Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Desert horror for asylum seekers

There has been a hullabaloo about the shark attack on a German tourist in the luxury Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh, on the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula. But the continuing plight of a group of Eritrean refugees held prisoner in the Sinai desert, has received little attention, despite the killing of three hostages on November 28.

Until an appeal yesterday by Pope Benedict XVI, only human rights campaigners such as the Italian EveryOnegroup have been raising alarm bells on behalf of the remaining 77 Eritrean asylum seekers who are being held prisoner by people-traffickers.

EveryOne Group, an NGO working to protect refugees and migrants, has appealed to the UN, the European Parliament, the President of the European Commission, the Council of Europe's Committee Against Torture, Egyptian President Mubarak, and the Italian government:

“These people have been held for months on the outskirts of a town in Sinai in purpose-built containers. Their captors are demanding payment of up to US$8,000 per person before releasing them, and are subjecting them to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. They are bound by chains around their ankles, have been deprived of adequate food, are given salty water to drink, and have been tortured using extreme methods, including electric shocks, to force friends and families abroad to make these payments. The women in the group, who have been separated from the rest, are particularly vulnerable to severe abuse.”

“Egypt will have legalized the trafficking of human beings, slavery, torture, and cold-blooded murder: a massacre that can be avoided with international diplomatic intervention”, EveryOne Group concludes.

The truth is that desperate asylum seekers have suffered terribly while crossing the Sinai desert for some time now. Easy prey for traffickers, they must cross through Egypt’s long desert border with Israel. Israeli tabloid newspaper Yediot Ahronot, for example, last month documented the horrific conditions in the camps run by Bedouin people smugglers.

This interest in the shocking conditions in Sinai is not an accident. Israel has become an unlikely magnet for asylum seekers over recent years, despite its hostility to migrants from Africa.

The aftermath of war and the brutal rule by the Afewerki government in Eritrea has made even the unfriendly state of Israel an attractive destination for people escaping extreme poverty and religious persecution. The regime in Eritrea, which waged a civil war against neighbouring Ethiopia in which 100,000 people have lost their lives, is amongst the harshest in the region. The country has no constitution, no independent press. Religious minorities suffer persecution.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been warning of a “flood” of illegal migrants and his government is erecting a fence along the 130-mile border with Egypt as well as a detention centre. But Israel is not the only guilty party in this matter by a long way. Brutal treatment by the Egyptian government goes back at least five years, when it put down a protest by Sudanese refugees on their way to Israel.

Egypt is right now in the throes of a contested election. Its 78 million people are suffering high inflation and unemployment under the rule of 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak. His ruling National Democratic Party yesterday claimed to have won 83% of the 518 seats at stake in the National Assembly. But this was after the main opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, had withdrawn from the election, protesting against ballot rigging. The Independent Committee for Election Monitoring is today holding an international press conference in Cairo to discuss the parliamentary poll and the deterioration of democracy in Egypt. Election monitors have called on the president to dissolve parliament.

Despite their differences, the present states of Eritrea, Egypt and Israel will never solve the problems facing their own people, let alone those of persecuted religious or ethnic minorities, such as the Eritrean refugees in Sinai. That task belongs to a mass movement, working for the common interests of those living in the region, regardless of religion or ethnicity.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

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