Human Trafficking and Trauma in the Digital Era

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Human Trafficking and Trauma in the Digital Era

Human Trafficking and Trauma in the Digital Era

Every Eritrean in the diaspora longs to go back to their country one day. Why, then, are Eritrean youth leaving their country en masse?

This book seeks to answer this question. It identifies the harrowing trajectories that refugees from Eritrea follow to try and find a place that gives them some security. As this book demonstrates, such security is not easy to find. The long arm of the Eritrean regime in Asmara follows the refugees wherever they go. This book examines the vulnerability of Eritrean refugees to human trafficking for ransom. It describes their migration trajectories and the trauma, torture and dangers that Eritrean refugees are subjected to. Many do not survive.

This books revisits the human trafficking crisis that emerged at the end of 2008, when many young Eritrean refugees were abducted from Eritrea, Sudan or elsewhere and trafficked to the Sinai. In 2012, Antonio Guterres, the then High Commissioner for Refugees, warned that thousands of Eritreans were leaving their country each month, despite a shoot-to-kill policy at the border. Guterres called for more protection in the refugee camp of Shagarab in eastern Sudan and identified that refugees were being kidnapped and taken to the Sinai. Human rights activist and radio presenter, Meron Estefanos, aired numerous interviews on radio, in which she spoke about the victims of human trafficking for ransom who were held in captivity, tortured and killed in the Sinai Desert. Sr Azezet and campaigners in Israel published the findings of thousands of interviews with patients in the clinic of Physicians for Human Rights, where former hostages came to seek help.

Human Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees between Life and Death’ and ‘The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond’ (Van Reisen, Estefanos, & Rijken, 2012, 2014) documented the phenomenon and gave a detailed description of the modus operandi used in this new form of human trafficking for ransom, also called ‘Sinai trafficking’. Subsequently, in 2015, anti-terrorist operations in the Sinai Desert inadvertently ended this cruel form of trafficking, although some reports have been received of refugees held in the Sinai in 2015 and 2016. An estimated 25,000–30,000 people were trafficked and tortured in the Sinai (between 2009 and 2013) and over USD 600 million in ransoms have been paid (Van Reisen et al., 2014). The majority of victims of human trafficking for ransom held in the Sinai originated from Eritrea.

Chapter 2 documents the journeys of refugees from Eritrea to the Sinai and other places. All of these routes include components of human trafficking for ransom. It looks at why particularly young people are leaving and tries to understand how the different journeys of smuggling and abduction are connected. This chapter locates the origin of Sinai trafficking within Eritrea and points to how a deliberate policy of impoverishment and human rights abuses has driven the people out of the country. It argues that the creation of a widespread illicit internal and cross-border black market, together with stringent controls on the movement of people, has created an environment in which human trafficking and smuggling were able to flourish and became embedded in the ‘system’.

This chapter presents evidence that arms smuggling routes and networks from Eritrea were used for the implementation of human trafficking for ransom in the Sinai and that the Eritrean regime controlled the arms/trafficking operations. There is strong evidence that the trafficking networks are linked directly to the Eritrean military. In the Sinai, hostages were forced to collect ransoms from relatives over mobile phones while being tortured. These ransoms were routinely paid through mobile money transfer systems in Asmara or to agents abroad believed to be linked to the financial network underpinning it. From the analysis of the interviews, the shocking reality emerges of a country that trafficks and extorts its citizens outside its own territory. The authors raise the question to what extent the Government of Eritrea is responsible for human trafficking for ransom in the Sinai and for the atrocities that were carried out as part of this practice against the Eritrean victims of such crimes.

Chapter 3 looks at why there is a mass exodus taking place from Eritrea and who is benefiting. It is based on interviews that describe a deliberate policy by the government to rid the country of its youth, as they have the critical capacity to criticise the government. This policy has been carried out through the mass detention (and torture) of youth. The impoverishment of the population and the creation of a black market in Eritrea have resulted in an illicit culture of finances, in which the revenue generated by smuggling and trafficking is tied to those in power. In this chapter, Mirjam Van Reisen and Meron Estefanos demonstrate that the causes of human trafficking of Eritrean youth have not gone away. Instead, the practices and modus operandi have been extended to Ethiopia and Sudan. The modus operandi are facilitated by information communication technologies (ICTs): ransoms and other financial transactions are negotiated with relatives over the phone who contribute to the release and support of the refugees through mobile money transfers, while trafficking networks make extensive use of ICTs to coordinate logistics as well as global financial transactions.

