BAHIR DAR, ETHIOPIA— Trafficking in Africa has long been a problem, from drugs and minerals to ivory and people. A new type of trade involving Eritreans fleeing the regime at home, however, has led to new tales of horror. Kidnapped in Sudan and sold into Egypt, Eritrean refugees reportedly are being tortured until families back home desperately search for the money to save them.
When Meron Estefanos checks her phone, the list of missed phone calls is chilling. The Swedish-Eritrean human rights activist speaks to between 15 to 20 Eritrean refugees per day, many while they apparently are being tortured.
She spoke out on the sidelines of the crime conference going on in Ethiopia.
“As you are being tortured, they will call your family, your parents," Estefanos said. "I have talked to a mother, she was listening as her daughter was being raped by five men, and they were just saying, 'this is for you, this is for you., this is for you,' and the mother is just like… 'What can you do?' The ransom payments are a minimum of $30,000 up to $50,000. So when you have no other option, I mean you pay or you die. This has been happening since 2009 and the international community has been keeping a blind eye.”
Rising 'torture trade'
Since Israel stripped African refugees of their right to work there, and international donors gave the late Moammar Gadhafi money to try and stem the tide of migrants reaching European shores, Estafanos said a new “torture trade” has sprung up among former smugglers in Egypt’s Sinai province.
Aid agencies say that about 3,000 Eritreans a month flee a harsh regime that has a “shoot to kill” policy for anyone trying to leave.
The United Nations Refugee Agency says more than 250,000 Eritrean refugees and nearly 15,000 asylum seekers live across the Horn of Africa.
The Eritrean government is alleged to make its people pay to leave, punishes families with penalties for “defectors,” and blackmails the diaspora into paying two percent tax on incomes.
Targeting refugee camps
Now, according to Estafanos and a number of international organizations, many of the Eritrean people are being kidnapped from refugee camps in Sudan and sold to Egypt’s Bedouin people via various clans.
Estefanos - who also runs a radio show from Sweden that provides what she said is non-partisan news for Eritrea - said that some of the most horrific torture is being meted out while no one intervenes.
“They would hang them like Jesus Christ for four hours a day, every day and they will gang rape the men and the women, they would force hostages to rape each other," said Estefanos.
She said that thousands already have gone through the kidnappings and torture, and about 100 people now are being held.
Alexander Rondos, European Union representative for the Horn of Africa, said this is a problem to which the world must wake up.
“It’s rather difficult to understand why something as horrifying as this is going on other [than] to ask why I suspect, this might be a classic case of utter indifference,” he said.
Global awareness needed
Rondos said that word of what he calls this “silent tragedy” has to be spread throughout the world.
“People need to get to know this story in all its horror. This is a form of slave trade. We invest tons of money to get rid of piracy, and this is a variant of piracy, but with even worse human consequences,” he said.
Rondos said the fact that people are passing through several states, and the lack of action in stamping out this trafficking trade, suggests that “there are elements of collusion or corruption."
Estefanos said this business is being run by about 25 families or "clans" and could be cleared up quickly. She said last year, when Egyptian forces went into Sinai to rescue a kidnapped British citizen, they found some of the detainees chained, beaten, starving and showing signs of torture, but did not free them.
Sudan President Omar al-Bashir admitted at the Ethiopian crime conference that the kidnapping of Eritrean refugees was a big problem.
Egyptian authorities under the fallen leader Hosni Mubarak also had pledged to help. But four years later, the ransoms are rising for some of the poorest people in the world.
As her phone rang again, Estefanos expressed hope that soon, the stories that haunt her will disappear.