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Refugees Could Be Victims of New Smuggling Ring in Sudan

The U.N. refugee agency says it is concerned that new, smuggling rings taking advantage of refugees may be developing in eastern Sudan. It says 21 refugees from Eritrea and Somalia are feared to have drowned recently when their overloaded boat capsized in the Atbara River, near the Shagarab refugee camp in eastern Sudan. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

Local authorities are investigating the presumed death by drowning of the refugees. The bodies have not yet been recovered.

The U.N. refugee agency says this tragic incident occurred a couple of days ago. Eyewitnesses report the 21 refugees were part of a larger group that tried to cross the Atbara River in four boats. They say the boat that capsized was meant to carry 15 passengers, but was packed with 26. Four Eritrean men and one Somali woman survived.

U.N. refugee spokesman Ron Redmond says aid workers who arrived on the spot shortly after the incident found 70 other people waiting to cross the river. He tells VOA smuggling routes are opening up across this remote part of eastern Sudan, not far from the 12 refugee camps managed by the UNHCR.

"So, it is obviously becoming a more popular solution among these refugees," said Redmond. "We are extremely concerned because the smugglers who are carrying these people do not have their safety in mind. And, it is an extremely dangerous undertaking crossing this river because they are overloading the boats. These people are paying about $100 each to take the trip across the river and then on towards Khartoum by road."

Eleven Eritrean and Somali families, including eight women and at least three children are among the missing.

The UNHCR estimates around 130,000 refugees are in eastern Sudan. About 100,000 live in 12 camps where they receive international assistance. Most are from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

Redmond says thousands of these refugees have been living in eastern Sudan for more than four decades. He says living conditions in the camps are very bad and many refugees feel hopeless about their future.

"The refugees are confined basically to the camps," said Redmond. "They are not supposed to travel anywhere else in the country without authorization. So, they are in a very difficult situation. They are desperate. They want a future and, as we have seen in other parts of the world, particularly across the Gulf of Aden, they will take their lives into their own hands if they think it is worth the risk."

Redmond says the refugees who get involved with smugglers and embark on these perilous journeys hope to reach the capital Khartoum and, ultimately, make their way to Europe.