There was international concern Friday, November 26, over the situation of 80 Eritrean refugees who rights activists said have been held hostage by people smugglers on the Egypt-Israel border for about a month.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a religious rights group, cited investigators as saying that smugglers are demanding payment of $8,000 per refugee before releasing them.
It was believed there were Christians among the refugees. Eritrean officials have arrested thousands of Christians, holding them inside metal shipping containers, barracks and underground dungeons where at least several have died from torture and other harsh conditions, church groups and rights activists say.
Most of them are believed to be evangelical Christians as Eritrea only recognizes four religious groups including Islam, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Evangelical Church of Eritrea. However, even members of recognized religions haven't escaped persecution, according to church observers.
The refugees hold up at the Egypt-Israel border are among 600 Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali and Sudanese nationals being held "in degrading conditions in the Sinai desert," CSW said.
"They are being threatened, restrained with chains around their ankles, and at one stage were denied water to clean themselves for 20 days." The refugees reportedly set off from Tripoli in Libya for Israel, having paid $2,000 to people smugglers.
The exploitation of asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa by people traffickers is an ongoing problem, CSW said. In August, the deaths of six Eritreans on the Egypt-Israel border were reported, four of whom were killed in a dispute with people smugglers.
"In June, ten African refugees, including Eritreans, were reportedly killed by human smugglers in Sinai after they had been held for more than two months in secret underground locations," CSW added. The smugglers are allegedly using extreme methods of torture, including electric shocks, to force the victims make the illegal payments.
CSW’s Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston said it was "unacceptable that a group of people who are entitled to protection under international law are being treated in this manner. It is also difficult to comprehend how these people smugglers are able to continue holding such a large number of people hostage for such a lengthy period of time, and with seeming impunity."
CSW said Egypt's government should intervene as it is currently chairing the United Nations refugee agency's governing body and a signatory to UN and African refugee conventions.
"The Egyptian government has a duty to end this situation and bring Egypt’s treatment of refugees into line with international norms by ensuring that these and other refugees are afforded full protection and assistance," Johnston told BosNewsLife.
There was no immediate response from Egyptian officials.