior research officer at the U.K. Refugee Studies Centre. Rather, they are simply responding to demand for geographic mobility created by increasing inequality among countries and by the surge of policy obstacles against the movement of people from developing countries.

Against this background, it is not surprising that many Eritrean refugees in Khartoum view smugglers as facilitators rather than exploiters.

“Smugglers could be compared to those individuals who helped black people during slavery moving from the South to the North in the U.S. and today are considered heroes,” said Eritrean refugee Yohannes. "Who knows? Maybe one day smugglers will be considered heroes too because they helped people find freedom.”

But there exists a type of smuggler who is anything but a hero. Michael pointed out flashy restaurants offering Middle Eastern cuisine at the side of the popular road the minivan was on. “These are the shops of the killers,” he said.

Michael’s “killers” are human traffickers who in this part of Africa have become infamous for selling refugees to ruthless gangs operating in the Sinai Desert. The telephoned cries of tortured refugees are used to convince families abroad to pay ransoms of thousands of dollars.

“They sell our people like beasts.” Michael said. “I am a samsari, but I have humanity. Eritreans are my people, my family. I take responsibility for them.”

Whether such sentiment comes more from moral code than market forces is debatable. Potential customers make their choices based on an evaluation of the smuggler’s efficiency and reliability. “I know one samsari — he is a very nice guy. He never lost a man,” said Mebrahtu, another Eritrean refugee in Khartoum. “He has experience and fair prices.”

‘Smugglers could be compared to those individuals who helped black people during slavery moving from the South to the North in the US and today are considered heroes. Maybe one day smugglers will be considered heroes too because they helped people find freedom.’


Eritrean refugee

Most of Michael’s customers are Eritreans, Somalis and Ethiopians who, after fleeing poverty, violence and lack of freedom in their countries, reached a Sudanese or an Ethiopian refugee camp but did not want to stay there. They are usually young, often highly skilled, entrepreneurial. What many say they find unbearable is the hopelessness of their situation, which stems from an international asylum system structured around the assumption most conflicts are short-term and refugees will eventually be able to return to their homes. The reality is often quite different. Rather than emergencies, it is chronic political and economic crises in Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Palestine, Myanmar and Eritrea that fuel primary global refugee flows, according to the 2013 UNHCR Global Trend report.

Such is the scale and diversity of challenges faced by refugees that distinctions between genuine refugees and economic migrants become blurred. Having no passport and coming from countries often labeled high risk for illegal migration, refugees find themselves cut off from obtaining study visas and work permits for developed countries, condemned by strict national migration rules to remain as refugees for years that turn to decades.

There is an alternative: Contact a professional in the irregular migration industry, like Michael. For $1,600, a refugee is moved from an Ethiopian camp to Khartoum and for another $1,600, taken to Tripoli. Libyan smugglers will organize a move to Italy for $1,000 more.

Prices aren’t fixed and vary depending on demand, availability of resources and transport and risks involved. Usually the higher the cost, the higher the level of safety and comfort of the journey.

Fake marriages with a resident in the U.S. or Europe cost the most to arrange —about $15,000 — but are the safest way to leave Sudan. A visa to fly to Turkey and from there try to get to Europe is another relatively safe option — avoiding a sea journey — costing about $10,000. But most refugees can’t afford such luxuries.

Even the most efficient and good-hearted smuggler can offer no guarantees during cheap, dangerous journeys through the Sahara and the Mediterranean.

From November 2013 to November 2014, 3,000 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean, according to a recent report released by the International Organization for Migration. And since 2000, 40,000 migrants perished crossing borders globally.

When deaths occur, however, smugglers are typically deemed less culpable than destination nation-states, in the eyes of many refugees.

“It is the fault of European nations,” said Gaim, an Eritrean refugee in Addis Ababa, referring to the 366 Eritreans who died when a boat sank off the coast of Lampedusa in the fall of 2013. “Many of them applied for family reunification visas, but they got their applications rejected. That is why they left. That is why they died.” 

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