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Bringing Human Traffickers to Justice in Sudan

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In early January, notorious human trafficker Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam was arrested in Sudan – writes Carlos Uriarte Sánchez .

 Two years ago, Kidane was sentenced in absentia to life in prison in Ethiopia for human trafficking and extortion. Able to escape the authorities for the past two years, Interpol and police in the UAE, Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Netherlands cooperated behind the scenes to track him to Sudan where he was taken into custody and extradited to the UAE to face money laundering charges.

Sudan’s participation in the international law enforcement initiative that led to the detainment of Kidane underscores Sudan’s commitment to halting human trafficking on its soil. Since 2017, Sudan has risen from a low Tier 3 – the worst rating for human trafficking – to a high Tier 2, as reported by the U.S. State Department. The United States and Sudan’s other allies and partners must continue to work with Sudan – which is critical to global anti-trafficking efforts given its position as the primary transit country to Europe from the Horn of Africa – to improve its capacity for mitigating this practice within its borders.

While human trafficking decreased globally during the pandemic, the UN’s Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2022 identified conflict and instability as drivers of an uptick in human trafficking in Europe, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa. And human traffickers like Kidane operate in an environment that has only been made worse by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Four million people fled Ukraine in the first five weeks of Russia’s invasion, with women and children comprising 90 percent of refugees. In 2021, there were 21,347 identified victims of human trafficking in Europe. In Africa, 11,450 victims were identified with the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region being a main driver of refuges throughout the region. The conflict accounts for more than 60,000 Ethiopians in Sudan, half of them children, and there are more than three million IDPs and 1.1 million refugees in Sudan mainly originating from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. These vulnerable populations are prey for human traffickers seeking to exploit them for personal gain.

Since 2014, when Parliament passed the Combating of Human Trafficking Act, Sudanese officials have increasingly sought to mitigate the practice of human trafficking. This is welcome news given Sudan’s historical position as a thoroughfare for human trafficking victims from East Africa to Europe. In 2017, the National Committee to Combat Trafficking established its first action plan. This same year, Sudan’s current Vice President, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, began to expand Sudan’s anti-human trafficking efforts in the area between Sudan, Egypt and Chad,  committing to "arrest gangs involved in human trafficking after chasing and fierce fighting” to stop human trafficking to Europe. In 2020, Gedaref State Police freed 66 Ethiopian and Sudanese of human trafficking victims on the Sudanese-Ethiopian border. In 2021, Sudanese officials worked collaboratively with EU officials to ensure its National Action Plan for Combating Human Trafficking 2021-2023 met EU standards for "Prevention, Protection, Prosecution and Coordination and Partnership." Last year, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) commended the Sudanese Government for the launch of the action plan. Further, the U.S. State Department recognized that Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) officials trained its military “on child protection issues, including child soldiering.”

However, the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2022 for Sudan states that personnel turnover following the October 2021 military takeover in Sudan undermined authorities’ ability to engage in consistent anti- trafficking efforts, but recognized that authorities made “increasing efforts” compared to the 2020-2021 reporting period. Sudanese authorities brought more traffickers to justice and created programs to mitigate the practice of child soldier recruitment. However, Sudan still does not meet the minimum requirements for eliminating human trafficking.

The U.S. and Europe must seize the opportunity to increase their positive work with Sudan’s leadership to elevate its capacity to address human trafficking and related offenses. Part of this is distinguishing between traffickers who smuggle migrants and those who participate in labor or sex trafficking. Distinguishing between these categories will help Sudanese authorities adequately track data on the different types of human trafficking occurring in Sudan as well as those engaging in the practice. This will support law enforcement that are appropriately trained to apprehend traffickers and prosecutors that are able to use the law to bring these traffickers to justice. Creating an environment in Sudan that inhibits human trafficking would dramatically reduce illegal migration to Europe and save thousands of victims from the gross human rights abuses of human trafficking and modern slavery.  

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Carlos Uriarte Sánchez

Carlos Uriarte Sánchez is Professor of Law at Rey Juan Carlos University and Secretary-General of Paneuropa Spain, an NGO founded in 1922 to foster European integration.

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