Eritrean Refugees: Kidnapped, Tortured In Egyptian Sinai

Eritrean refugees fleeing the abysmal situation at home have been escaping to anywhere safe they could reach. Many leave the country without any plans about their final destination and they start to plan once they are safely out of the Eritrean borders—either Sudan or Ethiopia. Those who have relatives in the West immediately receive assistance and, depending on the money they get, they walk through the Sahara aiming to reach Europe or head south to other places targeting North America.

Out of the thousands of refugees who risk their lives, many have perished in the Sahara Desert or drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. Others have disappeared in the wilderness of Central America trying to enter the USA. Still many others have managed to enter and settle in North America or Europe.

The traditional refugee routes through Africa and Central America to Europe and America are inhabited by pockets of Eritrean refugees on their way to one destination or another.

But the worst situation for refugees has been the route to Israel that crosses through Egyptian Sinai which has become a burial ground for Eritrean refugees who are shot on the spot by Egyptian border police. Worse, the route to Israel is operated by a cartel (the so-called “Bedouin”) that promises the refugees an escort to Israel but then holds the refugees hostage until their relatives send the ransom payment through their network in Sudan, Egypt, Europe and the United States. The smugglers interview would-be refugees to ascertain that they have relatives in the West who would bail them out before they take the refugees. The Sinai area has become an example of degradation and criminal activities under the eyes of the Egyptian security who know only to shoot at refugees. There are many reports of refugees being raped by the smugglers and others giving birth in transit in refugee trip which might take as long as a year.

The cruelties befalling Eritrean refugees in Egypt have prompted Pope Benedict XVI to denounce the  “kidnapping of Eritrean migrants in Sinai”.  Many of the Eritreans who are being held by so-called human traffickers have been subjected to extreme forms of torture including rape.  According to a writer for the British newspaper, The Guardian:

“They [the refugees] are bound by chains around their ankles, deprived of adequate food, given salty drinking water and tortured using extreme methods including branding, electric shocks and “whipping rituals”, in order to force friends and families abroad, who are contacted by satellite telephone as the torture is occurring, to make these payments. In addition, women are held separately and subjected to sustained, systematic rape by numerous assailants.”

On December 1, a group of human rights groups including Agenzia Habeshia, EveryOne Group, Human Rights Concern Eritrea and Christian Solidarity Worldwide sent an appeal letter to the EU, England, Italy, UN and Egypt, to intervene on behalf of the Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali and Sudanese refugees held hostage by Egyptians in the Sinai Peninsula.

Todate, there has been no protest from the Eritrean regime.  The Eritrean president, who sets the tone for the behavior of the officials of the ruling party, once told Eritrean students in South Africa that he doesn’t care whether they return to Eritrea or not. The ruling party treats those who leave the country without its consent as unwanted dissidents who deserve whatever ill-treatment they receive. It is not surprising, then, that Egypt, facing withering criticism for its inhumane treatment of refugees, always reaches out to Eritrean authorities for “bilateral talks” to camouflage its cruelty to Eritrean refugees.  Several months ago, Fasil Ghebrselassie, the Eritrean regime’s ambassador to Egypt, gave cart blanche authority to Egyptian authorities to shoot Eritrean refugees escaping through Egypt on their way to Israel and Europe. The Egyptians have been doing just that.

The following is an English translation of the interview Fasil Ghebreselassie gave Almasry Alyoum several months ago when Egypt was facing criticism for its treatment of refugees:

The Eritrean ambassador in Cairo, Fasil Ghebrselassie, stated that large numbers of Eritreans are entering Israel illegally, attributing the flight to economic factors.

In a statement to “AlMasri AlYoum,” he said he considered that any fugitive who escapes to any other country and crosses the borders of another state does not have any rights, as provided for in international law.

Ghebrselassie said that America is the cause of [the migration of] the youth from Eritrea, especially since the U.S. consulate in Asmara is closed to the thousands of dreamers who want to immigrate to the United States, something that forces them to resort to Egypt where they reside for long periods in the hope of infiltrating to Israel, sometimes to no avail.

In this regard, the Eritrean Ambassador confirmed that any person who is a fugitive from his country does not enjoy any rights. He pointed out that this is not only in Egypt but also in any country in the world in order to protect its borders. He added: “We understand very well that the Sinai border area is sensitive for Egypt, given the existence of Israel.”

He explained that his country understands the position of the Egyptian security authorities who warn the Eritreans when they try to flee across their borders, something that pushes them to direct their fires to them if they do not heed to their warnings, with the aim of securing and protecting their borders.

The ambassador added: “We can not say that the Eritreans were treated poorly by the Egyptian authorities, because international law is against smuggling.


The suffering of Eritreans in the deserts of Sudan and Egypt is not new. On February 13, 2009 for example, a convoy of vehicles carrying Eritrean refugees was destroyed by an air raid in a mountainous area inside Egyptian territories.

According to, an Eritrean opposition website, the following Eritreans perished in the bombing:

  1. Desta Beyene
  2. Tsegay Tesfasellassie
  3. Berhane Adhanom
  4. Desbele Mehreteab
  5. Keleteab Qeshi Mehari
  6. Ablele Anday
  7. Yonas Kesete
  8. Fereweini Fessaheye
  9. Afwerki Mehari
  10. Tout (sic.)Tsehay
  11. Hashush (sic.) Qeshi
  12. Semere Goitom
  13. Elsa Tekle
  14. Habtom Wedi Akhran
  15. Gebremeskel Wedi Gere
  16. Yohannes Mehreateab
  17. Halefom Haddis
  18. Habtom Qeshi Haddish
  19. Berhane Berhan

Who was responsible for the raid?  How many people perished in the raid? What was the motivation for the air raid?  Several explanations were offered at the time.   CBS quoted Egyptian State Transportation Minister, Mabrouk Mubarak Saleem, saying: “a major power bombed small trucks carrying arms–burning all of them.  It killed Sudanese, Eritreans and Ethiopians and injured others.”  The Jerusalem Post quoted an Israeli Radio report which had monitored an Al Jazeera interview of Egypt’s Transportation Minister.  Saleem reportedly told Al Jazeera that the death toll from the bombing was much higher than the initial reports, which he estimated at 800 injuries and fatalities.  He claimed that the trucks were loaded with people and not weapons.   Al Jazeera interviewed US Spokesperson, Vince Crawley, who said, “The US military has not conducted any air strikes, fired any missiles or undertaken any combat operations in or around Sudan since October 2008, when US Africa Command formally became responsible for US military action in Africa.”

Is it possible that Israel ordered the strike suspecting either weapons  and personnel transport to Hammas?   According to, an Eritrean website, among those who perished in the bombing were six Eritrean officers.  The website listed the names and ranks of the officers.  Meanwhile,, the official mouthpiece of Eritrea’s ruling party, and a website not known to express any remorse for ordinary Eritreans, wrote “defenseless nationals from the Horn of Africa, including Eritreans who were crossing border through human trafficking were inhumanely killed in massive aerial bombardment that occurred at 2 p.m. in the night hours at a place called “Jebel Awlad” along the Sudanese-Egyptian border on 12 January 2009 and on 23 February 2009 in an area lying south of the aforementioned site.”

A month earlier, in January 2009, nearly 120 Eritreans, including women and children, were shot at and arrested near the Sudanese Egyptian border and then delivered to Eritrean authorities in Tessenei in three-lots.  There were no comments about this incident from the Eritrean government.

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