Dahlak is known to be the prime facilitator of human smuggling and trafficking out of Eritrea. As of 2018, over 12 percent of the Eritrean population have fled the country to avoid its mandatory indefinite military service, poverty, and persecution.

While Dahlak benefits from lucrative partnership with the government in construction and mining industries using forced labour, since early 2010s he has been facilitating human smuggling and human trafficking operations, particularly involving women and girls, following the European Union and its individual states’ welcoming approach towards refugees from the Middle East and Africa.

Dahlak was mentioned in a November 2014 media report about human smugglers operating in Africa, identifying him as “Eritrean businessman Isaiah Dahlak who protects smugglers from military crackdown.”

The human smuggling operations, which provide steady flow of hard cash to Dahlak and the Eritrean government from Eritreans, are conducted through a network of individual human smugglers in Eritrea who report and pay to Dahlak in exchange for protection from the regime’s authorities. Many of the refugees smuggled by Dahlak’s smugglers reportedly ended up in the European Union, where Eritrean refugees are now the leading country of origin, and the Ethiopian refugee camps, where until early 2020 every Eritrean was given an official refugee status automatically.

Since at least 2016, at the height of Eritrean exodus from the country, Dahlak expanded his smuggling operations to include human trafficking of women and girls, who are deceptively offered a chance to escape the country and its national service but are ultimately sold to various sex trafficking rings in the North Africa, particularly failed-states such as Libya, and other regions. Due to significant numbers of Eritreans fleeing the country, the international community and national governments are unable to ascertain which Eritreans are trafficked and which ones are genuinely fleeing persecution using Dahlak’s network of smugglers.

Witnesses Confirm Dahlak’s Involvement

Over a dozen of witnesses, who have successfully fled Eritrea, confirmed that it is a known secret that a network of human smugglers are associated by Dahlak who provides safety from the Eritrean military patrolling the border. Those same smugglers are also responsible for human trafficking.

Witness: Dawit Demsas

Dawit Demsas, whose real identity is protected due to fears of retribution by the Eritrean government and Dahlak, left Eritrea in recent years. Born in poverty, Demsas decided to flee his home country to avoid military service, which is particularly harder for poorer Eritrean who cannot fall back on family for basic survival.

“I did not know who was this Isaias … I was told he is helping Eritreans flee the country and his smugglers are only ones to be trusted … I did not question it.”

Dawit Demsas

After selling off family’s valued possessions he began looking for human smugglers to get him out of the country. Soon Demsas discovered from others that “the only way” to ensure a safe passage is to look for smugglers associated with Dahlak.

After giving all of his hard currency to the smugglers, Demsas was soon being smuggled out of the country. However, after reaching Libya, girls and young women who began the journey with him in Eritrea were ripped apart from their parents against their consent and given to group of Libyan men.

“The girls and young women were taken from their parents without a warning … smugglers laughed that the girls will be lucky if they don’t get raped by the time of they are sold … nobody fought them out of fear of being kicked off the boats to Europe.”

Dawit Demsas
Witness: Yoel Yonas

Yoel Yonas, whose real identity is protected due to fears of retribution by the Eritrean government and Dahlak, fled Eritrea under similar circumstances.

He and his newly-married wife sold their minimal possessions to escape the country. They soon learned that the smugglers’ asking price far exceed the money they had. However, some people started to suggest to Yonas to find smugglers working with “local philanthropist” named Dahlak.

“We were sceptical of Dahlak, we don’t have charity in our country … but he was the only way out of Eritrea.”

One of the smugglers working with Dahlak told Yonas that Dahlak is particularly interested in helping young Eritrean couples flee the country to ensure the growth of Eritrean’s diaspora. For that reason, Yonas was told his wife will be smuggled for free and he himself will only need to pay a “discounted” price.

Yonas described the most harrowing weeks of his life as they embarked on the journey to be smuggled out of the country. The smugglers, who were helpful in the beginning, soon became threatening, physically and sexually abusive to others.

“One of the smugglers told my that my wife is no longer my wife … from now on she will be at the service of many other men … “

Yoel Yonas

After reaching Libya, his wife was taken away from him at night. Initially, the smugglers told him that his the women are separated from men because it was easier to smuggle men-only groups.

Yonas, however, eventually learned that his wife was “part of the price” for him being smuggled out of Eritrea. With no way to turn back, Yonas escaped to Europe, with his wife given away to sex-trafficking rings in North Africa.