Eritrea's Forgotten Refugees Kidnapped, Tortured, Ransomed and Killed in Sinai

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April 9, 2013 8:33 AM GMT

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Amnesty International has put the spotlight on Eritrean asylum-seekers who are kidnapped from Sudanese refugee camps by the local Rashaida tribe, sold to Bedouin criminals in Egypt's Sinai peninsula and severely abused while they are held for ransom.

Torture of kidnap victims is carried out routinely in the Sinai and includes severe beating, electrocution, drowning, burning, hanging, amputation, rape and sexual abuse, according to Amnesty's report.

Criminal gangs demand ransom payments of up to $40,000 from the families of the kidnapped. Refugees die from injuries or because their families are unable to pay.

For those who are released and manage to get into Israel after being dumped on its border with Sinai, the worst is yet to come, according to Meron Estefanos, a human rights activist and radio presenter in Sweden for Radio Erena, which broadcasts in Eritrea and around the world.

"Some of them are dehydrated, mentally unstable and they have no-one to take care of them," she told IBTimes UK. "They are homeless on the streets of Tel Aviv without medical coverage, assistance or permit."

Homeless in Tel Aviv

In June, Israel approved the "anti-infiltrator" law to stop the influx of Eritrean refugees. Under the law, anyone caught illegally in Israel could be imprisoned for three years.

"Israel refuses to give them refugee status," said Estefanos. "But if you are an 'infiltrator' you are not allowed to work and you have no medical attention or housing. You are on your own."

Eritrean refugees fleeing their country never choose to go to Israel, where there are already an estimated 40,000, according to Estefanos.

"If you are lucky you make it to Israel," she said. "If you are unlucky, you just sit on the border, waiting until someone comes. The only people coming for you are Egyptian border guards, who send you to prison and deport you back to Eritrea."

Egyptian prisons have been inundated with Eritrean torture victims since Israel built a border fence with Sinai. Only three people made it to Israel in the past four months, according to Estefanos, who has interviewed 3,000 hostages in the past few years.

Elsa Chyrum, London-based human rights activist and advocate for Eritrean refugees all over the world, told IBTimes UK that conditions in the Egyptian prisons were "awful, appalling".

"People are raped, men and women," she said. "They suffer from torture and starvation."

Deported from Egypt

A young refugee from Eritrea reaches his arm out of his cell at Givon Prison in Ramle near Tel Aviv (Reuters)

The irony is that those Eritrean asylum-seekers, who suffered the worst atrocities at the hands of Bedouin criminal gangs in Sinai, are forced to pay $300 to be deported back to their homeland.

"They are not even deported in a dignified way," said Estefanos. "If you don't pay your own ticket to be deported, you can lay in prison for up to two or three years."

Fr Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean by birth who runs the Habeshia Agency for Development Cooperation from the Vatican - a charity for refugees and migrants - said that under Egyptian president Mohammed Mursi the situation for asylum-seekers had not improved.

"Human trafficking in the Sinai is just like before [under ousted president Hosni Mubarak], if not worse," he told IBTimes UK. "With the confusion derived from the revolution in Egypt, freedom has increased for criminal gangs. The actual government is not willing to intervene. They've made a few arrests, but that's a drop in an ocean of the actual problem."

One thousand refugees are held captive in the Sinai, according to Estefanos. About 7,000 people in total may have been tortured and 4,000 may have died as a result of the people-trafficking in humans from 2009 to October 2012, according to recent data. A total of 3,000 people disappeared from 2007-11.

A mafia-like business  

Every day refugees fleeing Eritrea are betrayed by Sudanese border guards who, instead of taking them to the UN's Sharabag camp, sell them to tribesmen instead. "Rashaida are the nastiest piece of work who torture and collect ransoms," said Chyrum. About 200 Eritreans per day escape the country and about two or three people per day are abducted from or around the Sharabag camp.

Eritrean-born Bedouin in the Rashaida are free to move around. "They are merchants who trade everything," said Zerai. "They started offering help to asylum-seekers to cross the border. Then it turned into a business to obtain ransom [money] because other international criminal organisations joined in."

