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A tortuous journey

The fate of Eritreans fleeing to Sudan, Egypt, and Israel

East African street vendors sell black market goods on Neve Sha’anan street in Tel Aviv Connor Molloy / Daily News Egypt
East African street vendors sell black market goods on Neve Sha’anan street in Tel Aviv
Connor Molloy / Daily News Egypt


Demsas lives in Cairo with other men who escaped the torture house where they were held in the Sinai. He is scared to leave his apartment as he does not have residency papers. He did not even want to end up in Egypt, but he also cannot go back to Eritrea.

“I was trying to get to Sudan,” said Demsas, speaking flatly. He had been thinking for a while about leaving Eritrea. His reason for wanting to leave was the vicious conditions of his military service, one that is mandatory in Eritrea.

As Demsas put it, “I didn’t have good relations with the military.”

So on New Year’s Eve 2011, with his mind made up, Demsas left the army barracks and started walking to Sudan. He hadn’t heard much about Sudan, but figured it could not be worse than his life in Eritrea. He was wrong.

Demsas set off on foot to Asmera, the capital of Eritrea. After that, he headed due west, stopping first in Barentu before crossing the border into Sudan.

“Immediately across the border, I was kidnapped in Kassala.”

Demsas was about to enter a strange world that exists along the western bank of the Red Sea. Eritreans are abducted: sometimes grabbed as the flee their country, sometimes they are taken while vulnerably exposed in refugee camps, sometimes they are coaxed into leaving by professional extortionists.

These Eritreans are then brought to designated houses in the Sinai and told to pay ransoms in exchange for being brought to Israel, whether or not that was their original destination. If they cannot pay, or if the money is slow to appear, they are savagely tortured to incentivise payment.

When Demsas was outside the Sudanese city of Kasssala, a group of men showed up and put Demsas in their car, alongside other kidnapped victims. Demsas called these men Rashaida, the name of a nomadic tribe in East Africa that has become notorious for kidnapping and trafficking individuals trying to flee Eritrea.

The Rashaida took Demsas to their home, a hut in Kassala. He remained trapped in the hut for seven days before being handed over to a different group of Rashaida.

Demsas was in a foreign land and confused. “I was new to the area, so I was thinking of nothing. I didn’t know the area or the people.”

In Demsas’s case, he did not know when he ended up in Sinai. He knew only the series of locations on the way there. The first was a big building with a flag on top. There were 120 others with him there. They started to split them up into groups of 32. Once his group of 32 was isolated, they were taken in cars to an unfinished house.

They stayed there until after nightfall when they were driven to another house, and, one by one, the 32 humans were chained together.

“They asked for $3,300 to transport us to Israel. They said we had three days to pay. Some paid, some couldn’t, but the majority paid.” Demsas paid the ransom by calling his family. “They sold all of their property and all of their jewelry, and transferred the money to the kidnappers.”

Despite this, after three days of captivity and receiving the funds, the traffickers simply collected the ransoms and flipped their human cargo to another group in exchange for more money.

Meron Estefanos is a human rights activist and radio presenter for a Tigrinya-language station. She said that Rashaida is more or less the term that Eritreans use for Bedouins, nomadic tribes that she said have been smugglers throughout their history.

“It all started with the road to Libya about six to seven years ago. People were going from Sudan to Libya to Malta to Italy. This was the best way to get to Europe. But then Gaddafi made a deal with the EU to block the refugee flow to Europe.”

At this point the Rashaida stepped in and started smuggling migrants to Israel, with the help of their Egyptian Bedouin counterparts. Soon Israel started cracking down on the smuggling route; they stopped giving medical treatment at the border and made life hard for migrants in Israel.

With Israel a less appealing destination, many migrants were no longer eager to pay the smuggling fees.

“So smugglers started losing money. They started realising that they could make money just keeping the migrants for ransom, and they realised it is a good business.”

