'African refugees are being tortured in Sinai'

Physicians for Human Rights say smugglers bringing refugees into Israel assault, rape and hold refugees for ransom, call on Egypt to aid victims.

December 16, 2010 01:22
3 minute read.
African Refugees

African Refugees 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

There are increasing reports that African refugees in Sinai are tortured, assaulted, raped and held for ransom by smugglers hired to bring them from Egypt to Israel, according to new data released Wednesday by Physicians for Human Rights in Israel.

The group believes that there are now 220 refugees who fled conflict, genocide, famine or torture and are being held hostage in Sinai; of which 80 have been held for more than a month and 140 were taken hostage last week.

It called on the Egyptian government to find the hostages and secure their passage to a third country.

PHR Israel heard of the 220 hostages from refugees in Israel and abroad. But it had already grown concerned about increasing reports that smugglers hired to bring the refugees safely through Sinai, were instead kidnapping them and holding them for ransom.

From October 12 to December 7, it interviewed 167 refugees who had been kidnapped; including 108 men and 59 women ranging in age from 19 to 66. Out of those interviewed, 133 were Eritreans and Ethiopians, while the remainder were from Sudan, the Ivory Coast, Somalia, Nigeria, Ghana, Congo and Sierra Leone.

The interviews confirmed harrowing reports they had received, particularly of instances where refugees were held in metal containers or in compounds.

“Captives undergo torture by burning or beating, as smugglers call their relatives demanding the immediate transfer of funds to be guaranteed transit to the Israeli border,” stated the report.

“Because of the high ransom price, it often takes weeks or even months for refugees to be taken to the border. It is during this time that women are separated from the group, detained in secluded rooms and subjected to repeated sexual acts, abuse, and rape at the hands of their captors,” said the report.

77 percent of Eritreans and Ethiopians reported that, while in captivity, they were physically assaulted, including punching, slapping, kicking and whipping.

Some 23% of refugees from those two countries reported burning, branding, electric shock and hanging by the hands or feet, said the report.

47% of Eritreans and Ethiopians reported seeing others beaten or tortured, 94% were deprived of food and 74% were not given water.

Victims’ families have been asked to pay between $2,500- $3,000 to the smugglers, but PHR Israel believes that sum could now be as high as $10,000.

Once they are released, the refugees are also in danger from Egyptian borders guards who often “shoot to kill,” said PHR Israel. Out of the 47 refugees interviewed who answered the question about such shooting, 12 had been shot at, according to the report.

The report further claims that, in 136 cases in 2010, the IDF sent the refugees back into Sinai, knowing that they were likely to be tortured or killed once they were taken back into the desert.

That number is taken from an October letter written by Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna’I, in which he said, “The IDF operates according to the procedure agreed upon with the High Court of Justice, subject to which each return is assessed on a case-by-case basis in terms of the risk to the infiltrator’s life. The infiltrator is returned to the Egyptians only if all criteria specified in the procedure have been met.”

According to the letter, the IDF apprehended 9,809 infiltrators as of October of this year, compared with 4,519 last year, out of which 261 were returned to Sinai.

PHR Israel said it believed the number of refugees returned by the IDF to Sinai is much higher.

“Refugees caught by Egyptian police either in the desert or at the border face physical abuse, sexual violence, imprisonment, and deportation back to their home countries,” said PHR Israel.

In Israel, some 2,000 refugees and asylum seekers, including women and children, are held in prison facilities.

In its report, PHR Israel called on the government to grant “social residency” status to asylum seekers, so that they can access social services including health care. It should also implement a more transparent and comprehensive system of Refugee Status Determination as well as turn human trafficking protections into domestic law, the report said.

In general, it said both Israel and Egypt should do more to prevent the further suffering of refugees and to support the human rights organizations that service them.

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