Crime in the Desert

Eritrean refugees are being kidnapped and tortured in trying to flee their home country.

We have all by now heard and read about the substantial influx of Syrian refugees into Europe, especially this year. Syrian refugees clearly make up the biggest group of people currently fleeing their home country in search of peace and security in Europe and elsewhere.

Another big group, though, consists of refugees from Eritrea. Overall, as of June 2015, there are more than 380,000 refugees from Eritrea residing in countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan, as well as many European countries and Israel.

A UN commission of inquiry found that about 5,000 Eritreans leave the isolated country in the Horn of Africa each month, making it one of the “fastest-emptying” countries in the world (total current population about 6 million). They flee mostly due to the oppressive nature of the government, which forces its citizens into indefinite conscription in the national service program – justified by the ongoing conflict at the border with Ethiopia. Other reasons for the mass exodus include poverty and the lack of freedom of movement, speech and other basic rights in what has been dubbed “Africa’s North Korea”.

Having to undertake the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean is bad enough – yet many refugees from Eritrea don’t even make it there.

On their way to a new life they often have to cross through Sudan and Egypt, after leaving refugee camps and bad conditions behind them. There, they sadly face the risk of being kidnapped and then tortured in the Sinai desert.

Originally, after a bilateral immigration agreement between Italy and Libya in 2011/2012 that hindered the traditional passage across the Mediterranean, the kidnappings took place on the peninsula directly which served as the new gateway to Israel. After the fall of Gaddafi regime, the Israeli government decided to build a fence along the Sinai, which led the refugees to again try the routes through Libya and from there to Europe. This has resulted in the above-mentioned kidnappings early on in their trip, sometimes even in Eritrea itself.

The kidnappers are often traffickers (many of them Bedouins) who take advantage of the desperate and helpless situation the refugees are in. They kidnap them, move them between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt and ask their relatives or the refugees themselves for ransom money to stop the torture – sometimes up to $40,000. Contacting the relatives happens over the phone, while the torturing is going on to put more pressure on the families when they hear the screams at the other end of the line. Their methods have been effective, in fact by 2013, at least $600m had been extorted in ransom money.

This leads to a new circle of misery, as those back in Eritrea rarely have enough money to pay the kidnappers, and therefore have to borrow from for example neighbours, churches and distant relatives or might rely on dubious loans that they then have to pay off. Sadly, paying the ransom does not always help as there are cases where the Eritreans are sold on to other traffickers in the region or are left to die somewhere.

Another, disturbing aspect is the issue of the alleged involvement of Egyptian and Sudanese security forces and others in the people trafficking, which obviously exacerbates everything further. Human Rights Watch’s 2014 report “I Wanted to Lie Down and Die. Trafficking and Torture of Eritreans in Sudan and Egypt” accuses authorities of handing the escaped victims over to the traffickers (including at police stations), turning a blind eye at checkpoints and failing to investigate and indict the traffickers who are breaching a variety of national and international laws (anti-trafficking, human rights, criminal law).

Even if they do not hand them over again, the authorities often detain the refugees as illegal persons and make them pay for a plane ticket to Ethiopia.

The kidnappings and torture of Eritrean refugees in the deserts of Sudan and Egypt may not be widely known, but they are not entirely unheard of or undocumented, either. As mentioned, human rights organisations and activists such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have brought attention to the crime using witness accounts, and have urged the respective governments in the region to take action and properly prosecute the traffickers. The European Parliament even passed a resolution on “security and human trafficking in Sinai” in the spring of 2014 – with much more pressure needed.

A  documentary about this issue is ”Sound of Torture”, which follows the Swedish-Eritrean activist Meron Estefanos as she communicates with torture victims in the Sinai over the phone, as well as with their relatives in Israel, and even visits the area herself.

The best way to stop this from happening is to gain knowledge and spread the word – there is enough and overwhelming evidence and material out there.

Crime in the Desert
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Human RightsOpinion
Sarah Bialek

Sarah graduated from Maastricht University’s Graduate School of Governance/UNU Merit with a M.Sc. in Public Policy and Human Development, specialising in Trade and Development Law. After working at the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) External Relations department in Geneva she now lives in London and works in the Higher Education sector. She is passionate about International Relations and Development, as well as Trade Law and (forced) Migration.
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