So this is what happened to Demsas, he was bought and sold as a commodity in one of the Sinai’s most profitable businesses.

His new overseers asked for an additional ransom, but Demsas had nothing left to give. That is when the torturing started in earnest.

“They started torturing us and we suffered a lot. They beat us and in the morning they would cut our hands and our bare feet,” Demsas said miming a slashing motion across his palm. “It was a bad time. People started to pay, but it only got worse when some people paid. Half paid, the rest kept suffering.”

Unfortunately, Demsas’s story is not unique according John Stauffer, president of The America Team for Displaced Eritreans. Eritreans, he said, are mainly abducted in Eastern Sudan and “forcibly taken to Egypt where they are sold to renegade Egyptian Bedouins. The victims are tortured continuously by beatings, electric shock, burning with melted plastic bottles, binding in chains, suspension upside-down, and starvation.  Women are often raped repeatedly, sometimes with their children present.”

Doctor Ido Lurie, who works at the Open Clinic of the Physicians for Human Rights in Israel, said his clinic has conducted 1,200 interviews with people passing through the Sinai to Israel. They have not processed all of their data, but they have sorted through 280 interviews and the results tell a striking tale. More than half of the asylum seekers, primarily Eritreans, reported being chained and more than half also reported being abused physically.

An European Union report on human trafficking in the Sinai that was submitted to the European Parliament in September, and numerous interviews with experts, paints a picture of a systematic industry. One where humans are traded, torture is routine and torture houses populate the Sinai interior near the Israeli border.

Stauffer confirmed that, just like Demsas described, huge sums are asked for in ransom, adding, “victims who do not pay are subject to enslavement by the extortionists and may be killed.”

This was not Demsas’s fate. He told the story of his rescue, but did so in the same expressionless tone with which he relayed his kidnapping and imprisonment.

“On 25 February, after being beaten, a sheikh heard the screams while he was walking by.” The sheikh released them from their chains and took them to his home. There, “he started to give us medicine for our wounds, and clothes, and food, and a shower.”

Finally they were taken to Cairo and given rent money from a local NGO. Still, said Demsas, “in Cairo life is bad.” He is always scared when he leaves the apartment, so he mostly stays at home with nothing to do and no plans for the future. “Because I’m not legal, I’m afraid all the time that people may hurt me.”

This is not an unfounded fear.

“Egypt is holding the refugees in detention centres and deporting them back to Ethiopia or Eritrea,” said Mirjam van Reisen, who co-wrote the EU report. “The refugees from Eritrea are political refugees and according to UNHCR have group rights to protection as asylum seekers.” Despite this, Egypt has still been willing to detain and deport those from Eritrea and because it is almost impossible to leave Eritrea by legal means, “those who are deported back to Eritrea certainly risk imprisonment if not death.”

If Eritreans leaving their homeland face kidnapping in Sudan, torture in the Sinai, and imprisonment by the Egyptian authorities, why do they still take the risk?

One of the reasons cited time and again, and offered by Demsas, is the mandatory military service in Eritrea, with conscription that is indefinite. “Every Eritrean, regardless of sex, is forced to serve in the military,” said Estefanos. “Some people from 1994 are still doing it.”

Neve Sha’anan street in Tel Aviv Connor Molloy / Daily News Egypt
Neve Sha’anan street in Tel Aviv
Connor Molloy / Daily News Egypt

Estefanos said the military pays the equivalent of $30 per month. Yet the meager pay is almost a footnote when compared to the corruption and abuses that are rampant in the military. It is more indentured servitude than national service. “They own you until you are 45 or 50,” said Estefanos.

The dictatorial regime of Isaias Afewerki is involved in every aspect of Eritreans’ lives. Said Estefanos, “we are talking about a regime that knows what all citizens ate for lunch.” The threat of indefinite service in the army is always looming. “When kids are eleven they are already worrying about being in the military. Kids in Eritrea, they don’t say they want to be a doctor or a pilot. They grow up without hope.”

