Forgotten: The stolen people of the Sinai

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Thousands of poor migrants from across Africa are being kidnapped by Bedouin gangs

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.

Click Here to view 'Refugees on the move' graphic

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.

Dr Khataza Ghondwe, an expert on sub-Saharan Africa working for the non-governmental organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide, says the plight of kidnapped refugees has been ignored for too long. "The Sinai has been a pretty lawless place for years and [ousted President Hosni] Mubarak made no effort to halt the abuse of refugees by tribes there," she said. "But since the revolution things have got even worse. Their plight has slipped off the radar entirely."

She thinks people within Eritrea, and not just the Bedouin, could be benefiting from the smuggling routes. "I was in Kenya earlier last year speaking to an Eritrean man," she said. "As we were talking, he got a call from his brother who was being held in the Sinai and asked for him to send money as soon as possible. The bank details he gave were for a branch in Asmara [the capital of Eritrea], not Egypt."

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.

Egypt's ability to police the Sinai has been historically hindered by its 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which limits the number of troops Cairo is allowed to place on the country's eastern flank. After a successful attempt by Islamist suicide bombers to infiltrate the Sinai border last August, Israel has allowed the Egyptians to increase troop numbers, but little of the extra resources have been put into tackling the human trafficking networks.

The migrants have given testimonies with detailed descriptions of where they were held. One group operating out of the Mansoura area is known to be run by a man called Abu Musa and his brothers Ali Hamed and Salim. They use two distinctive red houses with Chinese pagodas outside their gates to imprison their captives. The towns of Rafah, Mansoura and Al-Jorra are also known to contain purpose-built prisons for hostages. Despite the details provided, however, authorities are taking little action.

The most recent telephone call received by Father Zerai was last Thursday, when a woman said she was part of a group of 20 who had been taken captive, including six children. "The woman who called for help talks about continuous mistreatment, starvation and violence," he said. The kidnappers reportedly demanded $30,000 for each captive and threatened to remove organs from those who could not pay.

"The situation is getting worse and worse," added Father Zerai. "Something must be done."

Tortured in the desert: Smugglers' victims

TLS: A 19-year-old Eritrean woman

When I was still in Sudan, I agreed to pay the smugglers $2,500 to transfer me to Israel. When I arrived in Sinai, the smuggler sold me, along with a group of other people, to another smuggler named Abdullah. Abdullah demanded an additional $10,000 from me. I had no way to raise that sum of money. Abdullah raped me for five days and two other smugglers raped me as well. As a result of all these rapes, I got pregnant. Only after eight months was my father able to send the smugglers $5,000; they released me and allowed me to cross the border to Israel. I must have an abortion. My husband should not know what happened to me in the desert.

MN: A 35-year-old Sudanese man

The smugglers asked whether we knew anyone in Israel or Europe and asked for our relatives' phone numbers. They would call our relatives and then bring a stick and beat us so that we could be heard shouting and crying. They told our relatives that if the money arrived that day, we'd be in Israel the following day. Sometimes they asked for $2,500 and sometimes for an additional $3,000. The more someone cried when they were beaten, the more money their relatives would send.

AIS: A 21-year-old Eritrean woman

So that we would convince our relatives to send money, the smugglers beat our shins with a stick. They also burned our arms and legs with a plastic stick with hot metal at the end. I still have wounds and scars from the beatings and the burns. I was a virgin when I arrived in the desert. During the first few times that I was raped I cried and resisted, but that didn't help. They wouldn't leave me alone. After that I stopped resisting. Only when $2,800 arrived did the smugglers unchain me. They transferred me to someone named Ibrahim and he transferred me and 30 other people to the Israeli border.

News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
News
i100

Other places that have held independence referendums
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur
film

It scooped up an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards when it was first remade in 1959

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
News
news

Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'
film

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
News
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'
Arts and Entertainment
Maxine Peake plays Hamlet at Manchester's Royal Exchange
theatreReview: Maxine Peake brings emotional ferocity to Shakespeare's starring part
News
news

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

Travel
travel

...and the perfect time to visit them

Sport
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)
football

Newcastle winger reveals he has testicular cancer - and is losing his trademark long hair as a result

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SEN Teaching Assistant Runcorn

£50 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: SEN Teaching Assistant EBD , Septemb...

Head of Marketing - London

£60000 - £85000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Interim Head of Marketing / Marketin...

Primary supply teachers needed in Downham Market

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Primary teachers requ...

SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Birmingham: SEN Teacher required with immediate...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week