THINK AGAIN: Eritrean authoritarianism and human trafficking in the Sinai

Many refugees who are smuggled out of Eritrea end up in human trafficking rings, where they are sold or extorted for money.

On the world map, there is no such thing as an ‘ungoverned space,’ bar the two poles and our woefully under-regulated oceans. It is a neat, practical system, where all land is accounted for and all people know where they belong. That’s the theory, at least. The reality is a little different. A lot different, in fact – especially in parts of Africa, where governance is poor or non-existent, borders are permeable, people hold multiple identities and the illegal can flourish far away from regulation and the rule of law.

Understanding how these ungoverned spaces function, and how they are connected, is key to understanding the factors that drive some of Africa’s most serious problems, including transnational terrorism and crime. An example that illustrates this phenomenon – and provides a few clues to policymakers on how to approach these problems – is the link between authoritarianism in Eritrea and human trafficking in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

A staggering number of Eritreans have already fled their country, and more seek to join these refugees and asylum-seekers every day. As of January 2014, the United Nations (UN) estimated that there were 308 000 Eritreans outside of Eritrea – nearly 5% of the country’s total population.

It’s an intersection of human smuggling and the very lucrative side-line of trafficking

It’s not hard to figure out why so many Eritreans have left and many remain desperate to follow. Those who didn’t flee the decades-long civil war, or the brutal post-independence conflict with Ethiopia, now have to contend with a regime in which political space is non-existent, economic prospects are virtually nil and a programme of indefinite national conscription is effectively a form of indentured servitude, often lasting eight years or more.

But escaping Eritrea isn’t so easy. Even those who manage to cross the border, where guards are authorised to shoot on sight, find themselves in an extremely vulnerable position. Those who make it into Ethiopia are relatively lucky, as the Ethiopian government has in recent years allowed Eritreans to work and study there (in preparation to return home if and when the situation changes). For those escaping into Sudan, the situation is far more dangerous.

In a country where they don’t understand the laws, speak the language or, often, share the local religion, refugees are at the mercy of smugglers to get them to a place where they think they’ll be safe. There are two main routes: into Italy through Libya, or into Israel through the Sinai. Even if all goes according to plan, their journeys are incredibly dangerous, and many don’t make it. Furthermore, and increasingly in recent years, would-be migrants are hijacked by human trafficking rings.

Between 25 000 and 30 000 people were trafficked through the Sinai from 2009 to 2013

Human smuggling is not the same thing as human trafficking. Human smuggling is a transport service, albeit illegal and dangerous, where refugees pay to be moved somewhere else. It is a voluntary activity, whereas human trafficking involves coercion – people are tricked or kidnapped, and then either sold on or extorted for money.

It can be a lucrative business. Usually, victims are sold several times to successive groups as they slowly make their way north, before finally ending up in captivity in the Sinai. (Increasingly, anecdotal reports suggest that Libya is also a destination for human traffickers, but there is little research as yet to back this up.) Here they are beaten, starved and tortured until their families agree to hand over ransom money, which can be as much as US$40 000.

The numbers are staggering: according to the European Parliament, between 25 000 and 30 000 people were trafficked through the Sinai between 2009 and 2013, 95% of whom were from Eritrea (nearly 10% of the total Eritrean refugee population); and as of March 2014, an estimated 1 000 people have been trapped in trafficking compounds in the area.

Crucial to the success of this trade is the involvement of criminal elements within nomadic Bedouin communities in Egypt, which have long operated outside the reach of the state, and within the semi-nomadic Rashaida tribe in Sudan and Eritrea, for whom borders are largely irrelevant. Similarly, in the Sahel it is the itinerant Tuareg tribe that is most often associated with illicit, cross-border trade.

‘Today, what you’ve got is really an intersection of smuggling and the very lucrative side-line of trafficking, and a set of networks that stretch all the way across the Sahel. They often cooperate with one another and overlap with various organised crime syndicates and, at times, slide into extreme politics,’ said Dan Connell, a journalist and academic who has been researching the issue, in an interview with ISS Today. ‘It’s a complex, interlocking network that runs from East to West Africa. Eritreans find themselves, by dint of circumstances, having to negotiate their way across it.’

It’s not just human trafficking, either. The same networks move cigarettes, alcohol, drugs and guns, and also have connections to various Islamist extremist groups operating in the area. It’s a lucrative trade and enables the establishment of corrupt links with border guards and the military, as well as the purchasing of weapons and communication gear by the traffickers.

This is particularly true in the Sinai, where Islamist militants have been responsible for a slew of attacks and bombings, and have also been the target of a heavy-handed military crackdown from Egyptian authorities. Given the illicit nature of both activities, it’s difficult to pinpoint a direct link between them. It’s fair to say, however, that the same conditions – poor governance, endemic poverty and corruption, and a sense of alienation from the state – encourage both to thrive.

‘There is an overlap between the smugglers, traffickers and Islamists. They take advantage of each other, they shift back and forth,’ said Connell. He points out, however, that much of the resistance to trafficking within the Sinai itself comes from more moderate Islamist groups, who are appalled by the practice.

The interconnected, amorphous character of the criminal networks involved, coupled with the transnational nature of the crime, have serious implications for how to solve the human trafficking problem. ‘At this point, most of the resources going into smuggling and trafficking of people, is aimed at stopping them from [reaching] their final destination. It’s not aimed at dismantling the networks that are getting them there, or stabilising the situations they are leaving from. From a security standpoint, the right approach here is to go back along that chain and try to wind it down at every point that you can, and if you can’t stop it at least you can contain it,’ concludes Connell.

Berouk Mesfin, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies in Addis Ababa, agrees – adding that Egypt alone cannot solve the problem, even though that is where trafficked victims usually end up. Instead, a concerted regional effort is required – along with cooperation from both Eritrea and Sudan. This, he says, is unlikely, especially given reports that elements within the Eritrean military are actually profiting from the trafficking operations.

The trafficking of Eritrean refugees, through Sudan and Egypt and the vast swathes of ungoverned space that make it possible, illustrates that borders are not sacrosanct, and that sovereignty is often a theoretical concept. If policymakers are to find a solution, they must come to the same realisation.

Simon Allison, ISS Consultant

Media coverage of this ISS Today:

This is Africa

Related content