LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Over the past two years rising numbers of Eritreans fleeing abuses at home have been kidnapped, taken to Sinai and held for ransoms of tens of thousands of dollars by traffickers, according to new research by a U.S.-based group.
Some 36,000 Eritreans escaping political oppression and religious persecution have made their way to Israel over the past six years, travelling through Sudan and Egypt via a well-organised network of smugglers and traffickers, a report by the U.S.-based Feinstein International Center said.
Its researchers, who looked at the flow to Egypt's Sinai peninsula rather than migration to other parts of Africa, said Eritrean migrants who ended up in Israel tended to fall into three groups - those who were smuggled across as planned, those who were deceived en route and those who were abducted.
"Recently the trend is the increasing abductions as opposed to the other two categories," said Sara Robinson, one of the authors of the report, which stated that until 2011, it was relatively rare for Eritreans to be kidnapped.
"If you talk to people in Sinai, most of them today, the vast majority are people who are abducted," Robinson told Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the United States.
The rise in kidnappings has coincided with Israel’s efforts to implement a law punishing asylum seekers who cross into the country through irregular means. Under the Prevention of Infiltration Law, these people can be detained automatically for a minimum of three years.
This crackdown, along with Israel's completion of a border fence with Egypt and tougher border policies, has led to a significant drop in the number of Eritreans wishing to go to Israel.
"As the Eritrean migrant supply dries up, traffickers resort to kidnapping to keep the income stream going," the report said.
SMUGGLED, DECEIVED, ABDUCTED
Of the 129 Eritreans interviewed by the research team, 42 had paid smugglers an agreed fee of between $1,500 and $5,000 and were eventually taken to the border with Israel, while 21 were deceived en route by smugglers who extorted more money from them and abused them.
But 66 - just over half the interviewees - were kidnapped in east Sudan and taken across the desert to northeast Sinai, where they were held for an average ransom of $30,000. This group had had no intention of going to Israel but were eventually taken there against their will, the report said.
Many Eritreans said those known to have family abroad - in the United States, Europe or Israel - were expected to pay higher ransoms and were treated worse than other abductees.
Most of the kidnapped Eritreans were seized near the border with Sudan as they searched for refugee camps. Robinson described the area in east Sudan, "a notoriously poor and marginalised area", as a hub for kidnappings as well as the recruitment of smugglers.
"Kidnappings and smuggling are viewed as a livelihood of many of the individuals that are living there," Robinson said. "Key families are making a livelihood off of this trafficking of their human cargo."
All Eritreans interviewed passed through the hands of traffickers from the Rashaida tribe, an ethnic-Arab group living in Sudan and Eritrea. Many were sold on to Bedouin traffickers.
The whole process was made easier by corrupt Sudanese and Egyptian officials, Eritreans working for smugglers and Sudanese locals, researchers said.
"The bridges that are crossed over the Suez Canal to get into Sinai are heavily manned by Egyptian military," Robinson said.
"We had people tell us of the lengths and measures the smugglers took to hide them while they were travelling. But other people said they were in a canvas-backed lorry and were barely hidden at all, so you can see smugglers were able to form relationships with Egyptian authorities that allowed for their safe passage."
Robinson said that although the research focused on ransom paying and trafficking networks, she also heard many accounts of the abuses and torture inflicted on Eritrean migrants that have been documented elsewhere.
"We heard horrible, horrible things," Robinson said. "You can see the scars on their bodies. You're not going to stop them if they tell you how they were hung upside down for two weeks or how they were burned with plastic as they were on the phone with their mum, or how women were raped while their mothers were on speaker phone."
The report called for international pressure on Eritrea to stop abuses against its people and for the Sudanese government to improve security in the east and punish corrupt officials involved in trafficking. It also urged the Egyptian government to free hostages held in Sinai trafficking compounds and called on Eritreans around the world to take action.
"If Eritrean families stopped paying ransoms, the business would no longer be lucrative for the traffickers in Sinai. Of course, this solution is impossible to implement at the individual level. Who among us would refuse to pay a ransom for a loved one?" the report said.
"But the Eritrean community can pressure those who collaborate with the smugglers and traffickers and make it more difficult to act as intermediaries – an essential aspect of the functioning trafficking network," it added.