So despite the risks, Eritreans are still willing to leave, walking, like Demsas did, into an uncertain future. Estefanos said one Eritrean man explained it to her like this, “you leave knowing that 50 per cent you will make it, 50 per cent you won’t. You know all the hardships you face. It’s like playing your card, it’s gambling your luck card.” By doing this, at least they are taking agency over their own lives. The man told Estefanos, “it’s better to die trying to get out than to die staying in the country.”

Unconfirmed sources in the Egyptian military reportedly told activists that they simply do not have the capacity to crack down on the torture houses in the Sinai. This despite the fact that the military currently has a heavy presence in the peninsula.

After this year’s Ramadan attack that killed 16 soldiers on the border with Israel, the Egyptian military flooded the Sinai as part of Operation Sinai.

Vehicles that travel through the Sinai face military checkpoints and possible inspection nearly every hour on the desert roads. Busses filled almost exclusively with young Egyptian men are routinely emptied, with the passengers ordered to stand in single file, holding their luggage, while the bus is inspected.

But this level of military oversight exists along the few highways that run through the Sinai. The interior is a different story. Along one of those roads filled with checkpoints a Bedouin woman and her child walked away from the road and toward the rocky crags of the interior. With her black niqab billowing in the wind, she calmly headed into what seemed like an uninhabitable abyss. It is easy to understand the impunity with which Sinai criminals are allowed to act.

Though many Eritreans, like Demsas, never intended to traverse the Sinai or even end up in Israel, many do, and many make it across the border. The number of Africans living in Israel is estimated at between 50,000 and 60,000 migrants. For these thousands, Israel is rarely the promised land it is advertised as.

Eritreans who make it past all the obstacles between the Sudanese border and the northern reach of the Negev, are put in buses and dropped off at Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv.

Levinsky Park is located next to the new central bus station. On the fourth floor of the bus station, down the hallway from a free STD clinic, is the African Refugee Development Center, the only service centre of its kind in Israel started by a refugee; Yohannes Bayu from Ethiopia.

“The biggest issues facing Eritreans in Israel is work, difficulties of finding work,” said Michael Alexander of the ARDC. “The second issue is simply shelter, finding a place to live, which depends on work. The third issue that is really of concern to them is getting medical attention, to address physical and psychological problems.”

The ARDC offers professionals who are trained in addressing the physical and psychological effects of migration, torture, and rape. The Physicians for Human Rights also offer this type of assistance. They used to occupy another space on the fourth floor of the bus station, but have since moved to Jaffa.

Work and housing, however, require cooperation with both the state and the population at large.

Many Eritreans and other East African migrants have settled in the low-rent apartments near the old Tel Aviv bus station, just down the road from the new one. The dilapidated streets between the two sites used to be popular with Israeli prostitutes servicing the mobile crowd and those who wanted to stay out of sight from Tel Aviv’s nearby five star hotels and chic shopping strips.

Neve Sha’anan Street, which curves around Levinsky Park, is closed to motorists and every day of the week it hosts street vendors selling their wares on splayed-out mats, surrounded by bars, peep show parlours, and restaurants serving injera, traditional east African bread.

Besides these migrant-owned businesses, one of the easiest ways for a newly arrived Eritrean to make money is chick-chak work. If an Israeli needs a fence built or a storage unit moved, they can drive their car to south Tel Aviv and pick up any Eritreans looking to make a few shekels in cash.

While asylum seekers are not outlawed from employment in Israel, their options are kept limited in part because of a coyly worded piece of paper.

The Eritreans who gain temporary residency in Israel do so via the A25 visa. “They get this from the ministry of interior and it says they will not be deported,” said Alexander. “But it is not a residence permit in any way. On the paper it says in Hebrew, ‘this is not a work permit,’ so naturally many employers are afraid to employ this person.”

