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Destination Gulf: the deadly price of Sudan’s human trafficking

Zeinab M. Salih
Human traffickers reap hefty profits for smuggling people to Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia. But many trying to cross the Red Sea this way never reach the other side.
26.10.2011  |  Port sudan
بورتسودان هي المنطقة التي تنطلق منها كل عمليات التهريب من السودان نحو الخليج.
بورتسودان هي المنطقة التي تنطلق منها كل عمليات التهريب من السودان نحو الخليج.

Because the sources in this story spoke on condition of anonymity, the names used in this article do not reflect their true identities.

An investigation of human trafficking operations originating in Sudan points to collaboration with members of the Sudanese security forces, according to ringleaders who take migrants illegally across the Red Sea.

Boats used to transport migrants illegally across the Red Sea are often overcrowded and unsafe.
An estimated 800 people from Chad, Nigeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia have drowned trying to get to Saudi Arabia, more than 200 kilometres across the Red Sea from eastern Sudan.   

Muhammad Osman, 18, narrowly escaped the same fate in July.

He had traveled for days from Ndjamina, the capital of Chad, to Khartoum in hopes of earning more money in the Gulf, because the small restaurant he managed back home wasn’t generating enough income to support his wife and child.   

From Khartoum, he made his way to the shores of the Red Sea, but his attempt to reach Saudi Arabia went horribly wrong when the boat carrying him and nearly 200 other passengers sank. Osman survived with six others. His cousin, who lived in Khartoum, was among the 197 who perished.

Pricey, perilous venture

Under new regulations issued by Saudi Arabia, visitors entering from Sudan, regardless of nationality, are required to transfer 10,000 Sudanese pounds, or about  $3,750, to a designated bank for a temporary visa if they are making a pilgrimage to Mecca. Saudi authorities withhold the security deposit if the traveler does not leave the country after 15 days.

Suakin, Sudan. © Bertrams
When Osman met Ali Hussein, the head of a trafficking gang in Khartoum that has smuggled hundreds of Sudanese and Chadians across the Red Sea, he paid 1,100 Sudanese pounds, a little over $410, for the 700-kilometre passage to the shores of Yemen.

In Suakin, near Port Sudan, Osman waited for a second trafficker who eventually took him to a camp where he spent two weeks under extremely poor conditions.

We were tied to each other and to the car like animals,” he said. They rigged a drinking water barrel next to us.”

It was Ramadan, and the migrants were fasting by day. In the pre-dawn hours, they were given rice and porridge before they were bundled into cars that sped to the shore where the boats set sail.  

The car carrying Osman arrived around midnight. He estimated the number of people hoping to set sail at about 400.

The same size boat that had just left before them could only carry 50 passengers, but to his surprise, many more people raced to take a place onboard. Women and children were placed in the lower level of the wooden vessel, men in the upper level. The boat carried no supplies except for drinking water. About four hours after setting off for Yemen, it sank in Sudanese regional waters.

Osman saw the captain of the boat swim away in a life vest. The second trafficker disappeared.

After spending an entire day stranded at sea without any food or water, Osman and six of his friends were rescued by a helicopter flown by Sudanese security forces. When they were later brought to trial, Osman was released because he was underage.

While the causes of the incident have not been identified, leaked information suggests that Sudanese security forces may have opened fire on the boat. Sudanese authorities, however, have maintained the boat sank because a fire broke out onboard.

No investigation committee has been formed to clarify what actually happened.

Dubious alliances

During an interview in Khartoum, Ali Hussein said he routinely charges more to Nigerians, Somalis and Eritreans than to Sudanese nationals making the same trip east. After collecting their money, he contacts individual members of the Sudanese security forces.

We pay the security guard at the Red Sea State checkpoint at Hayaa 100 Sudanese pounds for everyone we smuggle out.”
Ali Hussein, human trafficker
We pay the security guard at the Red Sea State checkpoint in Hayaa 100 Sudanese pounds [about $34] for everyone we smuggle out,” he said. We tell him by phone the number of migrants and what bus they will take from Khartoum to Suakin.” Hussein would not specify the rank of his contact in the security forces.

Sudanese authorities were unavailable for comment to respond to these claims.

To see the trafficking operations up close, a few reporters traveled by bus to Suakin. When it stopped in Hayaa, a plainclothes policeman boarded and began making random checks of passengers’ identification papers. Then he asked to see mine, along with some women who boarded the bus in Atbarah, about halfway between Khartoum and Port Sudan. All of us were Sudanese citizens, except for a woman sitting next to me who appeared to be Egyptian.

When he reached the seats behind me, where a woman was sitting with her son and two daughters, the policeman asked if they were from Haj-Yousif, a suburb of Khartoum. When they said yes, he skipped them and did not ask to see their travel documents. It appeared to be a coded question for people who were being smuggled out with knowledge of local authorities, although this could not be verified.

For every nationality of would-be migrants to the Gulf States, a gang of compatriots is on hand to smuggle them from Suakin. According to Muhammad Hussein, Somalis, Nigerians, Eritreans and Ethiopians all operate their own trafficking outfits in eastern Sudan.  

The head trafficker is typically the one who owns the boat, in addition to the cars and motorcycles that secure a route to the beach that is free of security checks. After the boats are readied, migrants are subjected to thorough searches to make sure none are bearing arms.

A source close to head traffickers explained the real reason for this procedure: since passengers are sometimes thrown overboard in case of emergencies, traffickers are determined to avoid any complications” that could arise in case of a struggle involving weapons.

Avenging exploitation

Some time later, a prison visit allowed us to meet Abdulrahman al-Ameen, a high-ranking trafficker who had been charged with a fine and sentenced to two months in jail for harbouring migrants illegally in Suakin.  

The Yemeni army increased border control to prevent infiltration, but now it is preoccupied with suppressing political demonstrations.”
Abdulrahman al-Ameen, human trafficker
Al-Ameen, a Sudanese national born to a Chadian mother, said he had made a fortune” trafficking people to Saudi Arabia through Yemen. Since the uprising there has detracted security forces from exercising tighter control of Yemen’s borders, he explained, illegal immigration has become much easier this year.  

Now the Yemeni army is preoccupied suppressing political demonstrations,” he said.

With two wives and many children, Al-Ameen, who owns several properties in Khartoum and Suakin as well as a hotel under construction, justified his illegal activities by saying head smugglers exploit his Chadian relatives. Trafficking, he said, was his way of evening the score.    
He expressed regret for anyone desperate enough to risk their lives in an effort to reach Saudi Arabia for what he considered inferior” jobs.

Why don’t they go to Israel?” he asked. The situation there is much better and workers don’t get humiliated as they do in many Arab countries.”

When migrants reach Yemen, he said, local traffickers working with Yemeni security forces assist in their transportation to the Saudi border, which costs the equivalent of $400. Migrants pay roughly the same amount again to Saudi traffickers in Jizan to take them to their final destination.

Al-Ameen said he would quit human trafficking once he’s released from prison, but only after he transports the people who paid him for his services prior to his arrest.

Editor: Alexa Dvorson