Egypt authorities ‘actively searching’ for Eritrean refugees held in Sinai

Egyptian security authorities are searching for hundreds of Eritrean refugees who the United Nations says are being held hostage by Bedouin smugglers in Sinai after the refugees failed to pay the fees demanded by the smugglers to help them sneak into Israel.

On Tuesday, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it was concerned about 250 Eritrean migrants believed to be held hostage in the Sinai desert.

"We have noted media reports that the traffickers are demanding payments of US$8000 per person for their release, that people are being held in containers and are subject to abuses," a statement released in Geneva said.

A joint appeal issued on 1 December by non-governmental organizations said that hundreds of refugees from the Horn of Africa have been held for months on the outskirts of a town in Sinai in "purpose-built containers."

The hostages had already paid US$2,000 for their passage to Israel, according to the NGOs, who described the refugees as being treated in an extremely degrading and inhumane manner:

“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 the payments.”

The NGOs–Agenzia Habeshia, EveryOne Group, Human Rights Concern Eritrea and Christian Solidarity Worldwide–who have been in contact with the group, say three Eritrean men were shot dead on 28 November after their families confirmed to the kidnappers that they were unable to make the ransom payment.

Another three are reported to have died on 30 November in an escape attempt, and others have been "branded like cattle."

Local officials from North Sinai said security authorities have been actively searching for the Eritreans who are believed to be held in scattered groups.

“Complicated webs of smugglers operate in tribal areas,” an official from the Nothern Sinai Governorate told Al-Masry Al-Youm on condition of anonymity.  “Smugglers receive the immigrants and transport them to the border using camouflage methods to avoid being spotted by security forces stationed along the border with Israel.”

The official said the police “have information” about certain numbers of African migrants who are being kept captive for failing to pay the demanded fees for transporting them into Israel.

Egyptian security officials said 82 Eritrean and Ethiopian migrants were arrested north of Suez city overnight as they were heading to the Sinai by bus.

The migrants were hoping to sneak into Israel to look for work, a security source told the AFP news agency.

The authorities are expected to hand them over to their embassies or put them on trial for illegal entry into Egypt. In most cases they can face a one-year suspended jail sentence and a fine.

The Sinai desert border has become a major trafficking route for African migrants seeking jobs. Thousands of Eritreans each year flee the country, with many heading for Israel.

In August, seven people were killed in clashes with smugglers and police near the border with Israel after African migrants held by traffickers seized the weapons of their captors in a bid to escape.

Israel began work in November on a 250km fence along the border designed to stop the influx of migrants.

In October, the New York-based Human Rights Watch urged Egypt to stop shooting migrants, saying its security forces had killed at least 85 people trying to enter Israel illegally since 2007.

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