Chyrum confirmed that Rashaida and other Bedouin tribes in the Sinai were part of a mafia-like human-smuggling network with branches in Europe and parts of Africa including Egypt, Dubai and Israel. An award-winning CNN report in 2011 alleged that Bedouin smugglers were involved in stealing organs from refugees whose families had not been able to pay ransoms. Corneas, livers and kidneys were reportedly among the most sought-after organs that had been removed from hostages while they were still alive.

Wrong organ-trafficking claims

Estefanos denied the organ-harvesting claims. "Those claims came only from one source," she said. "I've interviewed 3,000 hostages and not one single person can say that. It's a dead-end investigation.

She said that other organisations had interviewed more than 7,500 survivors in Israel with not a single witness of organ harvesting.

Lack of international attention on the issue of Eritrean asylum-seekers is easily explained, according to Zerai.

"We showed Egyptian authorities the place where refugees were held captive and they did nothing. Israel did not do anything. And the international community did not pressurise to find a solution, unlike with European and Western kidnappings," he said.

"Nobody's sons remain nobody."

CORRECTION: We publish a statement by Meron Estefanos about organ-harvesting in the Sinai:

"Government apologists seem to be misinterpreting my words as quoted by the IBTimes UK on its issue of 9 April 2013. They did so by taking my words out of context and comparing it with previous statements I made in a certain discussion paper I co-authored with my colleague and friend, Daniel R. Mekonnen.

I believe that my views as reflected in the International Business Times were not conveyed in the same way I intended when I spoke to the reporter. I cannot deny that there are several allegations of organ harvesting in relation to the entire human trafficking crisis in the Sinai Desert. Some of these sources were individuals who were interviewed by me. What I said is that no one from those I have interviewed has told me that he or she was a victim of organ harvesting. Indeed, I haven't met a single interviewee who said "my organ was harvested." This is what I was trying to say. However, several victims have told me that they were threatened for organ harvesting if they refused to pay the ransom money asked by the smugglers or traffickers. This does not mean that there were no incidents of organ harvesting as might have been established by other sources. From what I know, the main source of information for the alleged instances of organ harvesting was one particular source. And yet, this does not mean that there cannot be other sources that may have not come to my attention, because I cannot claim to have monopoly of knowledge on this particular issue, as is generally the case even with matters of everyday life. Matter-of-factly, there were sources and there are still that claim organ harvesting is taking place, even as I write this note.

For me, one of the most important things, and perhaps the most exigent, is that Eritreans are still fleeing their homeland in unprecedented numbers. Unless this horrifying trend is halted immediately, they will continue to suffer in the hands of Eritrean and non-Eritrean victimisers. There is no double about this. The atrocities which are associated with the unprecedented instance of forced migration, such as torture, extortion, sexual abuse, human trafficking and possibly also organ harvesting, will continue unabated. Regardless of where such abhorrent crimes are committed and who committed them, I strongly believe that justice should be served against perpetrators of such crimes. The way we see it, I hope it won't be far before we could see some, if not all, individuals being prosecuted before national, regional or international judicial organs for the abhorrent violations they have committed against Eritreans. Indeed, the mounting pressure coming from the UN Security Council, coupled with the appointment in 2012 of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Eritrea, indicates only this. For government apologists, the best thing to do is: advice their government to mend its way of doing things before it is too late."

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Egypt: Human Trafficking in Sinai

Many refugees, mostly from Eritrea, are being kidnapped and held hostage by criminal networks working in the largely lawless Sinai Peninsula.
Article | 17 April 2013 - 12:42pm | By Yohannes Woldemariam

Since around 2006, the Sinai Peninsula in eastern Egypt, bordering Israel, has been the site of what the UN has referred to as one of the most unreported humanitarian crises in the world. Criminal gangs operate through complex networks with impunity, and the region has been seen several cases of serious human rights violations, torture and human trafficking.

Operating in a largely lawless wilderness, gangs take refugees who are fleeing northwards towards Egypt and Israel hostage and demand ransoms for their release. The hostages are often tortured and some are killed. Meanwhile, many accuse the Egyptian and Israeli governments of not doing enough to combat the problem and of contravening their legal obligations towards refugees.

