How did the Covid-19 pandemic impact modern slavery and human trafficking in Sudan?

Report on the 26 May online conference

On Wednesday 26th May, GPG hosted an online seminar alongside the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), and Waging Peace. The event’s purpose was to launch the report summarising the findings of an essential research project we conducted on the impacts of Covid-19 on human trafficking and modern slavery in Sudan and the wider Horn of Africa region. 

In addition to researchers from all four organisations, our speakers included: 

  • Hamad Al-Jazouli, senior advisor for asylum and migration at the African Center for Peace and Governance, 
  • Amira Azhary, Director of the Child Protection Department at the National Council for Child Welfare, Sudan 
  • Robert Fairweather, a British diplomat and the UK Special Representative for Sudan and South Sudan, 
  • Dr Jérôme Tubiana, a researcher specialised in conflict and migration. 

We also welcomed the generous testimony of a survivor of human trafficking, who concluded the session with a song. 

The event was recorded and will be uploaded online shortly. The link will be added to this page and posted on our social media – keep an eye out for it on our TwitterLinkedIn, and Instagram accounts! 

Dr Audrey Lumley-Sapanski and Dr Ana Valverde-Cano, respectively Research Fellow in Migration and Integration and Research Fellow in Antislavery Law and Policy at the University of Nottingham’s Rights Lab kicked off the event with a presentation of the research project and its main findings. They pointed out that several new crisis factors, including conflict in the wider region and Covid-19, have greatly increased victims’ vulnerability to human trafficking in Sudan. Reduced work opportunities in the informal sector disproportionately impacted refugees, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), and women. Social isolation rose, exacerbating vulnerability in women and migrant workers, leading to increased risk of entering exploitative or abusive environments. The pandemic reduced policing and prosecution of crime and led to limited capacity to protect victims. The third sector also lost the financial resources necessary to protect, identify, and assist survivors. 

The report aimed to find out how anti-trafficking efforts have adapted to the situation, and which measures should be adopted by practitioners. As part of this effort, five recommendations were formulated by interviewees and survivors: 

  1. The international community should continue and extend support for developing capacity, institutions, and infrastructure in Sudan. Funding to ensure access to social welfare, healthcare and education across the population, as well as dedicated anti-trafficking activities and support for victims and survivors should be ensured across the country. 
  2. Government in Sudan should continue to prioritise addressing human trafficking and human rights. Law and reform of the legislative and policy structure to ensure effective anti-trafficking, labour rights, and human rights governance should continue, with support for the implementation and enforcement of these frameworks expanding over time. 
  3. Horn of Africa States, in collaboration with the African Union (AU), should explore options for regional open borders, so as to reduce the need for migrants to use smugglers and dangerous traffickers. The government of Sudan should work with the European Union and AU to reframe the emphasis of international migration governance from stopping flows to Europe and criminalising migration, to addressing root causes and targeting traffickers. 
  4. The Ministry of Education, with support from international partners, should explore and evaluate alternative education models to reach out of school students and students in conflict zones and rural areas. The ministry of Health should distribute PPE to teachers and students to ensure classroom safety, and support education to address risks for particularly vulnerable children.  
  5. The Sudanese government should work to incorporate women into the governance structure and wit the National Committee to Counter Trafficking (NCCT) build a legislative framework that reflects women’s voices and provides access to care, support, and opportunities for women across Sudan. As part of this, Sudan should commit to the Juba process and work to actualise CEDAW, implement women’s full participation, and outlaw child marriage. 

We then received a contribution from Hamad Al-Jazouli, senior advisor for asylum and migration at the African Center for Peace and Governance, who explained that 70% of victims of human trafficking are refugees and asylum seekers. He recommended that international actors working with refugees and asylum seekers particularly account for the vulnerability of people living in camps to traffickers and smugglers, in particular that of women and youths.  

This was followed by an intervention from Amira Azhary, Director of the Child Protection Department in National Council for Child Welfare. She commented that the research conducted by the team is complementary to what Sudan has been doing over the past year and agreed that institutions combatting human trafficking in Sudan would benefit from taking into consideration the recommendations made by our interviewees. She highlighted the importance of accounting for children protection in combatting human trafficking and stressed the need to implement preventive and protective mechanisms. 

We then heard from Robert Fairweather, the UK Special Representative for Sudan and South Sudan. He argued that decision-makers must acknowledge the issues at hand and take every measure needed to address them. In particular, he mentioned the need to mobilise appropriate resources not only to prevent human trafficking, but also to protect and support victims and survivors.  

Our final speaker was Dr. Jérôme Tubiana, a researcher specialising in conflicts and migration across the Sahara and the Horn of Africa. He spoke of how slow change in political reform and peace-making processes increases the vulnerability of potential victims through protracted displacement. He explained that migrants are especially at risk of infection to Covid-19 and other infectious diseases due to poor testing capacity and health conditions in centres. 

During the Q&A session that followed, Maria Peiró Mir, GPG’s Head of Policy and Partnerships, addressed the question of legal and official definitions of what falls under trafficking. She stressed that, as those definitions are being produced, re-worked, and formulated in new legislation, a major priority for decision- and law-makers should be that no possible interpretation should ever end up criminalising the victims. Amira Azhary added that much work has been done to improve the quality of those definitions.  

On the topic of child-protection and youth safeguarding, Dr Audrey Lumley-Sapanski added that while, legally speaking, more protection exists for children than for adults, previous health crises showed that children are at higher risk in times of crisis, including through child marriage and street begging as means of financial survival for families. In situations of migration, it seems that women and children tend to be sent abroad first to improve a group’s chances of receiving permanent status, which puts them at greater risk of trafficking during transit. This must be accounted for by practitioners when formulating protection mechanisms. Katarina Schwarz, Assistant Professor of Antislavery Law and Policy and Associate Director at the Rights Lab, added that while the questions asked to the focus groups revolved around a varied range of topics, the interviewees invariably returned to the issue of security in camps, which they stressed was the one matter that needed to be addressed first and foremost. 

The survivor, who had previously shared his experience with us and voiced his hopes that the democratic transition in Sudan produces an environment in which all efforts can be made to assist and protect those suffering from conflict, poverty, and violence, concluded the webinar with a sung performance. 

To answer any questions you may still have, we encourage you to read the report summarising the findings of our research. For any outstanding queries, do not hesitate to get in touch with us by emailing