The situation is the result of an uneasy truce reached between human rights organisations and the state of Israel. “We took the state to the Supreme Court,” explained Alexander. “We said, ‘feed them [the asylum seekers] and give basic things like housing, if not, you have to let them survive somehow.’ The answer of the state was, ‘we won’t give work permits, but we won’t enforce the law either.’” So while it is technically possible for an Eritrean in Israel to work, employers are dissuaded from doing so.

The fourth floor of the new Tel Aviv bus station Connor Molloy / Daily News Egypt
The fourth floor of the new Tel Aviv bus station
Connor Molloy / Daily News Egypt

Meanwhile, the Israeli state has been pursuing a three-pronged approach to keep African migrants out of their country to begin with.

The first step is the building of a fence along their border with Egypt. The construction of the barrier has gone on much more quietly than the one they are constructing around the West Bank, but it has been condemned by those keeping track of events on the ground.

“Israel’s international obligations don’t preclude it from building a wall,” said Bill Van Esveld from Human Rights Watch, “but it is obliged to ensure that asylum seekers or refugees fleeing persecution can file asylum claims. However, Israel appears not to have any plans to build crossings into the wall for asylum seekers, the point of the wall, according to Israeli statements, is to keep all Africans out.”

Van Esveld argues that while Israeli politicians are labeling these migrants ‘work infiltrators,’ the government figures he cites show that nearly 30 per cent are from Eritrea, whose citizens are frequently recognised as refugees when they seek asylum elsewhere.

Sara Robinson, Refugee Rights Coordinator for Amnesty International in Israel, said, “the construction of the southern barrier to try to prevent people crossing from Egypt is part of a larger Israeli plan to deter the arrival of refugees, asylum-seekers, and other migrants.”

Robinson then pointed out the second prong of Israel’s deterrence efforts; the Prevention of Infiltration Law. She explained that the law, passed earlier this year, allows for the detention of asylum-seekers who enter without permission to “be held without charge or trial for three or more years.”

This, continued Robinson, “flies in the face of Israel’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and other international human rights instruments. Migrants in irregular situations should not be considered criminals under the law, and should not be treated as criminals.”

This raises the question of what to do with all these new criminals. The answer is the state’s third prong: the construction of a massive detention centre in the Negev Desert that will be able to imprison up to 10,000 migrants.

In October, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who aggressively advocates the expulsion of African migrants from Israel, toured the construction site and was reassured by the deputy general manager of the defence ministry, Bezalel Treiber, that “all the appropriate conditions for people are kept; 4.5 metres for each person staying in a room.”

Van Esveld said, “as for the expanded detention centre, international law is clear that detention may only be used as a last resort.”

Robinson added, “even the use of the term ‘infiltrators’ is totally inappropriate as it carries connotations of threat and criminality; its use by officials and in the public sphere fuels xenophobia. Unfortunately this feeds an atmosphere of growing anti-migrant racism within Israel, which has seen a number of attacks on refugees and asylum-seekers.”

Robinson is referring to anti-African rallies that have sometimes devolved into attacks on migrants, and are sometimes attended by politicians, including those from the ruling Likud party. At one of these rallies in May, Miri Regev, a member of the Likud party in the Knesset famously called the migrants “a cancer in our body.”

With early elections called in October by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, there are fresh opportunities for politicians to pander to this hatred. Just last week, another anti-African migrant march stomped through south Tel Aviv.

“Israeli politicians should stop peddling xenophobic falsehoods about African migrants,” said Van Esveld. “Rather than slandering the entire group as disease-carrying criminals who should be deported, politicians should start reforming Israel’s dysfunctional asylum system so as to ensure the rights of asylum seekers.”

When members of the United Nations met in 1951 to agree on a convention for refugees, they recognised that “many persons still leave their country of origin for reasons of persecution and are entitle to special protection on account of their position.”

However, with a populist government in Israel, a dictatorial government at home, and an inept Egyptian government in between, there is little refuge for a people on the run.


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