Escaping the Horn

Most of the victims of human trafficking and kidnapping in the region are from Eritrea. Thousands reportedly escape the repressive regime of Isaias Afewerki each year, some ending up in Ethiopia but more tending to find themselves in refugee camps in eastern Sudan. Eastern Sudan’s Shagarab camp, for example, reportedly houses nearly 30,000 refugees.

But the likes of Shagarab are often unsafe and some refugees do not stick around for long. Many put their lives in the hands of people-smugglers promising safe passage to Israel or Egypt, but instead are kidnapped and held hostage.

Those believed to be responsible for most of these kidnappings are groups of Rashaida tribesmen, mostly located in Eritrea and north-eastern Sudan. However, these gangs are usually assisted by intermediaries inside camps, and allegedly even the Sudanese military, especially those at border checkpoints. Later on, criminal elements within the Bedouin community 'buy' hostages from the Rashaida, transporting them to Sinai and subjecting them to torture, forced marriage, rape or bonded labour.

Many former victims have recounted horrific tales of being held for months and repeatedly raped, of having plastic melted over their back and legs, and of being electrocuted and burned. Many have died at the hands of their tormentors.

The precarious peninsula

Sinai’s lawlessness is a largely a result of its turbulent past. The peninsula was under Israeli occupation from 1967 until 1982, when the Israeli government returned it to Egypt as part of the Camp David Peace Accords. However, under the agreement, only a limited contingent of the Egyptian army is permitted in the region, despite Egypt’s implorations for permission to deploy armoured equipment to secure the area.

Though international aid and investment has been sent into Sinai since Egyptian-Israeli peace, the Bedouin have continued to feel marginalised. The relationship between the Egyptian government and the Bedouin is one of mutual distrust. Egypt has repeatedly accused the Bedouin of collaborating with Israel prior to Sinai’s return in 1982. Meanwhile, the Bedouin complain that Egypt’s security services treat them disproportionately harshly, incarcerating hundreds of their kinsmen without trial. Additionally, Bedouin villages have little in the way of infrastructure, healthcare or schools compared with the rest of the country. And while the Sinai's Red Sea coast is dotted with high-end hotels, the Bedouin community complains that tourist cash does little to improve their lives.

In 2012, some Bedouin took advantage of the power vacuum in the wake of the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak to kidnap tourists, using them as bargaining chips for the release of their incarcerated kinsmen. With the country’s economy in free-fall, and beach tourism a key source of foreign currency, the government worked tirelessly to secure the release of each batch of kidnapped tourists as quickly as possible, demonstrating Egypt’s capacity to react effectively when it wishes to. Furthermore, in August 2012, Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, ordered security forces to “impose full control” over Sinai following an attack on a security post on the Israeli border which left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead.

However, similar efforts to protect or free enslaved Eritreans in the region have failed to materialise. And some have accused Morsi of having done no better than Mubarak, who failed to even acknowledge that the human trafficking problem existed.

Of course, not all the Bedouin in the Sinai are involved with human trafficking. Many have demanded the Egyptian government act to protect migrants’ human rights. Sheikh Mohammad Ali Hassan Awad who lives near the Israeli border, for example, has said he has helped some of the trafficked people who had escaped. The sheikh, who has been working to prevent the trafficking in migrants for several years, commented: “We don’t meet with [traffickers], sit with them, or buy from them...they feel isolated from their own people.”

Egypt and Israel’s treatment

On paper, Egypt has explicit laws to deal with human trafficking, but according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), as yet “there have been no known prosecutions of traffickers and other criminals responsible for abuses against African migrants and asylum seekers in Sinai”.

In fact, Egypt has previously deported asylum seekers back to Eritrea, against protestations from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Trafficked Eritreans have also been the victims of unprovoked arrests and disappearances, while many have been detained and denied access to the UNHCR. Eritrean asylum seekers also remain particularly vulnerable to organ theft.

Egypt’s actions violate both Egyptian and international laws on human trafficking, under which officials are obliged to give the UNHCR access to all detained asylum seekers. Furthermore, lethal shootings of migrants on the Egyptian border with Israel have also persisted. Refugees who had tried to cross into Israel repeatedly describe incidents in which smugglers, in return for payment, led migrants at night to within walking distance of the border, pointed out the way, then withdrew. By the time border guards open fire, the smugglers are long gone. Egypt told members of the UN Security Council that – though there is a shoot-to-kill policy in place – the killing of Eritrean refugees by security forces in Sinai is not deliberate.

