Trafficking and torturing Eritrean refugees
Life in Eritrea is brutal and shrouded in secrecy. The world is indifferent. The regime trusts nobody – even the United Nation’s special rapporteur on Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, has been denied a visa.
Poverty, repression and injustice
Last year Keetharuth said: “Basic tenets of the rule of law are not respected.” Following this, the UN Security Council “strongly condemned” Eritrea’s “continued widespread and systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Violations include forced and child labour, “arbitrary detention, and severe restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and religion” as well as violence against women, gender inequality, gender-based violence, female genital mutilation and economic discrimination.
Eritrea is beset by fundamental problems, yet President Isaias Afwerki blindly rejects all foreign intervention, including urgent food aid. Eritrea was ranked 77th (out of 78) in the 2013 Global Hunger Index, and over 60 per cent of its population is malnourished. In a report by risk analysis firm Maplecroft, it was identified as the country where child labour is most rampant. Children as young as 15 are routinely conscripted into the military where, according to Human Rights Watch, they are “subject to violence and ill-treatment. Beatings, torture, and prolonged incarcerations are common.”
Military service is compulsory and, although it is officially 18 months long, many men, women and children spend their entire working lives in uniform, and are used as forced labour on essentially civilian jobs. Women recruits are victims of rape and sexual violence by officers. There is no constitution, functioning legislature or independent judiciary – thousands are arrested and detained without trial, denied access to lawyers and their families, and have no appeal against sweeping judgments. According to Human Rights Watch, “Death in captivity is not unusual. Many prisoners disappear, their whereabouts and health unknown. Former prisoners describe being confined in vastly overcrowded underground cells or shipping containers, with no space to lie down, little or no light, oppressive heat or cold, and vermin.”
In 2001 all independent media outlets were closed and journalists arrested. There is no free press, radio or television. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are banned, telecommunications and the internet are monitored and restricted, and parliamentary/presidential elections remain a dream. All power is concentrated in the hands of Afwerki who with the help of the military has held office since independence from Ethiopia in 1991. As the Guardian newspaper says, all “promises of democracy, the foundation stone of the independence struggle, went out of the window… a gap was quickly created between ex-fighters and civilians, the diaspora were systematically prohibited from returning, and draconian measures were taken against the educated and those who voiced complaints”.
The economy is in tatters – GDP per capita is around USD 560, the state has destroyed the private sector and poured funds into military mobilization. Eritrea has fought two border wars with Ethiopia, with whom relations remain hostile following Ethiopia’s failure to abide by the findings of an international boundary commission. Since independence, militarized politics has fashioned foreign policy and, despite nationwide poverty, the junta has found the means to engage in armed conflict with Yemen and Djibouti and has enmeshed itself in military mayhem in eastern Sudan, Darfur and Somalia.
Grinding poverty and the regime’s widespread violations of human rights are forcing tens of thousands of Eritreans – mostly young, poorly educated women – to flee the country annually. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over 305,000 (more than 5 per cent of the six million population) left during the past decade. Last year every month 3,000 people headed for Egypt, Israel and the Gulf States, via Sudan and the Sinai Peninsula. To facilitate passage, many turn to criminal smugglers who charge extortionate “fees of between USD 1,000 and 5,000 USD“, and large numbers fall victim to traffickers operating in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.
Exploitation of the vulnerable is the name of the trafficking game. The Eritrean military exploit citizens’ desperation to escape conscription and forced labour by charging high fees to smuggle them out of the country; corrupt officials in Egypt and Sudan – specifically security personnel stationed on the border checkpoints – facilitate refugees’ passage in exchange for bribes. A small number of asylum seekers end up in Ethiopia, but the vast majority find themselves in one of the overcrowded Shagarab refugee camps (covering three sites) in east Sudan. The UNHCR estimates there are approximately 89,000 refugees in east Sudan most of whom are Eritrean. Approximately 30,000 live in Shagarab. It says it is “seeing rising incidents of abductions and disappearances of mainly Eritrean refugees, allegedly involving border tribes, in eastern Sudan. This is occurring in and around refugee camps.”…
Sinai, Israel and xenophobia
After the 1978 Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula was returned to Egypt. It is a lawless wilderness that has for years served as a transit route for people escaping persecution, political turmoil, hunger and poverty from the Horn of Africa. As Amnesty International reports, refugees and asylum seekers are transported through the desert region in overcrowded “trucks and other vehicles, often with poor ventilation”.They receive little or no food and water, and some die en-route.
