Trafficking and Torturing Eritrean Refugees

Internationally ignored, life in Eritrea is brutal and shrouded in secrecy. The world is indifferent. The regime trusts nobody – even the UN’s special rapporteur on Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, has been denied a visa. Last year she stated: “basic tenets of the rule of law are not respected.” Following this, the Council “strongly condemned” Eritrea’s “continued widespread and systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”1 Violations include forced and child labor, “arbitrary detention, and severe restrictions on freedoms of expression, association, and religion,” also violence against women, gender inequality, gender-based violence, female genital mutilation, and economic discrimination.

Eritrea is beset by fundamental problems, yet President Isaias Afwerki rejects all foreign intervention, including urgent food aid. Eritrea is ranked 77th (out of 78) in the 2013 Global Hunger Index and over 60% of the population is malnourished. In a report by risk analysis firm Maplecroft, it was identified as the country where child labor is most rampant. Children as young as 15 are routinely conscripted into the military, where, according to HRW, they are “subject to violence and ill-treatment. Beatings, torture, and prolonged incarcerations are common.” Military service is compulsory, and whilst 18 months is the official army time, many men, women and children spend their entire working lives in uniform, and are used as forced labor on essentially civilian jobs. Women recruits are victims of rape and sexual violence by officers. There is no constitution, functioning legislature, or independent judiciary – thousands are arrested and detained without trial, denied access to lawyers and their families, with no appeal against sweeping judgments. “Death in captivity is not unusual. Many prisoners disappear, their whereabouts and health unknown. Former prisoners describe being confined in vastly overcrowded underground cells or shipping containers, with no space to lie down, little or no light, oppressive heat or cold, and vermin.”1

In 2001 all independent media outlets were closed and journalists arrested. There is no free press, radio or television. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are banned, telecommunications and Internet are monitored and restricted, and parliamentary/presidential elections remain a dream. All power is concentrated in the hands of Afwerki, who along with his military muscle has held office since independence (from Ethiopia) in 1991. Predictably, all “promises of democracy, the foundation stone of the struggle, went out of the window… a gap was quickly created between ex-fighters and civilians, the diaspora were systematically prohibited from returning, and draconian measures were taken against the educated and those who voiced complaints.”2

The economy is in tatters – GDP per capita is around $560 (World Bank), the State has destroyed the private sector, pouring funds into military mobilization. Eritrea has fought two ‘border’ wars with Ethiopia, with whom relations remain hostile following its neighbor’s failure to abide by the findings of an international boundary commission. Since independence, militarised politics has fashioned foreign policy; despite nationwide poverty the junta has found the means to engage in armed conflict with Yemen, Djibouti, Sudan, and has enmeshed itself in military mayhem in eastern Sudan, Darfur and Somalia.

Seeking sanctuary

Grinding poverty and the regime’s widespread violations of human rights are forcing tens of thousands of Eritreans – mostly young, many poorly educated women – to flee the country annually. According to the UNHCR over 305,000 (more than 5% of the six million population) left during the past decade. Last year 3,000 people every month headed for Egypt, Israel and The Gulf States, via Sudan and the Sinai Peninsula: many turn to criminal smugglers to facilitate passage, who charge extortionate “fees of between 1,000 and 5,000 USD.“3 Large numbers fall victim to traffickers operating in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, who kidnap, rape and torture them.

Exploitation of the vulnerable is the name of the trafficking game. Eritrean military men exploit citizens’ desperation to escape military service and forced labour by charging high fees to smuggle them out of the country; corrupt officials in Egypt and Sudan – specifically security personnel stationed on the border checkpoints – facilitate refugees’ passage in exchange for bribes. A small number of asylum seekers end up in Ethiopia, but the vast majority find themselves in one of the overcrowded Shagarab refugee camps (covering three sites) in east Sudan. UNHCR estimates there are approximately 89,000 refugees in East Sudan most of whom are Eritrean. Approximately 30,000 live in Shagarab. The UNHCR states it is “seeing rising incidents of abductions and disappearances of mainly Eritrean refugees, allegedly involving border tribes, in eastern Sudan. This is occurring in and around refugee camps.”

Most of those kidnapped are “forcibly taken out of Sudan over the border into Egypt,” and on to Sinai.3 The traffickers inside Sudan are thought to be local Rashaida tribesmen (traditionally nomadic camel pastoralists of Eritrea and eastern Sudan), operating from Eritrea “to the refugee camps in Sudan and to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.”4

“The majority of the victims report that they are sold between different criminal groups along the route,”3 including Bedouin gangs in Egypt, who, survivors state, are the main players in Sinai. In east Sudan kidnapped refugees “are subjected to brutal violence and inhuman treatment during attempts to extract ransom payments from their families.”3 “They raped women in front of us and left them naked. They hung us upside down. They beat and burnt us all over our bodies with cigarettes. My friend died in front of us and I wanted to lie down and die.”5

Ransom is demanded from victims’ families – families living in penury under a brutal military dictatorship. “My daughter was crying and asking for help. She told me I had five days left to try and find USD 30,000 or else they will kill her. Not only do we not have the money to pay them, we don’t even have money to feed her children.”3

The wife of a man kidnapped in January from Shagarab told Amnesty International the kidnappers telephoned her and demanded US $40,000. Captive in Sinai he was tortured; the kidnappers said he would be killed if she did not pay the ransom. “His parents are dead, his three sisters died in the [Eritrea-Ethiopia] war, he has no one but me. I don’t have any money; I can barely feed my four children. I don’t know what to do any more.”3

