Refugees from sub-Saharan Africa are being kidnapped, tortured and ransomed for thousands of dollars in the Egyptian Sinai in what human rights activists say is the world’s forgotten hostage crisis. Over the past year, thousands of desperate migrants from Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia have been kidnapped by Bedouin tribesmen who are taking advantage of continuing instability in Egypt to ramp up their lucrative trade.
Migrants have reported being rounded up by gang members and held in specially constructed jails where they are frequently tortured until relatives in Europe or Africa come up with thousands of dollars.
Testimony compiled by human rights groups reveals that torture with electric cables and molten plastic is routinely used against victims as they make desperate calls home to plead for cash. Many kidnap victims claim to have been raped by their abductors, and there are reports that captives who have been unable to raise funds have had organs removed for sale on the black market.
Critics have accused the international community of standing idle in the midst of a kidnapping scandal that has drawn little attention compared with Somali piracy, whose victims are often white employees of multinational corporations rather than poor Africans.
Father Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest based in Rome, receives regular calls to his Vatican office from the families of kidnapped migrants as they try to liaise with loved ones or kidnappers. “There are no real efforts being made to save these people,” he told The Independent. “The inertia of the [international community] is a godsend for criminals who get rich. The millionaire business around this trafficking is forcing hundreds of families into debt for amounts that they will pay for decades, in order to save the lives of their son, daughter or husband. Many sell everything, or end up in the hands of usurers”.
Most of the sub-Saharan migrants making their way to the Sinai desert are from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan – three impoverished African nations which have a history of persecuting political opponents and ethnic minorities. Most of those fleeing are hoping to reach Europe, where there are already sizeable populations from their countries.
Before the turmoil created by the Arab Spring, many migrants trekked through the Sahara to reach Libya, Algeria and Morocco in the hopes of finding work or catching a boat across the Mediterranean. Most now have no choice but to enter Europe via the Sinai and Israel, forcing them into the hands of Bedouin tribesmen who have long engaged in smuggling arms, drugs and people after years of chronic under-investment and prejudice from central government in Cairo…
According to a recent Israeli government report, an estimated 11,763 people were smuggled into Israel through the Egyptian border in 2010. Last week, the Knesset passed new legislation making it easier for the authorities to speed up deportations, leading to an outcry from human rights groups.
Doctors working for Physicians for Human Rights Israel, a charity which examines migrants on arrival, conducted interviews with 800 refugees, with 78 per cent reporting that they had been kidnapped, tortured or held for ransom at some point during their journey through the Sinai. A separate survey by the Hotline for Migrant Workers, based in Tel Aviv, found that 50 per cent of migrants had reported being raped in the Sinai, including many men…
“The situation is getting worse and worse,” added Father Zerai. “Something must be done.”