About 250 Eritrean refugees and others are being treated like “slaves” by their trafficking kidnappers, a priest in Egypt says.
As many as 300 people are reportedly being held hostage in the Sinai Peninsula. The refugees had paid Bedouin traffickers to smuggle them into Israel but were instead taken hostage. The Egyptian government is investigating and has not confirmed the claims, Agence France Presse reports.
However, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has voiced concern about media reports that traffickers are demanding payments of $8,000 per person for their release. The captives are allegedly being held in containers and are being abused.
Fr. Mussie Zerai, president of the Habeshia Agency for Cooperation and Development (AHCS), told the Italian bishops' SIR news agency that he is in contact with the captives and their situation is “dramatic.”
“They were made slaves by their kidnappers, who keep them in chains, under threat of violence, and force them to call their parents and friends to ask for a ransom. Those who do not pay are branded so that their families are forced to pay,” he reported.
According to the priest, there are pregnant women and children among them who are forced to live in “appalling hygienic and sanitary conditions.”
He is in contact with the hostages and speaks with them whenever the hostages are allowed to call. He described the phone call as an instrument “to put pressure” on others to provide ransom.
“I believe we should not pay anything,” the priest told SIR. “What has been paid is already too much. To pay means to fuel this human trafficking,” he declared. “It is the state, the international community, that must intervene to free these people and ensure that they are adequately received and protected.”
Fr. Zerai’s organization was founded in 2006 to help support asylum seekers, refugees or people under humanitarian protection in Italy.
He recently addressed the Italian Senate, saying that the kidnapping situation is the consequence of a migration policy that does not distinguish between job seekers and those who are fleeing “war, dictatorship and persecution.”
“In Europe today, there is a widespread tendency to close the borders, with no regard for conventions and treaties intended to ensure protection and asylum,” he lamented.
“What is most striking is that we are only two hours away from Italy by plane and that in the same area there are thousands of tourists on holiday. But they are unaware of what is happening in that country. This is the sad reality,” Fr. Zerai told SIR.