(ANSAmed) - VATICAN CITY, DECEMBER 3 - ''We are being held in chains in terrible conditions; we haven't eaten for three days.
Come and save us''. So ran the live telephone appeal sent to Vatican Radio by an Eritrean boy, one of the refugees caught and held hostage for the past month by marauders in the Sinai desert on the border between Egypt and Israel. The affair has taken up several columns in today's edition of the 'Vatican bishop's daily paper', Avvenire. ''Awful ultimatum for Eritrean hostages,'' runs the front page headline. The appeal sent by the Eritrean prisoner, one of 74 hostages taken from a group of more than two hundred refugees, was forwarded last night to Don Mose' Zerai, an Eritrean priest of the Asmara diocese who is in charge of the Habeshia press agency. The traffickers are demanding a ransom of eight thousand dollars per head to free them, which is why they are allowing them to make telephone contact with the outside world. The refugees were making a bid to get to Europe so that they could apply for asylum and have their rights respected at last.
There has been an increase of the flow of refugees travelling through Egypt recently, following the accords reached between Italy and Libya and the new policy of forced repulsion at sea which prevents refugees from getting to Europe by the direct sea route across the Mediterranean.
''We are in a terrible plight,'' the prisoner said, ''and our lives are at stake. Nine of us have been beaten mercilessly and are now injured. Others are sick from hunger or because of the salt water they are giving us to drink''. ''Today I have had two meetings with the Lower House's Foreign Affairs Commission,'' Don Zerai said, ''and I have urged them to intervene with the Interior Minister so that he gets in touch with the Egyptian authorities, the only ones capable of acting in that area''.
Italian Catholic weekly, Famiglia Cristiana, also reports the story, saying the group of Eritreans, who have also made contact with Italy's Council for Refugees (CIR), is just a part of the more than 600 migrants who have recently fallen prey to raiders during their journey northwards. And four of them have already undergone enforced removal of their kidneys in order to pay off their captors.
As the Catholic weekly continues, citing Eurostat, in the first six months of 2010, only 4,035 persons presented applications for asylum in Italy, compared to the 10,895 who did so in the same period of 2009. According to CIR Director, Christopher Hein, this drastic reduction in numbers could be seen as a positive development, if there had been an improvement in the conditions in the transit countries. But, on the contrary, this group of Eritrean has come from Libya itself, Hein stressed - where they were repelled in line with international agreements such as that signed with Italy. International law, on the other hand, forbids mass repulsions in order that the presence of vulnerable persons may first be checked for: persons such as refugees or those fleeing civil conflicts, or bloody dictatorships, pregnant women or minors.