Egypt’s political unrest has brought suffering not only to its own people but also to hundreds of African refugees. Their goal is Israel but many end up as hostages on the Sinai Peninsula.
By Adrian Kriesch / cm
Kahassay Woldesselasie simply wanted to get away from Eritrea. He planned to begin a new life in a country where citizens are not as brutally suppressed as in his East African homeland. Eritrea, located in the Horn of Africa, is one of the world’s most secretive and repressive regimes.
Woldesselasie initially fled to neighboring Sudan. While there he heard rumors of good jobs being offered in Israel. A human trafficking syndicate offered to take him there. Woldesselasie agreed and fell into their trap. The traffickers abducted him and took him as a hostage to the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula.
On the journey they blindfolded him, there was little food and water. The gangsters threatened to kill him if he did not pay ransom. “You have no choice but to call your relatives,” Woldesselasie told DW in an interview. “If they agree to pay, you might be lucky. But if they don’t, you’re dead.”
The lucky and the unlucky
Woldesselasie was one of the lucky ones. Family members living abroad agreed to pay for his release.
He was set free and finally managed to cross the border into Israel.
Not many are as lucky as Woldesselasie, says Hamdy al-Azazy, an Egyptian human rights activist who lives in al-Arish, the capital of the North Sinai region. He has met Eritrean refugees who had been held captive for weeks in torture camps.
While their families are listening over the phone, the victims would be subjected to burnings or have their limbs broken. Such painful experiences would then push even the poorest of families to send money. Those who don’t comply risk having their relatives being buried in the desert. According to al-Azazy, more than 500 remains of dead bodies of Africans were discovered in the desert in the past years.
The Sinai equation
The Sinai Peninsula has long been a powder keg. The indigenous population consists of Bedouin Arab tribes who settled there several hundred years ago. Today, they only represent about half of the approximately 500,000 inhabitants.
Israel withdrew from the area back in 1982 and left it to the Egyptian state. Egypt then took the best land from the Bedouins, says Günter Meyer, director of the Center for Research on the Arab World at the University of Mainz. “This goes back to a long period of discrimination against the Bedouin population.” According to Meyer, the Bedouins were seen by Egyptians as Israeli collaborators, drug smugglers and illiterate.”
Meyer however emphasizes that only a small minority of the Bedouin is involved in the criminal gangs that deal in human trafficking.
Following the Arab Spring which began in 2011, security forces have been weakened in the Sinai Peninsula giving the traffickers more leeway. The situation has “escalated dramatically,” Meyer warns.
There are no known figures for the number of refugees detained in torture camps in the Sinai or how many of those hostages have perished. According to the Israeli government, more than 10,000 illegal immigrants crossed the Sinai border into Israel in 2012. Most of them came from Eritrea and Sudan. But in Israel, a nation once founded by immigrants, the refugees are not welcome. They have little chance of obtaining political asylum. Instead Israel has built a more than 200-kilometer – long (124 miles) fence against them. In the first five months of 2013, only 33 refugees managed to cross the border.
Little international support
The world, including the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), has turned a deaf ear to the plight of these refugees, says human rights activist Hamdy al-Azazy. “They write their reports from their air-conditioned offices in Cairo,” he laments.
“Nobody is on site to assess the real situation. I’m the only one here in the midst of all these dangers.” There have been several attacks on him, he adds.
His office was ransacked, his children have been attacked.
Al-Azazy also raises serious allegations against the Egyptian security forces. According to him victims who manage to escape from the hands of the traffickers are detained as criminals because they are in the country illegally. But the perpetrators of human trafficking enjoy a life of luxury in large villas. He believes the traffickers are supported by Egypt’s security agencies.
“Traffickers pay a lot of bribes so that they can freely bring refugees to the Sinai.”
Kahassay Woldesselasie does not feel at home in Israel. He hopes that one day peace and freedom will reign in his East African nation so he can return.