Interview by Salih Amar with Ismal Omar Tairab.

A Sudanese government official, Ismail Omar Tairab, a member of the Sudanese National Committee for Combatting Human Trafficking, accused the European Union (EU) of seeking to turn Sudan into “a large prison for migrants”. Mr. Tairab questioned announcements made by the EU that human smuggling and trafficking through Sudan to Europe is decreasing, stating that in reality, smugglers have developed their methods for bringing migrants to Europe. Mr. Tairab cited recent statistics on migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean as evidence, and going further, stated that the European Union is focused on security and policing aspects in their efforts to stop the waves of migrants arriving in their countries, rather than focusing on the “development and awareness-raising” aspects of the Khartoum Process

Ismail Tairab in this interview calls upon the European countries to help Sudan and African countries in addressing development challenges , and stressed that the current policy will cause deterioration of relations between states and the peoples, because some countries may be forced to close its borders, which will lead to “serious consequences “.

Mr. Tairab admitted the weakness in the performance of his committee since its inception two years ago in dealing with human trafficking in Sudan due to lack of a budget allocated by the Sudanese government. The committee still lacks an office and headquarters, as well as committed members, some of who are unaware of the meaning of human trafficking itself. The committee Committee was established under the provisions of Anti-Human Trafficking Act of 2014 under the pretext of developing strategies to combat trafficking. Human trafficking has risen to unprecedented levels in Sudan since 2010, placing Sudan amongst the top countries in the world with active trafficking and a lack of government response to the new phenomenon according to a report issued by the US State Department in 2015.  

The text of the interview is below.

Q: When was the Committee established and what are its goals?

A: The Committee was founded at the end of 2014, in accordance with the Anti-Human Trafficking Law of 2014. According to this law, the Committee is the highest authority charged with fighting and presenting solutions to the driving causes of human trafficking crimes.

Q: Who are the members of the Committee and what is its organizational structure?

A: The Committee is composed of 15 members, and its head is the Deputy Minister of Justice. The regulations indicate that the Committee has to meet every 3 months, and there is an executive committee of 5 people that manages the workload and agenda of the committee.

Q: What is the nature of your relationship with other agencies, such as the judiciary and the police?

A: Regarding our relationship with the police and the judiciary, we, as a Committee, request from them reports and we also make recommendations to the donors. We generally work within a framework of: protection, prevention, partnership and prosecution of traffickers.

Our real focus is  on protection and prevention. The partnership is an executive matter and we are only mandated to provide advice. Additionally, legal persecution and investigations, respectively, are within the jurisdiction of the judiciary and police.

Q: Do you work directly with victims?

A: We don’t have direct contact with victims. Therefore we coordinate with some organizations such as the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and UNICEF, as we don’t have safe housing or other services to offer to the victims. We requested from the IOM, the Europeans and the Americans funding to help establish four safe houses for victims of human trafficking.

Q: What is your current evaluation of the activities of human traffickers in Sudan?

A: According to the reports produced by the Ministry of Interior, our activities as the committee working to reduce the impact of traffickers in Sudan were at their peak between the years 2014-2015, but currently (in 2016) they have regressed.

Q: Is this a result of police and security efforts against human trafficking, or are there other elements involved?

A: It is logical to question if this publicized deterioration  is a result of police efforts or due to a change in the strategies and tactics by traffickers. Smugglers have modern and substantial means, and I am inclined to believe that it is their evolving strategies and tactics. The proof is that there is no reduction in migration by the Mediterranean Sea and other routes.

Q: The Minister of Interior declared a few months ago that there is no human trafficking in Sudan, how do you react to this?

A: Trafficking as a practice is happening in a narrow scope. It usually takes place in the form of exploitation of foreigners, such as Ethiopian domestic workers, whose passports are unlawfully withheld. Most of the human trafficking activities are done by members of one tribe from Eastern Sudan, who kidnap refugees and sometimes Sudanese nationals and ask for ransom as a condition for their release. However in Sudan we don’t have other dangerous forms of trafficking, such as forced labor in mines or factories or drug smuggling. Or like the other things that happen in Europe, such as taking photos of young women in sexually compromising positions and putting them on the internet. In Sudan we don’t  suffer from the exploitation of laborers as it happens in Colombia, or else organ trade as it takes place in Egypt. We don’t have all of these other aspects of trafficking in Sudan.

