During the past year thousands of people from North Africa have disappeared in the Sinai Desert region while crossing the border between Egypt and Israel.
“Falling prey to human traffickers, employment scams, harassment, organ thefts and forced deportations, these people face one of the worst human rights violations,” says Fr Mussie Zerai.
Zerai is a Roman Catholic priest from Eritrea, based in Vatican, and spoke recently in a meeting at the World Council of Churches (WCC) offices in Geneva organized by WCC’s Commission of the Churches on International Affairs.
He is the founder of Agenzia Habeshia, a charity for asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.
“Churches have been the voice of the voiceless. The ecumenical family has a great responsibility to be engaged in global advocacy on behalf of these people, as their rights are being violated,” said Zerai.
The Sinai Desert is a traditional transit route for people from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and sub-Saharan Africa, escaping political turmoil, hunger and poverty and hoping to end up in Europe.
“More than 30,000 people have fled to Israel, mostly from countries like Tunisia, Libya, Ethiopia, Sudan and others, since 2009. Out of which, around 10,000 died during the travel, and 3,000 have fallen prey to the brutal organ thefts. The documentation we have gathered at Habeshia contains some astounding figures,” says Zerai.
It is out of sheer desperation, in order to escape conflict, political turmoil and deteriorating human rights situations in Eritrea that people take such risky journeys.
Zerai encouraged the WCC member churches, especially in Egypt, to challenge their governments regarding the inhuman treatment of refugees, which he says was pointed out several times by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Human Rights Watch and other international human rights organizations.
“Asylum seekers are kept in jails by the Egyptian government, facing inhuman treatment and forced to be deported, which means a severe threat to their lives,” said Zerai.
The 118 Eritreans facing forced deportation
Zerai also shared information about the recent incident of 118 Eritreans, who are faced with “forced deportation” at the detention centre in Aswan, Egypt.
“These asylum seekers are under severe threat of persecution if they return to Eritrea. This is the result of a human rights crisis in Eritrea due to which around 1,000 people are attempting to flee every month,” shared Zerai.
“The inhuman treatment of these people amounts to beatings and forced deportation by the Egyptian government, which violates the 1951 UN Refugee Convention to which Egypt is a party,” he added.
Dr Mathews George Chunakara, director of the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs of the WCC, stated that “human trafficking is a serious threat to human security. Trafficking has become a criminal industry and this is proved in the case of the Sinai desert, while many people have been killed during and after organ thefts.”
“The WCC is committed to be engaged in advocacy on human trafficking as this is a vital human rights issue. This issue will be discussed in our forthcoming meeting on ‘Peace and Security in Africa’ in Kigali, Rwanda,” said Dr Nigussu Legesse, the WCC programme executive for Africa.
Pointing out the long history of the ecumenical movement in promoting human rights, Zarai stressed the need for more collaborative actions among churches and other civil society organizations, in order to protect the victims of these human rights violations.