By Gerry Simpson, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Gerry Simpson is Human Rights Watch's senior refugee researcher and advocate and author of a new report, 'I Wanted to Lie Down and Die: Trafficking and Torture of Eritreans in Sudan and Egypt.' The views expressed are his own.
Mesfin fled his country in early 2012 in the dead of night. Eritrea's repressive regime had forced him, like tens of thousands of other men and women there, to become a soldier at 16, with the prospect of life-long involuntary military service. He fled his barracks but was caught.
After eight years in prison, he had escaped. Dodging border guards with shoot-to-kill orders, he headed for neighboring eastern Sudan, seeking a safe haven.
He was not the only one. Since 2004, at least 130,000 Eritreans – an average of 35 every day – have crossed to Sudan, fleeing indefinite conscription, torture, enforced disappearances and religious persecution. Tens of thousands more have fled to Ethiopia. So appalling is Eritrea's rights record and its repression of its own people that in 2012, 90 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers who did manage to reach a safe place worldwide were recognized as refugees or given other protected status.
But little did Mesfin know that his ordeal would only get worse when he fled to Sudan. Much worse.
He described to me how just after he crossed the border, Sudanese police intercepted him and took him to a police station. He asked to be taken to one of the nearby refugee camps, but instead the police sold him and two other Eritreans to Sudanese traffickers. In some cases with the collusion of Sudanese security forces, at least hundreds of other Eritreans have been kidnapped by traffickers in recent years in eastern Sudan. Mesfin said he was forced, under threat of violence, to call relatives abroad to raise thousands of dollars. His relatives paid up, but he was not freed.
The Sudanese traffickers bundled him into a pickup truck with 20 other Eritreans and drove him north, to the Egyptian border, where they handed the group over to Egyptian traffickers. They drove him to a house where Egyptian security officers forced them into their trucks and then transferred them into a civilian truck, which headed for Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.
I have documented how some Egyptian security forces collude with the traffickers, at checkpoints between the Sudanese border and Egypt’s Suez Canal, at the heavily policed canal or at checkpoints manning the only vehicle bridge crossing the canal, in traffickers’ houses, at checkpoints in Sinai’s towns, and close to the Israeli border.
Mesfin and the rest of his group were then taken to trafficker hideouts in Sinai and chained up, he said. The traffickers ordered each of them to call their relatives abroad and ask for $33,000 for their release. To force him to cooperate, the traffickers tortured Mesfin, beating and whipping him and dripping molten plastic onto his back.
Since 2010, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, refugee organizations, independent Eritrean activists, and journalists have documented hundreds of cases involving this kind of torture, which they say is the tip of the iceberg. The traffickers in Sinai sometimes hold and torture the Eritreans for months.
Rape, burning, mutilation, and electric shocks are just part of the traffickers' extortion toolkit. They call their victim's relatives, who hear their loved ones' screams and then pay to stop the torture.
Some of the victims are sold yet again to other traffickers in Sinai who torture and extort them all over again. After the second round, Mesfin finally was freed.
But his ordeal was far from over. Thousands of Eritreans like Mesfin are intercepted by Egyptian border police before reaching the now-sealed Israeli border. Some are prosecuted for unlawful entry into, or presence in, Egypt and are detained for months in Sinai's police stations, many in inhuman and degrading conditions.
The Egyptian authorities deny them their rights under Egypt's 2010 Law on Combating Human Trafficking, which says they should receive assistance – including urgently needed medical care – protection, and immunity from prosecution. The authorities also deny them access to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), which is barred from entering Sinai.
The Egyptian authorities only release detained Eritreans when they have raised enough money to buy an air ticket to travel to Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. There, they end up in refugee camps. Some who fled Eritrea through Ethiopia or who went there from eastern Sudan's remote desert refugee camps find they have come full circle. Both sets of camps are a dead end of poor conditions, highly restricted movement, and almost no chance of finding work.
Sudan and Egypt need to end the horrific abuses against Eritreans with a concerted law enforcement effort to identify and prosecute traffickers and the officials who collude with them. The Egyptian authorities' should ensure that their law enforcement operations in Sinai against insurgents includes shutting down trafficker hideouts, freeing trafficking victims, and prosecuting traffickers while respecting human rights.
The Egyptian authorities should also stop detaining trafficking victims in Sinai and elsewhere and allow them to travel to Cairo for medical attention, other assistance, and to register with UNHCR if they are seeking international protection.
International donors to Egypt, including the United States, the European Union and its member states, should stop turning a blind eye to this situation and press the Egyptian and Sudanese authorities to investigate and prosecute traffickers and to investigate and hold accountable security officials colluding with traffickers.
Mesfin is one of the lucky handful of Eritreans who made it from Sinai to Cairo after the traffickers released him. He is recovering from his ordeals while he waits to be recognized as a refugee. No one seeking protection from the appalling abuses in Eritrea should have to go through what Mesfin did.