Sudan boosts border patrols to stem tide of people
4 minute read
Officials in Sudan are trying to tighten the north African nation's border with Eritrea to help stop the flood of migrants hoping to be smuggled into Europe.
AL-LAFFA, Sudan: It was Efrem Desta's yearning for freedom that made him flee his home country of Eritrea and enter Sudan illegally, hoping that he could eventually make it to Europe.
But he and a group of fellow migrants were abducted by Sudanese Bedouin Rashaida tribesmen after crossing into east Sudan near the village of Al-Laffa.
"We fled Eritrea because we wanted freedom but when we got here, we were captured by Rashaida," says Desta, 20, speaking in his native Tigrinya language.
"After five days in captivity, we were rescued."
Sudanese security forces, who have stepped up their patrols along the 600km (370-mile) frontier with Eritrea in a bid to curb migrant smuggling, freed the group.
The men were found handcuffed and in chains by security officers and have now joined nearly 30,000 other refugees in Wadi Sherifay camp, a vast conglomerate of thatched huts and dusty tracks near the border.
Most of the rescued Eritreans say they fled their country to escape military conscription but some do admit leaving to seek better jobs abroad.
Sudanese police and agents of the powerful National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) say dozens of Eritreans try to enter Sudan illegally every day.
"There are many ways they enter, including walking along the river Gash," one security officer tells an AFP correspondent who toured border areas of Kassala state in May.
The migrants cross into Sudan on foot after walking for days, or in some cases, even weeks.
KEY TRANSIT POINT
"They usually travel at night and hide out during the day in farms, plantations and forests," the officer says, pointing to a patch of trees lining the dry riverbed.
Although Syrians fleeing their brutal civil war fuel the current migration crisis, many Eritreans are also trying to reach Europe.
"An estimated 100,000 migrants travelled across Sudan in 2016, the bulk of them being Eritreans," says Asfand Waqar, analyst at the International Organization for Migration.
Sudan, in the Horn of Africa, is a key transit point on the migrant route to Europe.
From Kasala, the Eritreans travel across Sudan to Libya or Egypt.
Smugglers then cram them aboard rickety boats for perilous Mediterranean voyages aimed at making landfall in Europe.
In summer, the long wind-swept cross-border Gash riverbed comes alive at night with the march of migrants.
"We still don't do night patrols, so it's easy for them to move during the hours of darkness," the security officer says.
Behind him under the scorching midday sun, a group of machinegun-toting border guards cross the riverbed in pick-up trucks to begin a patrol.
Officers say their boosted presence along the border has helped them catch several people smugglers.
"The smugglers, who are mostly Eritrean, have excellent networks and high-tech communications gear," another security officer says.
"They know more about us than we know about them."
Migrant smuggling has become a multibillion-dollar business, experts say.
"It's the financial capability of a migrant that determines how much he would be charged. It's an exploitative system," says Waqar, with the cost ranging from hundreds to thousands of US dollars.
An Eritrean woman planning to travel to Europe from the Sudanese capital of Khartoum says she was told to raise $US2500 (2500 euro).
Kasala police chief General Yahya Sulayman says Sudan alone cannot stop the smuggling of people along the "long and complicated" border.
"We need international help, hi-tech communication equipment, vehicles, cameras and even drones to monitor the border," he says.
Washington-based think tank Enough Project says the European Union paid Khartoum millions of euros to buy equipment that would help stem the migrant flow.
Some funding also went to the Rapid Support Force (RSF), a paramilitary group fighting rebels in war-torn Darfur, and whose members are also used for border patrols, the think tank says.
General Sulayman denies any RSF members are deployed along the Sudan-Eritrea border.
"The border patrols are carried out by police, NISS and Sudanese armed forces," he says.
"All these troops are jointly fighting organised cross-border crime."
Eritreans in camps such as Wadi Sherifay say they live in a constant state of fear.
"The Eritrean military has its agents everywhere. They can catch us and take us back," says one who still dreams of reaching Europe.
"It's not safe for us to be here for long."