giovedì 9 dicembre 2010

The pope lifts the lid on Sinai's tortured Eritrean refugees

In calling for prayers for the African hostages held by traffickers in Sinai, the pope has highlighted a case of appalling abuse o Khataza Gondwe o, Thursday 9 December 2010 10.00 GMT o Article history On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI called for prayer for "the victims of traffickers and criminals, such as the drama of the hostages, Eritreans and of other nationalities, in the Sinai desert". By doing so, he lifted the lid on years of international indifference to the plight of thousands of people fleeing a variety of human rights crises in the Horn of Africa, who fall victim to highly organised and brutal gangs of Bedouin people-traffickers in Sudan, Libya and Egypt, but have been dismissed as economic migrants who, in the eyes of some, almost deserved their fate. The pope was referring to more than 250 people, some of whom have been held in purpose-built containers for more than a month by Bedouin people-traffickers in an area close to the Israeli border. Their captors, who are demanding payment of up to $8,000 a person for their release, are subjecting them to the most appalling abuse. They are bound by chains around their ankles, deprived of adequate food, given salty drinking water and tortured using extreme methods including branding, electric shocks and "whipping rituals", in order to force friends and families abroad, who are contacted by satellite telephone as the torture is occurring, to make these payments. In addition, women are held separately and subjected to sustained, systematic rape by numerous assailants. Among this group are at least 80 Eritreans fleeing severe religious and political repression, who would be regarded as genuine refugees under UNHCR eligibility guidelines. There were more. However, three men were shot dead after their families confirmed they could not meet the payments. Following this incident, four others who do not have friends or family abroad were informed their kidneys would be harvested in lieu of payment. Like thousands of their fellow citizens, some of these Eritreans initially crossed the Sahara on foot, entering Sudan illegally, since leaving Eritrea legally requires an exit permit. However, others put their lives into the hands of traffickers from the Rashaida nomadic tribe, which straddles the border of these two countries. It is at that point that extortion begins and some female refugees start to suffer abuse. "Women are raped before being taken across the border. You either agree or you don't cross," said one young woman, who spoke to me in the third person to distance herself from the pain of her experience. With her young son in tow, she had taken what she thought would be a safer route into Ethiopia, circumventing the heavily mined and extensively patrolled border between the two countries. "Then before the Ethiopian border, two of the women were taken away. We don't know what happened to them." The close ties between the Sudanese and Eritrean governments, characterised by periodic roundups and returns of refugees, mean they fall easy prey to agents of Bedouin traffickers who promise access to Europe – Italy via Libya – or to Israel via Egypt, countries symbolising "safety". However, the route to Europe has become increasingly difficult and in Libya refugees face imprisonment, possible forced return and severe societal abuse on racial grounds. Consequently, with help from friends and family, they pay $2,000 for a route into Israel that will by-pass Egyptian border guards, who so far this year have shot dead around 30 Africans as they attempted the crossing into Israel. However, instead of safe passage to Israel, the refugees find themselves in this desert detention centre, where they are abused in the most dehumanising manner in order to extort ever-increasing payments. Some are released and transferred across the border after payment has been made to the traffickers' representatives in Eritrea, Sudan or Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, these severely traumatised people find no real relief in Israel, where Eritreans make up 60% of the 31,000 new African arrivals, and where a four-pronged plan to stem such arrivals has been presented to the Knesset that includes opening discussions with the repressive Eritrean regime for their return. Others meet a different fate. In June, Eritrean refugees were among 10 Africans reportedly murdered by traffickers after being held for more than two months. The pope's intervention has prompted international action and a reluctant Egyptian government is finally being forced to address the suffering of these hostages. Egypt had previously denied knowing the whereabouts of the detention camps – rather disingenuously, considering they are situated near one of the most sensitive international borders. With the help of some of the hostages, the Italian NGOs Everyone Group and Agenzia Habeshia have identified this area, informed appropriate authorities and have now filed criminal charges in Cairo against named traffickers. However, only sustained, high-level pressure on the government of Egypt will ensure a definitive end to the hostages' ordeal, and the arrest and prosecution of members of these trafficking syndicates.

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