Kassala, Sudan — After 20 members of her religious congregation were imprisoned in Eritrea, Semret knew she had to flee to the safety of Sudan. The 25-year-old woman left on foot with a smuggler recommended by a friend - straight into a tragedy.
The Pentecostal church is among many denominations suffering severe restrictions. Anyone practising outside the four approved religions of Orthodox Christianity, Sunni Islam, Catholicism and Lutheranism can face prison, threats and harassment.
Coupled with Eritrea's strict exit requirements, many pay smugglers to take them to Sudan. These apparent freedom facilitators can present an even greater danger, which has triggered counter-trafficking measures by UNHCR and its partners.
"It is not easy to find the route or people to help you flee," Semret says. She put her trust in a smuggler recommended by a friend. She left with the smuggler and four male Eritreans, walking well into the night. Although Semret reached Sudan safely, she felt growing unease at being in a vast desert area notorious for kidnappings while her smuggler made secretive phone calls.
Suddenly, three men appeared in a pickup truck. "We were all running in different directions and scattered. They reached me first. I tried to escape again but they soon found me. I was beaten and dragged alone into their vehicle. "
Semret's three abductors drove her to an isolated camp consisting of a house and a few mud huts. Without anyone to pay a ransom for her release, she was subjected to daily beatings and rape.
"They came at any time that pleased them. They would bring coke and cake. I lived on coke and cake for seven months." Her voice falters as she remembers.
"After I got pregnant, they stopped closing the house and I managed to escape." Severely malnourished and dressed in a Jallabia (a long robe), Semret walked for hours to reach Kassala, a town 40 km from the border. The UNHCR office in the town was contacted and she was brought to a guesthouse where she received counselling before being driven to a refugee camp.
Seeing the increasing vulnerability of refugees and asylum-seekers in the eastern border area and around the refugee camps, UNHCR and IOM, in close cooperation with the Sudanese authorities, launched an anti-trafficking, smuggling and kidnapping project in 2012.
A comprehensive strategy planned for 2013-14 builds sustainability and complements the earlier project, which enhanced security in the eastern refugee camps, improved care of victims, enhanced Sudan's capacity and strengthened cooperation.
With the increased commitment by Sudanese authorities and more awareness of the risks, verified cases of trafficking by UNHCR tumbled from 338 in 2012 to 100 in 2013 and four by the end of this March. In addition, there have been no reports of kidnappings from the refugee camps themselves since February 2013.
For many trafficking victims, their ordeal does not end with liberation: post-traumatic stress, anxiety, sleeplessness and aggression can all appear. Counselling by UNHCR has been essential in helping individuals like Semret overcome the trauma.
In Semret's case, she learnt to see her pregnancy in a different light. "My daughter was born in January. I called her Heyabel, which means gift of God."
Name has been changed for protection reasons.