In Sinai “they are subjected to torture, forced marriage, rape or bonded labour”, held captive with the aim of extorting money from their relatives or communities. According to the UNHCR, “Many former victims have recounted horrific tales of being held for months and repeatedly raped, of having plastic melted over their back and legs, and of being electrocuted and burned. Many have died at the hands of their tormentors.” Others report being urinated on and having fingernails pulled out. Rape of both men and women is apparently commonplace. “Some have allegedly been murdered because their families were unable to pay the ransom,” Amnesty International says, and even if ransoms are paid to secure their release, some still get sold on to other traffickers.
The fortunate ones who are released pass over the Egyptian border into Israel, where, traumatized and in need of support, they are unwelcome. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu described refugees and asylum-seekers as “infiltrators” who “threaten the Jewish character of Israel”. These victims of brutality and criminal torture are treated like criminals and herded into detention centres, albeit with a daytime open-door policy. They are not regarded as refugees by the Israeli authorities but, as Netanyahu puts it, as “people who are breaking the law and whom we will deal with to the fullest extent of the law”. Comments by Eli Yishai, Israel’s former interior minister, reveal a pervasive xenophobic attitude. He urged the government “to put every single one of the infiltrators in detention facilities, take their work permits, put them on aeroplanes and send them packing to their countries or a third country”.
As a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Israel is obliged to investigate asylum applications on an individual basis, yet it ignores such duties and, far from examining individual claims, responds to all African refugees in the same dismissive manner. Asylum seekers cannot legally be deported if they face danger in their country of origin, so the Israelis have set up a “monetary incentive system” whereby asylum seekers from Africa are offered USD 3,500 to leave. Most of those taking up the “incentive” are Sudanese.
This January tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers demonstrated in Tel-Aviv, calling for the Israeli government to grant them refugee status and to change its policy of detaining them in the Holot detention facility in the Negev. The UNHCR supports the people’s legitimate demands, and their representative in Israel, Walpurga Englbrecht, “has publicly stated that the process of indefinite detention in Holot does not comply with the norms of international human rights. ”Eritreans make up an estimated 60 per cent of the 60,000 illegal African migrants estimated to be in Israel, and yet to date only two Eritreans have been granted refugee status with its benefits of citizenship.
Abused and suppressed at home, the vulnerable are exploited from the beginning of their journey to the detained ignoble end in what the UNHCR says, is one of the most unreported humanitarian crises in the world.
Pressure needs to be put on Israel to act with compassion and in accordance with its international obligations, and Egypt must act to root out traffickers operating in Sinai. Human Rights Watch states that when the Egyptian military were active there in September-October last year, abductions dropped. Security personnel withdrew and the ransom phones resumed ringing. Despite overwhelming evidence of horrific abuses taking place within their jurisdiction, Egyptian forces have “taken no steps to end them”, says Human Rights Watch.
The siege state
Life in Eritrea, though, is the poisonous root of the refugees’ agonies, and all steps need to be taken to prevent it from becoming yet another failed state. In a positive sign last year, the UN agreed a four-year USD 188 million “cooperation framework”.
“The UN will provide USD 50 million and attempt to raise the remaining USD 138 million from donor countries for capacity building, food security, environmental improvements and social services.” However, without regime involvement, providing assistance presents “acute coordination challenges”, because of “access restrictions on international staff” and the “absence of up-to-date information” from the government, according to Human Rights Watch.
Eritrea has become what the International Crisis Group describes as “a siege state”, whose “government is suspicious of its own population, neighbours and the wider world”. Engagement by the international community; assessment of need, cooperation, dialogue and support is urgently needed; enforcement of the border ruling between Eritrea and Ethiopia would go a long way to building trust with foreign powers – an essential requirement in assessing and delivering aid and establishing relations.