Q: After two years of establishing the Committee, what are your main accomplishments?

A: We participated in a number of international forums  in London, Addis Ababa, Cairo, Italy, Bahrain and Qatar. The last forum in Addis Ababa was about mixed migration and we put forward two recommendations which were endorsed by the forum. They are: 1) creating welcoming centers for refugees/migrants; and 2) creating a mechanism for saving victims in the shared desert between Egypt, Libya and Sudan. This forum was sponsored by the IOM and their recommendations will be shared with the United Nations.

The Committee trained various sectors including social Services, police officers, prosecutors and judges;   with 30 people from each sector receiving training, alongside 12 members of the committee. We are also planning training for the media sector and some of the Committee members.

Q: Don’t you think that these accomplishments are weak in comparison to the challenges awaiting you?

A: The accomplishments are weak for sure. One of the reasons is that the Committee does not have a physical work space; we are working from our homes and a budget has not been allocated to us . We submitted a budget for our operations for the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years, but and we did not receive any funds. We are mostly implementing our operations from the budget of the Ministry of Justice; and the Ministry is often put in an awkward position as a result of that. Additionally, the Committee members selected from the various ministries have poor performance records and did not contribute substantially. Some of them don’t even know what human trafficking means, whereas some ministries keep changing their representatives.

Q: What is your plan for the next period? Is there anything new?

Yes. We have put in place The National Anti-Human Trafficking Strategy, and it commenced in the beginning of 2016 and will continue for the next five years. Some of its most important aspects include: building the capacities of the judiciary, prosecutors and police officers; raising awareness amongst a number of sectors such as civil society organizations, youth, students, teachers, local administrations and the general public, in addition to building partnerships with neighboring countries. These are all aimed at facilitating the protection of victims.

Q: What are the steps and practical plan to implement this strategy?

A: We put in place a cooperation and training plan with the IOM and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and we submitted an operational budget to the government so as to allow the Committee to implement its activities and conduct meetings, etc. We will also plan to establish offices in different states, starting with  states that have activities. There is a media plan in the making. As the Committee we have comments regarding the Anti-Human Trafficking Law of 2014, and we will put forward a request with amendments to the law to the Minister of Justice. These recommendations include the combating of smuggling of persons alongside human trafficking, and to denote a percentage of funds (where there has been a previous ruling to confiscate them) for the Committee’s operational work.

Q: There are accusations that the government is looking for financial gain from donors without actual efforts extended to combat human trafficking, what is your response to that?

A: The government is not asking for funds. What we are asking for is technical support and capacity-building. I’ve been working in the humanitarian sector for seven years and have not seen any funds from donors allocated for development; all funding is for emergencies. And everything is accounted for.

Q: Does the Committee get any foreign funding/support?

A: There is international support in the form of training and paying for attending conferences. But there isn’t any direct funding. The IOM has agreed to set up an office for the Committee if such is made available..

Q: The European Union (EU) announced a partnership with Sudan on migration issues. Have you received any support from the EU?

A:The EU wants to turn Sudan into a large prison for migrants, and that’s why all of the partnerships they have built are with the police. And this approach is not correct. Albeit there is a need to work with the police, but development and awareness-raising activities are also required. We were expecting to work with them on these activities. For example, nowadays many refugees flee camps because of the poor conditions in these camps; we would like them to coordinate with us on issues of protection and prevention, just as they endeavor on the security and police sectors.

Q: But the EU did announce a big financial support to the government of Sudan.

A: We corresponded with the EU, and we did not get anything from them. They are not interested in us. There was, for instance, a Euro-British delegation that visited Sudan a few weeks ago; and they visited our committee on their last day before they left after spending two days in meetings with the police and security forces. This means that we are not important to them, visiting us was just a formality.

Q: What do you expect the EU to do?

A: Europe should help our countries with developing our societies. Their current policy might lead to the deterioration of relations amongst countries in the region, because some of them might close their borders and this has dangerous consequences. We do not want to move in that direction. We have a moral obligation toward migrants. But I fear that with the current situation we might lose this moral obligation and conflicts might arise between nations.

Sudanese youth have also joined the ranks of groups seeking migration to Europe, because of the failure of developmental projects that we were depending on to absorb those youth, many of which have been exacerbated by the American sanctions (editors’ note: US sanctions on Sudan were lifted in October 2017).