Tens of thousands of Eritreans are held and tortured for ransom in the Sinai. The tentacles of the organised kidnapping groups extend to Europe, including Switzerland. But authorities are hardly aware of the issue. swissinfo.ch spoke to victims of this cruel trade in Ethiopia and Switzerland.
“I heard the screams on the other side of the wall, but I didn’t know how many prisoners were there. I just knew that there were ten of us in our cell. Our feet were chained to the wall. There was also a small child who cried non-stop.”
Rahwa* is 21 years old. She is fragile and slightly built, her eyes ringed with the exhaustion of a person who cannot sleep well. She fled Eritrea for Sudan in August 2012, with the goal of reaching Shagarab, a large refugee camp just a few kilometres over the border. An estimated 1,600 Eritreans cross the border every month to seek refuge in Shagarab, though most see Sudan as a transit country.
Along with a group of other refugees, Rahwa was kidnapped and schlepped on a gruelling journey to the Sinai, a strategically located peninsula that belongs to Egypt and abuts Israel. The Sinai, which has become increasingly lawless since 2009, is a haven for transnational crime, including weapon, drug, and people trafficking.
Rahwa, wearing a white headscarf and sitting in a corner, stares motionlessly at the coffee pot. Finally, she fills five cups – one for each of the former Sinai kidnapping victims living in this rough cement hut on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Her friends encourage her to continue speaking. “It’s very difficult to talk about what happened to me…they beat and raped me, and tortured me with electric shocks. They stuck burning plastic to my skin. Do you see the scars?”
While she was screaming in pain, her torturer telephoned her relatives in Eritrea and Europe and demanded a cash ransom of $25,000 (CHF23,700). Rahwa was at the mercy of her abductors in the Sinai for six months.
Her friend Gebre* was imprisoned there for one and a half years, his family unable to raise the demanded ransom of $40,000. “They thought I was dead,” he said, “so they tossed me onto the street like garbage, on top of a pile of corpses of other migrants.”
Thugs earn millions
The grim phenomenon of people trafficking in the Sinai has been repeatedly condemned by the international community, initially by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), then by the United Nations, and finally by the European Parliament in a resolution adopted in March 2014.
Even so, up to now almost nothing has been done to attack this evil at the source, said Méron Estefanos, co-author of two major studies on the topic. An Eritrean journalist and activist who holds a Swedish passport, Estefanos has collected thousands of eyewitness accounts over the past few years and submitted them to the European authorities. She has become a person of trust for Eritrean migrants, who pass her number on to desperate countrymen.
According to Estefanos’ estimates, at least 32,000 people were abducted and forcibly brought to the Sinai between 2009 and 2013. The kidnappers have extorted ransom of about $622 million. Approximately 40 criminal groups are involved. The devastating effects of these torture camps are felt as far away as Europe, where the families of abducted Eritreans are pressured to pay ransoms to middlemen.
Families in Eritrea are unable to get hold of such large sums of money. And their relatives abroad are often refugees who are themselves struggling to keep their heads above water. So the families turn to associations, churches, neighbours and distant relatives, often plunging themselves into debt to save their loved ones.
Furthermore, while it is difficult to prove, there is suspicion about whether a side industry of loan sharking has developed parallel to that of abductions.
“My mother collected $35,000 dollars to purchase my freedom,” said 21-year-old Asmaron*. “Now she has nothing, but she still has to pay back all the money she borrowed from those who helped her. I have no idea how she’s going to do that …”
Sold like chattel
Initially, Eritrean refugees attempting to cross the Sinai to reach the Israeli border were kidnapped on the peninsula itself. The Sinai route had increased in popularity as a result of the bilateral immigration agreement between Italy and Libya in 2011-2012, which had made passage across the Mediterranean almost impossible.
But with the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 and the decision of the Netanyahu government in Israel to build a 230-kilometer barrier at the Sinai border in 2012, the situation changed again. The main route of migrants reverted back to Libya and across the Mediterranean.
Now that Eritreans no longer go to the Sinai, they are kidnapped by the nomadic Rashaida Bedouins in Sudan or even in Eritrea itself and then sold to Sinai Bedouins. The European Parliament has accused the Sudanese and Egyptian security forces of complicity in this people trafficking.
