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EGYPT: Report claims African refugees face kidnapping, torture in Sinai

December 16, 2010 |  6:49 am


More than 200 African asylum seekers and illegal immigrants are being held captive by smugglers along the Sinai border with Israel, a report issued by Physicians for Human Rights Israel claims.

In a survey of more 100 Africans between the ages of 19 and 66 who attempted to cross from Egypt to Israel with the help of smugglers, victims said they were held in steel containers, tortured and raped by traffickers who demanded ransoms of up to $8,000.

Most of the migrants said that they were beaten and deprived of water and food through long periods of their custody, as 23% reported being burned with hot irons and 38% of the female respondents said that they were sexually abused by their captors.

Based on testimonies of hostages' relatives -- who heard hostages being tortured over the phone to speed up ransom payments -- the report states that there are about 220 Eritreans held captive by smugglers in the Sinai Peninsula.

PHR Israel said its investigation was prompted by testimonies of witnesses who went through similar experiences before ending up at the organization's infirmary over the last few months. The majority of interviewees came from Eritrea and Ethiopia; others were fleeing Ghana, Ivory Coast, Somalia, Nigeria, Congo and Sierra Leone.

The report's release comes one week after the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees issued a statement, voicing its "concern about a group of 250 Eritreans who have been held hostages by traffickers for over a month in the Sinai desert, Egypt."

The statement added that UNHCR is in contact with the Egyptian government over the matter and that "Egypt's Ministry of Interior has assured that around the clock efforts are underway to locate the hostages and release them."

The European Parliament has also made a resolution, in which it called on the Egyptian government to rapidly intervene and free the captured refugees.

Nonetheless, Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said on Saturday that authorities had no knowledge of the hostages' reports, adding that the Interior Ministry has no information on the allegations. A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry suggested unidentified "dubious organizations" were propagating "rumors" regarding captives in Sinai.

"The Foreign Minister said that authorities in question are following the issue and that no positive facts supporting these media rumors were found," spokesman Hossam Zaki said. "The issue seems to be more than just media rumors; it seems to be spread by many suspicious organizations."

Thousands of African refugees try to sneak their way into Israel via Sinai each year, where dozens in recent years have been shot and killed by Egyptian police and border guards. Since the start of 2010, 32 were killed in separate smuggling incidents, whereas 28 were shot dead the previous year.

--Amro Hassan in Cairo

Photo: An Egyptian guard at a checkpoint on Sinai's border with Israel. Credit: Reuters