By Katy Migiro
NAIROBI (AlertNet) - Eritrean refugees in Sudan are living in fear of further attacks after several were kidnapped last week from the Shagarab camp complex, 70km west of the Eritrean border, rights groups say.
Since 2009, human traffickers have snatched thousands of Eritrean refugees from camps in eastern Sudan for ransom, sexual exploitation, forced marriage and bonded labour.
The refugees are captured by Rashaida, an Arabic group that straddles Sudan and Eritrea, and sold to Egyptian Bedouins from the Sinai Desert.
“They torture them, beat them and starve them so as to prompt their relatives to pay ransom money which can range from $35,000 to $50,000,” said Million Berhe, who works with Gandhi, an Italian charity that supports trafficking victims.
“Those unable to pay are killed. Others - their organs are harvested in what is now a very rife organ-trafficking ring,” she told AlertNet.
On Jan. 22, fighting broke out at the Shagarab camps after the abductions, with angry residents attacking others they believed were responsible.
“The traffickers then came back with reinforcements and, heavily armed, started shooting and attacking the refugees,” said Berhe.
Eventually, the police intervened. “According to my sources in the camp, the traffickers are now waiting for an opportunity to attack the camp again and kill the refugees,” she said.
The Shagarab camp complex hosts almost 30,000 people and receives about 2,000 new asylum seekers each month.
Eastern Sudan has taken in tens of thousands of Eritreans who have fled persecution and military conscription in the authoritarian Horn of Africa nation over generations.
Refugees are often kidnapped while moving between different sections of the sprawling camp. And women are gang-raped, sometimes by up to 12 men at a time, according to Meron Estefanos, a radio presenter with Radio Erena, who has interviewed hundreds of the hostages. The radio station broadcasts from Sweden to Eritrea.
The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) acknowledges the problem but says it does not have the power to stop the kidnappings.
“Over the last two years we have seen people disappearing from the Shagarab camps – some of them kidnapped, and others believed (to be) paying to be smuggled elsewhere,” UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said last week.
“UNHCR calls on all national and international actors to step up efforts to counter criminal groups seeking to exploit refugees and asylum-seekers and to reduce the risks of kidnapping, smuggling and trafficking of people,” she told a briefing in Geneva.
UNHCR is providing funds to strengthen the police presence around the camps, and is helping the refugees set up community-based policing to reduce the risk of abduction.
The U.N. agency recorded 551 people leaving the camps last year, although it could not tell whether their departure was forced or voluntary, Fleming said.