“The trip to the Sinai took about 20 days,” said Rahwa. “There wasn’t enough water and there was nothing to eat. We passed through several checkpoints, where the soldiers spoke Arabic. I didn’t understand what they were saying, but no one stopped us.”
In recent months the trafficking of refugees has shifted course yet again, according to Estefanos, the journalist and activist. The kidnapping operations in the Sinai have been temporarily suspended due to the increased presence of the Egyptian army fighting against Sinai-based jihadists. Today, Eritrean refugees are held against their will in the Sudanese desert or sold as slaves in Libya, where they are forced to transport weapons or toil in the mines.
Freed, but no freedom
Night falls over Addis Ababa, and rain beats down steadily on the tin roof of the cement hut. It is cold, and Rahwa and her friends are wearing all of the tattered clothes they own in an attempt to stay warm. Tonight they have a roof over their heads. But in a few short days they will once again join the large numbers of homeless living on the streets of the Ethiopian capital. The refugee who had paid their rent up until now has left for Sudan.
It is no coincidence that swissinfo.ch met the Eritrean victims in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia has a history of receiving displaced people from neighbouring countries, including Eritrea.
The nightmare is not over for Eritrean victims once the ransom has been paid and they are freed in the Sinai. Because the Egyptian authorities consider them foreigners in an illegal situation, they are stopped and detained.
“We spent four months in a cell in Egypt. Nobody asked me anything, nobody told me why,” said Asmaron. “Then one day the Egyptian authorities told me I could choose to be deported to Eritrea or Ethiopia. So I came to Ethiopia.”
A number of Sinai victims in Egypt and Sudan have appealed to Switzerland for asylum, to no avail.
“Asylum or an entry visa [for clarifying an asylum application] are not awarded as compensation for harm suffered, but to protect against a current or future threat,” said the Federal Office for Migration, a position that has been upheld in a Federal Administrative Court judgement.
Extortion in Switzerland
Back in Switzerland, we meet Habtom*, who described the situation from the perspective of the families who are contacted by the blackmailers. “My brother was crying out in pain, begging me to help him.” That was in 2009, when the ransom money demanded by abductors was still limited to a few thousand dollars.
“I gave $2,800 to a person in Zurich, who sent it to Egypt via Western Union. I don’t know whether the money ever actually arrived.” Habtom waited, but there was no word about his brother for many months. Then one day he received a photograph by e-mail. “It was of the corpses of my cousins … and my brother.”
Three years later, history repeated itself when Habtom’s 15-year-old brother was kidnapped in Sudan. “If you do not pay up, we will bring him to the Sinai,” threatened the kidnappers. Unemployed, Habtom nevertheless managed to raise the money.
“Everyone gave me what they could, sometimes only ten francs. I myself have done the same for others. That’s how my brother was released. He was then able to make his way to Switzerland by sea.”
Habtom’s story is not an isolated one in Switzerland. The Tracing Service of the Red Cross has received at least 40 requests for assistance from Eritrean Sinai victims since 2010, as indicated in a report made available to the Swiss daily newspaper Le Temps in March 2014.
Jeanne Rüsch, deputy head of the tracing service, explained how the service works. “It’s up to the person affected to lodge a complaint. All we are able to do is offer support. But the procedure is complicated. The claim first has to be submitted to the municipal police, who often have never heard of this phenomenon. From there it goes to the cantonal police, then to the federal police and finally to Interpol, because the offense was committed abroad.”
Almost no complaints
Because the ransom demands in Europe have increased significantly, Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency that handles criminal intelligence, has urged EU member states to join forces to fight people trafficking and raise public awareness of the phenomenon.
For years, Switzerland has been a preferred European destination for Eritrean refugees, along with Sweden, Norway, Germany and the Netherlands. These countries are therefore prime targets for this type of extortion, which has generated millions in profits for criminal groups.
Even so, the victims of blackmail rarely submit complaints to the authorities.
“Eritreans live in constant fear, and it is hard for them to trust people,” explained Estefanos. “This is not difficult to understand when one considers that they have grown up in a paranoid dictatorship.”
Habtom never went to the Swiss authorities. “Why would I have done that? There was no time – otherwise my brother would have been killed.”