The extortion technique is vicious: traffickers “hold a mobile phone line open to their hostages’ relatives as they physically abuse their victims.”5 As they scream in agony, the kidnappers demand payment. Many Eritreans tell of “their experiences of rape, burning, mutilation and deformation of limbs, electric shocks, and other forms of violence.”5

Those who survive the Rashaida are sold to “criminal elements within the Bedouin community”6 and “are then forcibly transported [to Sinai] in harrowing journeys that last for several weeks,” where the nightmare continues.3

Sinai, Israel, and Xenophobia

After the 1978 Camp David Peace Accords between Israel and Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt. It is a lawless wilderness that has for years served as a transit route for people escaping persecution, political turmoil, hunger and poverty from the Horn of Africa. Refugees and asylum seekers are transported through the desert region in overcrowded “trucks and other vehicles, often with poor ventilation.”3 They receive little or no food and water, and severely malnourished and dehydrated some die en-route. Nobody knows how many. In Sinai “they are subjected to torture, forced marriage, rape or bonded labour,” held captive with the aim of extorting money from their relatives or communities. “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.”6 Others report being urinated on and having fingernails pulled out. Rape of both men and women is apparently commonplace. “Some have allegedly been murdered because their families were unable to pay the ransom,”3 and even if ransoms are paid to secure their release, Amnesty has reports of people still being sold on to other traffickers.

The fortunate people who are released pass over the Egyptian border into Israel, where, traumatized and in need of support, they are unwelcome. Prime Minister Netanyahu described refugees and asylum-seekers as “infiltrators” who “threaten the Jewish character of Israel.” These victims of brutality and criminal torture are treated like criminals and herded into detention centers, albeit with a daytime open door policy. They are not regarded as refugees by the Israeli authorities but, as Netanyahu puts it, as “people who are breaking the law and whom we will deal with to the fullest extent of the law.”7 Comments by Eli Yishai, former Interior Minister, reveal a pervasive xenophobic attitude. He urged the government “to put every single one of the infiltrators in detention facilities, take their work permits, put them on aeroplanes and send them packing to their countries or a third country.”7

As a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Israel is obliged to investigate asylum applications on an individual basis, yet it ignores such duties, and, far from examining individual claims, responds to all African refugees in the same dismissive manner. Asylum seekers cannot legally be deported if they face danger in their country of origin, so the Israelis have set up a ‘monetary incentive system’, whereby asylum seekers from Africa are offered US $3500 (up from $1500 last year) to leave. Most of those taking up the ‘incentive’ are Sudanese.

This January tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers demonstrated in Tel-Aviv, calling for the Israeli government to grant them refugee status and to change its policy of detaining them in the Holot detention facility in the Negev. The UNHCR supports the people’s legitimate demands, and their representative in Israel, Walpurga Englbrecht, “has publicly stated that the process of indefinite detention in Holot does not comply with the norms of international human rights.”Eritreans make up an estimated 60% of the 60,000 illegal African migrants estimated to be in Israel, and yet to date only two Eritreans have been granted refugee status with its benefits of citizenship.

Abused and suppressed at home, the vulnerable are exploited from the beginning of their journey to the detained ignoble end in what UNHCR says, is one of the most unreported humanitarian crises in the world.

Israel needs to be pressurized to act with compassion and in accordance with its international obligations, and Egypt must act to root out traffickers operating in Sinai. HRW states that when Egyptian military were active there September-October last year, abductions dropped. Security personnel withdrew and the ransom phones resumed ringing. Despite overwhelming evidence of horrific abuses taking place within their jurisdiction, Egyptian forces have “taken no steps to end them.”8

The siege state

Life in Eritrea though is the poisonous root of the refugees’ agonies, and all steps need to be taken to prevent it from becoming yet another failed state. In a positive sign last year the UN agreed a four-year $188 million ‘cooperation framework.’ “The UN will provide $50 million and attempt to raise the remaining $138 million from donor countries for capacity building, food security, environmental improvements, and social services.”1 However, without regime involvement, providing assistance presents “acute coordination challenges,” because of “access restrictions on international staff” and the “absence of up-to-date information” from the government.1

Eritrea has become what the Crisis Group describes as “a siege state”, whose “government is suspicious of its own population, neighbors and the wider world.” Engagement by the international community; assessment of need, cooperation, dialogue and support is urgently needed; enforcement of the border ruling between Eritrea and Ethiopia would go a long way to building trust with foreign powers – an essential requirement in assessing and delivering aid and establishing relations.

  1. Report: Eritrea Human Rights Watch. [] [] [] []
  2. Poverty Matters, Guardian. []
  3. Egypt/Sudan: Refugees face kidnapping for ransom, brutal treatment and human trafficking Amnesty International, 13 April 2013. [] [] [] [] [] [] [] [] []
  4. The trafficking of Eritrean and Ethiopian women through the Sinai Desert, Voice of Freedom. []
  5. I Wanted to Lie Down and Die,” Human Rights Watch. [] [] []
  6. Human Trafficking in Sinai , UNHCR, 18 April 2013. [] []
  7. Down but not out: The saga of a Darfuri asylum seeker in Israel, Haaretz, 25 February 2014. [] []
  8. Traffickers Who Torture, HRW. []

Graham is Director of The Create Trust, a UK registered charity supporting fundamental social change and the human rights of individuals in acute need. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org. Read other articles by Graham.