By Amir Makar / Daily News Egypt
CAIRO: Over 200 Eritrean refugees are believed to be held in captivity by human traffickers in Sinai and around 600 held in Egyptian prisons since the January uprising, according to Eritrean dissident Adam Al-Haj Moussa.
They are held for ransom or as part of organ trafficking rings, he said during a trip to Cairo.
Moussa is one of the founders and current secretary-general of the Eritrean National Front for Change (ENF), an organization that aims to remove the current Eritrean regime of Isaias Afewerki.
He told Daily News Egypt that he believed “Bedouin traffickers,” who were the Egyptian side of a larger multi-national human trafficking network, are now keeping the captives for ransom or for purposes of organ trafficking.
“After the Jan. 25 revolution, we believe that the Israelis closed the borders that allowed the trafficking trade to continue, so the traffickers didn’t know what to do with the refugees besides blackmail, or use them in the lucrative organ trade,” said Moussa.
He cited his sources, mainly families of victims and refugees, saying no less than 200 Eritreans were held in caves in Sinai, while around 600 had been arrested by Egyptian authorities en route and are now held in Egyptian prisons.
“Some have been caught in Egypt and held in prisons in Aswan, Ismailia, Luxor, Qanater … and Suez,” Moussa said.
He presented official complaints by the ENF to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Egyptian National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), regarding cases of kidnapping and blackmail of captives held for $30,000 ransom each.
A recent report by Agence France-Presse suggested that up to 500 Eritrean refugees were held for ransom in Egypt. The report cited the testimony of Mussie Zerai, a Catholic priest and head of the Habeshia humanitarian organization.
Moussa explained that Eritrean refugees begin their long journey either from Eritrea itself or from UN refugee camps in the Kassala province in eastern Sudan, traveling either west through Darfur into Libya and then to Mediterranean sea-routes to Europe, or eastward into Egypt through the Sinai to reach Israel as their final destination.
“Human traffickers use methods to prey on the refugees at the Eritrean-Sudanese border by infiltrating the over-cramped UN refugee camps and persuading them to leave, promising them a better future in Israel afterwards,” he explained.
The traffickers, mostly Sinai Bedouins, then move inland by SUVs along the Sudanese Red Sea mountains, until they cross the Egyptian borders after which they either continue along the coastal road or by boats to traverse the Gulf of Suez to reach the Sinai, he continued.
“For the record, those who travel through Libya are less prone to kidnapping because there is no organ-trade there, although the sea-route is no less dangerous,” he noted, adding that in April 12, 2011, over 400 had died at sea with their names posted online on Eritrean websites.
Moussa highlighted the origins of the Eritrean refugee problem, explaining that emigrants fled due to three primary factors, all attributed to the authoritarian regime currently in power: the breakdown and suspension of all laws and constitution in the country, endless military service, and continued wars by the regime with neighboring countries.
“There is absolutely no law whatsoever functioning in the country. Even the suspended 1997 constitution itself was a sham,” he remarked.
Eritrea has been ruled since independence in 1994 by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), a single-party authoritarian regime led by Isaias Afewerki. No elections have been held since, only a single referendum on a constitution that remains suspended until today.
When asked about what he meant by endless military service, Moussa replied that “the term for national service [conscription] is de-facto indefinite. Some have remained soldiers and lieutenants under the same rank since their drafting in 1994. In fact, the whole concept of rank and promotion is almost non-existent.”
Conscription in Eritrea legally extends to six months of training and one year of service.
“The regime uses draftees in conditions of near-slave-labor for itself, or employed with regime-affiliated business partners,” he added.
“In the period between 1994-98, the regime waged wars [against] all neighboring countries, such as Djibouti, Ethiopia, Sudan and Yemen, not to mention intervening in the Great Lakes conflicts, in order to prove itself as a major regional player, at the expense of the Eritrean people.”
When asked about what other forms of oppression the regime practiced, he noted persecution of all religious and cultural institutions (particularly Islam and the Arabic language), all non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and any opposing political party.
Eritrea does not have a single recognized official language, although Arabic and Tigrinya are the used languages in addition to English.
“All opponents of the regime are physically exterminated, and wiped out from historical records,” said Moussa. “Not only that, but the regime took advantage of cultural and tribal differences between the Eritrean people and used it to divide and conquer, subverting each group against the other,” he explained.
Regarding the current refugees in custody in Egyptian prisons, Moussa recommended that when deported they should not be returned to Eritrea as they “will face doom there,” but rather relocated to other African countries.