Sudan’s Eritrean refugees flee for ‘money and freedom’

Refugees’ accounts cite grinding economic conditions and repression among reasons for fleeing Eritrea.

Those who attempted to flee Eritrea did so because they faced military service, which can last for an unlimited time [EPA]
Those who attempted to flee Eritrea did so because they faced military service, which can last for an unlimited time [EPA]

Khartoum, Sudan – Before coming to Sudan, 33-year-old Weldezghi Tesfamaryam had plans for his future back home in Eritrea. He wanted to get married and aimed to enter politics to make a living.

“I wanted to one day become the president of Eritrea,” said Tesfamaryam.

These plans, however, seem far away now that Tesfamaryam is living in Sudan as a refugee, having travelled more than 1,500km away from his home city of Keren in Eritrea.

Now, living a cramped life of high costs and few opportunities, all Tesfamaryam wants is to make enough money to leave Sudan and move on.

“I don’t know where I will end up, though,” said Tesfamaryam. “I just need to keep at it. Eventually I will make it to America or Europe.”

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Many people in Eritrea, a small African nation bordering Sudan and Ethiopia, have fled their homes in order to escape grinding economic conditions, human rights abuses and mandatory military service, which can last indefinitely.

According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Khartoum, there are nearly 92,000 Eritrean refugees and asylum seekers in Sudan, as of May 31. 

They are spread throughout nine camps and other urban settings. Every month, Sudan registers an average of 800 Eritreans seeking entry into the country.

Many of the people my age and those older left in search of better money, yes, but freedom and lack of fear is what we're eventually after. We lack those. The authorities are just too unjust, too invasive.

Hagos Gebreselassie, Eritrean refugee

However, UNHCR spokesperson Nicholas Brass said: “The total number of Eritreans in Sudan is probably higher. We only record refugees and asylum seekers.”

The Sudanese Commission of Refugees (COR) says Sudan, which offers a popular destination in the north, receives Eritrean refugees out of “moral and even religious ethics” and in keeping with the Geneva Convention of 1951 and its supplement, 1967.

The journey to Sudan, however, can be arduous and extremely risky for Eritreans, who are not allowed to leave the country without permission from the government.

Before arriving in Sudan, Hagos Gebreselassie, 24, spent just over a year in a number of prisons in Eritrea, having been convicted of trying to leave the country without government permission.

According to Gebreselassie, those who attempted to flee the country had done so because they faced the prospect of military service, which in Eritrea can last for an unlimited time and pays only $59 a month. 

Refugees’ accounts bespeak repression and assaults on human dignity. ”Many of the people my age and those older left in search of better money, yes, but freedom and lack of fear is what we’re eventually after,” Gebreselassie told Al Jazeera. “The authorities are too unjust, too invasive.”

In Sudan, refugee camps and the high costs of living can offer only the most diminutive forms of life for refugees and asylum seekers. For this reason, many pay smugglers to take them to urban centres in the country. “Rent is extremely expensive here,” said Tesfamaryam. “Food is also very expensive. But this is a phase I have to go through.”

A lack of opportunities has pushed many Eritreans to keep moving, with the goal of finding work in Libya or further beyond in Europe.

Because of this, the UNHCR office in Khartoum has made it a priority to address human trafficking. Last year, Sudan passed a law against human trafficking and has also hosted a conference, bringing East African and European countries together to address the issue.  

“The number of trafficking incidents reported to us has decreased thanks to [these] efforts,” said Brass.

The Sudanese human trafficking law carries penalties that include imprisonment for periods ranging from 5-20 years as well as the capital punishment. 

RELATED: UN report says Eritrea committed widespread abuses

In a quiet neighbourhood in Khartoum, Ikhlas, 46, has raised two sons. Now grown up at 22 and 16 years old, her children still live with her – and each coming year is an added pressure.

There are 92,000 Eritrean refugees currently in East Sudan [Getty]

“[My older son] now saves money to go to Saudi Arabia for work,” said Ikhlas, who abstained from giving her last name. “I wish he could stay here and get married, but the reality is I need his help so that his younger brother can finish his education.”

Ikhlas’ younger son was born in Sudan, and she is saddened that neither of her children grew up in her home country. “How I wish he’d grown up in Eritrea,” she said of her older son. “But it was safer here.”

Now, Ikhlas hopes that one day her sons will be able to return – or at least move on from Sudan.

“I have lived here long enough to meet many of those who came and wished to travel,” she said. “Some were successful, some had given up and changed directions, and many still await their chance.”

“It is the last one that is the most painful thing,” she added. 

Source: Al Jazeera


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