For young people in Sudan, it is not difficult to understand the link between learning English and ending up dead in the Mediterranean Sea. That may sound far-fetched, but learning a foreign language is often the first step in the emigration process which involves travelling to neighbouring countries, such as Libya, and paying human traffickers large sums of money for precarious crossings on large inflatable dinghies to get into Europe.
For years, despite the difficult economic conditions, language schools such as Khartoum's American Discussion Club (ADC) have expanded their operations; the ADC, for example, has moved from one main building to three branches in the heart of the capital. The centre processes hundreds of students per month. Whilst there is no suggestion that language centres knowingly act as conduits for aspirational young migrants, having personally taught English at the ADC I have come across countless students who talk privately and openly of making the journey to Europe despite the obvious dangers.
Last month, apart for war-torn Syria, Sudan was recorded officially as the country with the highest number of registered asylum seekers in the world. Last year's figures released by PEW Research show that almost 1.75 million Sudanese left their homeland and applied for asylum elsewhere. This comes as no surprise to those who have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on exit routes and strategies to leave Sudan. Many of the migrants continue to be from the Darfur region affected by the civil unrest and conflict in the West of the country, but increasingly Sudanese from other areas are deciding to ignore the dangers of migration in the perceived hope of a better future.
One family I spoke to from a small town called Al Huda in Geizera State still wait for news from their 25-year old son. They've heard nothing from Ahmed Musa for over a year. He was one of the "lucky ones" who crossed over to Italy's Lampedusa Island with the help of human traffickers and sought sanctuary in the German city of Luneburg. His attempt to reach Britain was thwarted by the French authorities who closed the "Jungle" camp in Calais. A year after he arrived in Germany, I contacted Ahmed through a social media platform. His case was processed by the authorities and he was denied refugee status and ordered to leave. He remains in Germany illegally, trying to avoid arrest and unable to share the news with his family.
Ahmed's story and the brain- and labour-drain in Sudan is by no means a new phenomenon; there has always been, for example, a high percentage of Sudanese nationals in the Gulf States. According to the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) in 2011, "Sudan counts between 880,000 and 1,338,000 economic migrants, over half of which are concentrated in Saudi Arabia, with the rest in other Arab countries and a smaller proportion in Western countries."
The report said that two-thirds of those migrants were low-skilled but around a third were white-collar workers or in highly skilled occupations, "…including medical specialists, engineers, university professors, teachers, lawyers, legal advisers, entrepreneurs and managers suggesting the existence of a brain drain in some professional categories such as health professionals."
Most recently, the desire to leave Sudan has taken a more frightening and dangerous turn. In the past two months, videos have circulated widely on YouTube of Sudanese being tortured and held for ransom by criminal gangs in Libya. Just last week more disturbing clips were released in which viewers could hear captives being beaten, and young Sudanese men were forced to turn to the camera and beg their families to send money.
The men's relatives say that they disseminated such videos on social media in a bid to raise awareness and raise the money demanded. Fortunately, in this latest incident, according to Libya's UN-backed unity government, the country's Special Forces traced where the men were held and arrested members of the criminal gang involved.
The irony of the situation is that 2017's recorded high in migration came in the year that the European Union paid more than €200 million to Sudan to prevent migration into Europe, and also provided police training and equipment to the Interior Ministry in Khartoum. In April 2016, the European Commission announced a €100 million development package for Sudan aimed at tackling the "root causes of irregular migration and forced displacement."
However, those root causes seem unlikely to be addressed until the political and economic situation in Sudan becomes stable. The Sudanese joke that as little as 10 per cent of the population supports the other 90 per cent. This may not be entirely accurate, but for decades the bulk of the population has relied heavily on remittances from Sudanese nationals working abroad. Although the UN Development Programme (UNDP) suggested a decade ago that the remittances stood at almost £1.5 billion, it is estimated that the figure has increased substantially. Even so, the UNDP pointed out that the per capita remittances in Sudan remain lower than in some other Arab countries.
The Sudanese continue to use informal channels to send money "back home" and undertake transactions that do not touch the official financial system. As such, the actual amount sent on a regular basis to Sudan remains unclear. Schemes that allow businesses to amass foreign currency abroad or even buy property in Sudan without the finance ever touching the borders of the country are common. Furthermore, empirical observations continue to point to the use of remittances for daily consumption, education and health purposes, as well as occasional events such as weddings, burials and migration.
The dream of being able to study abroad by any means possible remains the hope for almost 62 per cent of Sudan's population who are, according to the latest census figures, under 25 years old. Many will spend years trying to pursue the goal of leaving Sudan but eventually abandon the idea. Very few will succeed, while some will either end up dead, or tortured and abused by human traffickers.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.