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Eritrean refugees play at Mai-Aini Refugee Camp in northern Ethiopia, November 17, 2013. Thousands of Eritreans attempt each year to make a trip to reach Europe, fleeing one of Africa's poorest and most isolated nations. More than 90 per cent of victims of smuggling rings since 2009 are Eritrean, the report says. (Aaron Maasho/REUTERS)
Eritrean refugees play at Mai-Aini Refugee Camp in northern Ethiopia, November 17, 2013. Thousands of Eritreans attempt each year to make a trip to reach Europe, fleeing one of Africa's poorest and most isolated nations. More than 90 per cent of victims of smuggling rings since 2009 are Eritrean, the report says. (Aaron Maasho/REUTERS)

Geoffrey York

Extortionists, smugglers preying on Eritrean refugees, report says Add to ...

The woman from Eritrea was still in chains when she gave birth to her baby, just hours after being tortured by her captors. They gave her a rusty piece of metal to cut the umbilical cord, then continued to beat her daily, demanding $35,000 (U.S.) in ransom from her family.

The 25-year-old woman, identified only as H.T. by the researchers who interviewed her, is one of an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 victims of a vast network of smuggling and extortion in the Sinai region of Egypt, where thousands of African refugees have been held in torture camps as they seek to migrate to Israel.

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A new report, to be released on Wednesday by three European researchers, concludes that the torture camps and smuggling rings have killed 5,000 to 10,000 refugees – most of them from impoverished Eritrea – over the past four years.

The victims are among a desperate tide of human migration that has led to tragedy and suffering across the Mediterranean and North Africa. More than 360 African migrants died in October when their boat capsized near the Italian island of Lampedusa, while tens of thousands of African migrants who managed to get to Israel have become the targets of race riots and are threatened with mass deportation.

Eritrea, one of Africa’s poorest countries, is ruled by one of the world’s most repressive regimes. Human Rights Watch has described the country as a “giant prison” of forced labour and arbitrary arrest. Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled the country in an attempt to reach Europe or Israel, leaving them vulnerable to kidnapping and extortion by ruthless gangs in Sudan, Egypt, Libya and even Eritrea itself. Many refugees are routinely tortured and sexually abused by their captors as a way of extracting ransoms. Often they are forced to speak to their relatives by telephone as they are tortured, to intensify the emotional pressure on their families, the report says.

The report, based on dozens of detailed interviews with victims and their abductors, is the first attempt to provide an accurate estimate of the toll. It was researched and written by a Stockholm-based human-rights activist, Meron Estefanos, and two Netherlands-based professors, Mirjam van Reisen and Conny Rijken, who have been documenting the plight of migrants in the Sinai for years.

It estimates that about 50 trafficking gangs have extorted $600-million in ransoms since 2009. More than 90 per cent of the victims are Eritrean, according to the report.

The scale of the deaths in the Sinai is horrifying. One trafficker has admitted that he killed about 1,000 refugees, the report says. In some groups of victims, as many as half died. Their bodies were thrown into unmarked holes in the desert, known as “African graves.” Others, badly weakened from torture, were dumped in the desert to wander until they died.

Security officials in Eritrea and Sudan, including border guards and army officers, are heavily involved in the kidnapping and smuggling operations, the report says. In some cases, the victims are abducted in Eritrea and driven to Sudan, where they are told they will be sold to Sinai trafficking gangs if they do not pay ransoms. “The vocabulary of ‘warehouses’ and ‘auctions’ and the negotiation of the ‘price’ of the hostages is reminiscent of the age of slavery,” the report says.

It also says the victims are subjected to sadistic abuse: “burning, beating, hanging, dripping melted plastic, electrocution, mutilation, rape, and cutting off of hands and limbs.”

The story of H. T. was typical. Five months pregnant, she had left Eritrea and was travelling to a refugee camp in Sudan to meet her husband when she was abducted by Sudanese police officers and sold to a gang of Sinai traffickers, who tortured her daily.

When she gave birth, her captors did not even give her water. They continued limiting her to two pieces of bread a day.

She was eventually released when her sisters and husband managed to raise $15,000 in ransom, according to the report. But when she tried to enter Israel, border guards seized her and gave her to Egyptian soldiers. She had to raise more money to be freed from the Egyptian prison authorities, who deported her back to Eritrea.

Her baby somehow survived the abuse and deprivation. She named him Ra’ee – “revelation.”

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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