In both of these countries, pressures caused by the harassment of Eritrean refugees have created an atmosphere of fear. In Sudan, large groups of Eritrean refugees have been deported back to Eritrea or are being detained. The collection of ransom and extortion of refugees is ongoing. Paramilitary groups are believed to be rounding up Eritrean refugees and hundreds of refugees are reportedly being held against their will and threatened with deportation unless they pay the ransom. From the interviews, the researchers understand that payments of ransoms for people held in Sudan are made in Asmara. The vulnerability of the Eritrean refugees – whom at all costs try to ensure that they are not sent back to Eritrea for fear of retaliation – has been leveraged to create a widespread system of fear and exploitation. From the interviews carried out for this research, it emerges that the Government of Eritrea is directly involved in the organisation of the round-ups, extortion, and deportations from Sudan to Eritrea. With nowhere to go, refugees are crisscrossing between Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and Libya in search of a place with some relative safety.

Chapter 4, discusses the excesses emerging in Libya and Egypt, fed by the ongoing pressures that young Eritreans are facing in their attempt to reach safer shores. In Libya, groups of hundreds of young refugees have been captured by the terrorist groups of ISIS, who have expanded their operations to North Africa. Based on interviews, the authors (Mirjam Van Reisen and Meron Estefanos) demonstrate that this situation is reason for serious concern. Among other things, tens (if not hundreds) of refugees have been beheaded, and a testimony was received that Eritrean refugees who had been deported from Israel to Africa have been killed in such incidents. There is systematic and widespread sexual violence against Eritrean women refugees, including rape. If they are Christian, women are forced to convert to Islam. Women are also forced to marry ISIS fighters, with the aim, according to one interviewee, to bear the children of ISIS fighters.

In Egypt, hundreds of Eritrean refugees who are declared illegal are in prisons and face deportation to Eritrea, creating fear and anxiety among the refugee population. Such fear is fertile ground for exploitation and the most vulnerable refugees face the most severe abuse. Eritrean refugees have for a long time spoken about the organ harvesting trade which, in their mind, is linked to human trafficking for ransom. One of the first reports on organ harvesting and human trafficking for ransom was published by Mekonnen and Estefanos in 2011. In 2016, members of an organ trafficking ring were arrested in Egypt. Chapter 4 investigates the suspicion that organ harvesting is connected to human trafficking.

Chapter 5 discusses the plight of unaccompanied children in the context of human trafficking for ransom and how they are particularly vulnerable. Having little access to resources to pay ransoms, they are exploited for their labour and for the services they can render to the trade in human commodities. Authors Mirjam Van Reisen and Taha Al-Qasim argue that, due to the fragmentation of Eritrean families, many young children and minors become divorced from their parents. The mandatory and indefinite national service in Eritrea, in which the government assigns most members of the population to a position in the military or civil service, has resulted in children being raised without one (or both of) their parents. The fear of being drafted, drives them to leave Eritrea at an early age. Being under-aged and without resources, they are extremely vulnerable to being caught up in the human trafficking trade, as they are left without alternative options.

Chapter 6 considers the particular situation of Eritrean women refugees. Based on interviews in Uganda, their difficult situation is explored. The vulnerability of women refugee is exacerbated by the fragmentation of their families and support networks. Many women who flee Eritrea end up alone or only in company of their children. They become the sole protectors, breadwinners and caretakers of their families. Single mothers are by far the most vulnerable to all of the risks faced by women refugees. The authors of this chapter, Eyob Ghilazghy, Sacha Kuilman and Lena Reim, find sexual violence reported by women refugees from Eritrea during all the stages of their displacement. Women refugees, who have experienced serious trauma in their migration journeys (and while living in exile), generally remain isolated from host communities. In exile, they continue to experience exploitation, extortion and extreme economic hardship.