It could have been a tragedy: six Eritreans were arrested by the Sudanese police and threatened with deportation back to Eritrea (or what is termed ‘refoulment’ by the United Nations refugee agency.)

The six were in a dire condition, having only just managed to escape from people traffickers. The two women and four men had walked for three days when they were picked up by police on Saturday in an area about 25 kilometres from Khartoum.

At this point they were told they would be taken to court, which was likely to return them to Eritrea, from which they had just escaped. The group would have faced arrest, indefinite detention and possible torture if they were returned.

Thanks to the rapid intervention of lawyers the six were released after paying a fine of 1,200 Sudanese pounds. This is a great deal of money, nearly $US 200 at the official rate of exchange.

Human rights activists say the Sudanese police regard the Eritreans as a source of income. But for the impoverished Eritrean community the strain of collecting and paying these fines is unbearable.

However, other Eritrean prisoners have not been so fortunate. They were part of a larger larger group held in Khartoum’s Huda prison.

At least four Eritreans, who had been imprisoned for the past six months, were selected by the jailors and have now been deported to Eritrea. Their fate is unknown, but activists fear for their safety.