Some local human rights groups have also called on their government to ensure the asylum seekers are protected in line with the constitution. “Our government must have clear plans for dealing with migrants who try to cross the border from here to other countries”, said Ahmed Badawi, chairman of NGO the Egyptian Organisation for the Rights of Refugees. “Egypt has signed many agreements in this regard and it must abide by the terms of these agreements.” In December, 13 Egyptian human rights groups issued a further statement calling on the government to act.

Even for those migrants that make it as far as Israel, many obstacles lie ahead. Israel has largely reacted with hostility to the arrival of refugees. Xenophobia is widespread and asylum-seekers are referred to as ‘infiltrators’. Detention centres have been approved by the Israeli cabinet and a new Anti-Infiltration Law threatens asylum seekers with deportation – the alternative being up to three years imprisonment without trial.

In May 2012, a group of over 1,000 Israelis attending a ‘protest rally’ organised by right-wing Israeli Knesset members attacked a number of African refugees, beating them, vandalising their shops and breaking the windows of their taxis.

International action

Given the apparent reluctance of Egypt and Israel to resolve the problems of human trafficking in Sinai, action from the international community could prove necessary. Firstly, Western powers could use their leverage on Israel and Egypt to push them to abide by their international legal obligations. Secondly, the entirety of the international community could share the burden of resettling migrants in third countries, relieving Israel of some of the burden. Thirdly, these countries have also considerable influence on Ethiopia, whose refusal to accept the international verdict on Eritrean independence is among the causes of these patterns of crime.

Media exposure could also be a useful tool. The impact of media coverage has already proven beneficial for many Eritreans. In 2011, for example, 600 African refugees who had been held captive in the Sinai while trying to make their way to Israel were released shortly after CNN International aired the documentary ‘Death in the Desert’. It seems states often need to be shamed into doing the right thing.

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Tracking the Traffickers: East African Human Trafficking Networks

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
May 2, 2013

Refugees are seen during a visit by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres to the Shagarab Eritrean Refugees camp at Kassala in East Sudan January 12, 2012. (Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Courtesy Reuters)

This is a guest post by Emily Mellgard, research associate for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program.

The implosion of Mali and the recent abduction of a French family in Cameroon have brought heightened attention to the culture of kidnapping and trafficking in the western Sahel.

Kidnapping and trafficking are not new for people in the Sahel, however, nor does west Africa have a monopoly on the practice. Human trafficking in the Sahel, as elsewhere, has roots in widespread poverty, ineffective governments, and weak institutions.

Across the continent, well-entrenched human trafficking networks continue to operate away from the glare of the international media. More specifically, many of those trafficked in east Africa are refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea. Eritrean refugees try to move through Sudan, with the goal of reaching Israel via Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Few make it to their destinations.

Trouble begins at the border between Sudan and Eritrea. Tribal communities span both sides of the national border. The Rashaida tribe in particular is notorious for bribing border officials to turn a blind eye to refugees. Once in Sudan however, rather than being escorted to safety, the Eritreans are often sold to criminal gangs, who are commonly Bedouins. The Bedouins move their victims deep into the lawless Sinai Peninsula. Due to the rocky security relationship between Israel and Egypt, the Sinai has been a de-militarized and largely un-policed region since 1979. It can be extremely difficult to successfully rescue victims.

Once in the Sinai, refugees are often subjected to repeated rape, torture, forced organ removal, and used to extort ransom. A common tactic is to torture a victim while they are connected by phone to their family, pleading them to find the money to free them. Ransoms can reach U.S. $40,000. Victims whose families cannot pay are killed or forced into servitude.

Kidnapping for ransom is not solely a west African phenomenon, nor is it necessarily a tactic of al-Qaeda or extremist groups. It is a tragic consequence of regional insecurity as a whole, weak government institutions, and pervasive poverty.

Posted in Africa, Conflict, Corruption, Democracy, Development, ethiopia, Guest Post, Human Trafficking, Nigeria, Refugee, Sahel, Sudan, Terrorism, Uncategorized