The U.N. refugee agency is urging Egypt to intervene to secure the release of about 250 Eritreans who have been held hostage for about a month by human traffickers in the Sinai.
The United Nations refugee agency says it does not have much information about the group of Eritreans nor the hostage takers. It says media reports note the traffickers are demanding payments of $8,000 per person for their release.
UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards says the people reportedly are being held in containers and are subject to abuses. He says some may have been held for months.
"We are, at this time, in contact with the Egyptian government over this matter," Edwards said. "Egypt's Ministry of Interior has assured us that around the clock efforts are underway to locate the hostages and release them. Every year thousands of people attempt to cross the border from Egypt into Israel and often in the hands of Bedouin traffickers who have little regard for their safety including Eritrea. UNHCR's eligibility guidelines consider that most Eritreans fleeing their country should be considered as refugees."
Media reports paint an appalling picture of the extremely degrading and inhumane manner in which the hostages are held. They say the hostages are bound by chains around their ankles, deprived of adequate food, tortured and branded like cattle.
The reports say the traffickers use these extreme measures to extort ransom money from the hostages' families. They say several hostages have been killed when payments were not made.
Because of a number of ongoing human-rights crises, the Horn of Africa in general and the Sinai in particular have become a major center for people trafficking by highly organized crime syndicates.
Edwards says making this crossing is very dangerous.
"This is a common route across the Sinai, which often involves people attempting to cross the Israel border often under quite perilous conditions," Edwards said. "What you see here-you have a mixture of migrants and refugees caught up in the same networks. As you know, refugees are often desperate people and they resort to desperate measures."
People who are caught while making the journey across the Sinai often are detained by the Egyptian authorities. Edwards says the UNHCR is asking for access to these people. He says it is important to be able to determine who among them are refugees and in need of international protection.
Several months ago, the UNHCR publicly demanded the Egyptian authorities end the practice of jailing refugees and shooting migrants on its border with Israel.