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.
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.