Irregular Migration or Human Trafficking? The Realities of Cross-border Population Mobility in Western Sudan

Irregular Migration or Human Trafficking? The Realities of Cross-border Population Mobility in Western Sudan

Irregular Migration or Human Trafficking? The Realities of Cross-border Population Mobility in Western Sudan

A new public discourse labels irregular migration as human trafficking. The new discourse has been shaped by emerging globalized migration patterns and the increased securitization of Europe’s borders.  This brief traces the history of Sudan as an origin and transit country of migration, and examines the discrepancies between the self-image of the actors who facilitate irregular migration and the policy makers who try to stop it.

Sudan’s history as a country of origin and transit

Sudan has a long history as a migration causing country. Its reputation as a main transit country for irregular migrants, however, is relatively recent. Different ethnic groups, tribes, religions and cultures have always co-existed, lived alongside each other and converged across borders in Sudan. Sudan is characterized by diverse types of international mobility. The majority of refugees in Sudan come from a rural background and have to compete for a job in Sudan’s urban and semi-rural areas. In addition, Sudan receives students and economic migrants from Asian and African countries. 

In 2015, it was estimated that Sudan hosts 503 477 immigrants, of which 50.55% are men and the rest women. Most of the immigrants come from the neighboring countries: Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan and Chad (UNESCWA, 2017), and many of them have been forced to leave their country of origin because of conflicts or natural disasters. East Sudan hosts over 107,000 refugees, the majority of which are Eritreans (US Department of State, 2018). The majority of the international immigrants (53.6%) in Sudan are in working age, between 24 and 64 years old.

Modern Sudan evolved from the condominium government jointly established by the United Kingdom and Egypt in 1899. At the time of independence in 1956, the economic situation in Sudan was relatively stable and the country had a well-established civil service apparatus. However, things changed. The economic situation and conflict became drivers of migration. 

The first documented waves of migration from Sudan date back to the 1970s. The discovery of oil in the Gulf states and the subsequent financial boom coincided with a severe deterioration of the Sudanese economy. As a result, many Sudanese migrated to the Gulf countries motivated by the prospects of a more secure economic future. Many Sudanese also started travelling to Libya and Egypt. A large proportion were people in search of a safe refuge from the first civil war in the south of Sudan, others were inspired by the riches they had heard and seen other people bring back from stays in these countries.

Early migration to Libya and Egypt was done on camels. Smugglers learned to read the stars for navigation and organized seasonal journeys, mainly in December and January to benefit from the cooler conditions. In a large migration movement in 1987, more than 2700 migrants entered Libya using 1400 camels. The camels were then divided between the smugglers and the Libyan border officers. Camel transport ended by the late 1980s and smugglers began to use cars and lorries to transport people. As the number of cars operating the Sudan-Libya line increased, so did the transport fees. Migrants in 1993-1994 paid an average of 250 USD to be smuggled across the border to Libya. By 2014, the fee was 500 USD.

Tracing the history of migration in Sudan provides an important background for understanding major changes in the public discourse and narrative on migration. What was previously considered socio-economic migration and population movement is now considered human smuggling or trafficking. This reconceptualization focuses on the illegality and potential use of force, rather than the historical pattern of cross-border population movement. The journey itself has also been transformed and new means of transportation have facilitated the movement of larger groups of people in a shorter time. Both the transit countries and the destination countries have felt the impact of this modernization. 

Sudan and Libya were once the final destinations for groups of migrants travelling from East Africa. Now, however, they are in a new position as transit countries, which has also changed the demography of the migrants. More non-Sudanese citizens and female migrants are putting their destiny in the hands of Sudanese smugglers. In a progressively international industry, it has become increasingly clear that the Sudanese borders are difficult to control. Sudan’s relatively open borders are subject to an influx of both voluntary and forced migration.

Some estimates (UNESCWA  2017 show that around 60 million immigrants are expected to arrive in Europe during the next 30 years unless action is taken by relevant governments in African countries (e.g Sudan, Libya …etc) and hosting states in Europe. A significant number of these are people travelling from Africa to Europe, transiting via Sudan and Libya. Every month, thousands of people  (UNESCWA  2017)from Eritrea and Ethiopia cross the border into Sudanese territories on their way to Europe through Libya or Egypt. 

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