Delivering his weekly blessing in Rome on Sunday, Pope Benedict
referred to "the ordeal of the hostages from Eritrea and other nations" who are trapped in Egypt's Sinai desert as "victims of traffickers and criminals".
He was highlighting a little-reported aspect of the migrant trade, where people from Africa are smuggled across the Egyptian border into Israel. Attention up to now has mainly focused on the shootingof migrants by Egyptian security forces (more than 60 have been killed during the last three years) and Israel-Egyptian efforts to seal the border.
But the story of migrants being held hostage in the desert by their "helpers" is new. The migrants are reported to have already paid $2,000 each for their passage to Israel but the traffickers are said to be demanding $8,000 more – and holding them captive until the money is forthcoming. Most are thought to be evangelical Christians from Eritrea.
The German press agency, citing "several humanitarian organisations", says at least 80 refugees have been held by the traffickers for 30 days.
However, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the situation is far worse than that. It says hundreds of migrants from the Horn of Africa have been held for months in shipping containers by their Bedouin traffickers "on the outskirts of a town in the Sinai Desert".
On 1 December Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Concern Eritrea, Agenzia Habeshia and EveryOne Group issued a joint appeal for urgent international intervention in the plight of the refugees, who are currently being held in degrading and inhumane conditions, bound by chains around their ankles and denied adequate food and water.
The appeal details extreme methods of torture suffered by the refugees, including electric shocks, to force friends and families abroad to make the payments. The women in the group, who have been separated from the rest, are particularly vulnerable to severe abuse.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 Dec 2010.