Egypt plays down reported Eritrean refugee hostage crisis in Sinai

Egypt has been concealing information about 250 Eritrean refugees reportedly being held hostage by human traffickers in the Sinai Peninsula, an Italian human rights watchdog stated on Thursday.

Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hossam Zaki on Tuesday said that Egyptian security authorities had not found any clues to suggest that Eritrean refugees were being held in the area.

"We called on whoever has any information to present it to the Egyptian authorities, but no one has presented any," said Zaki in a statement.

"The Egyptian government is making itself an accomplice in this humanitarian tragedy,” said Matteo Pegoraro, co-president of EveryOneGroup, an Italy-based human rights group that has followed the case for more than one month.

“The [Egyptian] foreign ministry is not telling the truth,” Pegoraro told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

He added that his organization had provided the Egyptian government with “all the information necessary” for finding the refugees, who are reportedly being held captive on the outskirts of the northern border city of Rafah.

The Italian activist said that his NGO had received detailed information on the case via direct telephone calls with some of the hostages. He explained that this communication had been facilitated by Don Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest residing in Italy and founder of human rights organization Agenzia Habeshia.

The hostages were able to get in touch with the priest via telephone after the kidnappers demanded they use and international phone to call their families to ask for a ransom.

According to information shared by the rights group with the Egyptian government, the hostages are being held inside a house located near a government building, surrounded by a fruit orchard, next to a large mosque and a church that has been turned into a school.

“But in spite of this detailed description, the authorities have not lifted a finger to free them,” said Pegoraro.

Earlier this week, according to Pegoraro, two of the captives were shot to death in front of the other hostages. The traffickers had apparently accused the two men–both protestant deacons–of having notified international institutions and the media about their plight.

The humanitarian situation faced by the migrants continues to deteriorate, meanwhile, with women and children reportedly being raped. They are also reportedly being denied food and water, and are thus forced to drink their own urine to survive.

“Many of them are thinking of taking their own lives to escape a slow death through severe hardship, and the episodes of rape, torture and beatings,” said Pegoraro.

Al-Masry Al-Youm could not, however, independently verify the reports. 

Last week, United Nations refugee agency UNHCR urged the Egyptian government to intervene to secure the release of the hostages, whose captors have reportedly demanded ransom payments of US$8000 per person.

Among the thousands of people that attempt to cross the border each year from Egypt to Israel, most come from nearby sub-Saharan states such as Eritrea and Sudan. 

According to smugglers previously contacted by Al-Masry Al-Youm, human trafficking of African migrants to Israel through Sinai is a not uncommon practice among Bedouin tribesmen. They typically reach their prospective patrons through agents in Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, who convince would-be migrants that, upon arrival in Sinai, they will be hired for lucrative salaries.

Once in Sinai, they are often held hostage until they can secure the requested ransom, after which they are smuggled into next-door Israel.

In a related development, the European Parliament (EP) is expected to soon issue a joint resolution "urging the Egyptian authorities to take all necessary measures to secure the release of Eritreans held hostage," according to the EP website.

The draft resolution notes that “Egypt…as well as all countries, has a duty urgently to bring its treatment of refugees into line with international norms so that every refugee is afforded full protection and assistance."

In the draft resolution, currently being debated, MPs go on to admit that certain "policies and measures adopted by some European countries towards migrants have contributed to an increased influx of migrants to Egypt and other countries in the region."

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