CAIRO — Security officers in Egypt and Sudan have at times colluded with traffickers who kidnap and torture Eritrean refugees in order to extort money from the refugees’ relatives, according to a reportreleased on Tuesday by Human Rights Watch.
In the last three years, the group said, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Eritreans who fled government repression in their country have been kidnapped at refugee camps in Sudan and sold to traffickers in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Many of the refugees were tortured while being forced to call relatives overseas to plead for money — as much as $50,000 — in the hope of securing their release. Some died from the torture.
In some cases, Human Rights Watch said, traffickers worked with Sudanese and Egyptian police officers, as well as Egyptian soldiers, who “hand victims over traffickers in police stations, turn a blind eye at checkpoints and return escaped trafficking victims to traffickers.”
Human rights groups have been publicly documenting the trafficking for several years, but the report on Tuesday added new details about official complicity in the trade. Despite the fact that the abuses — which included amputations, rapes and electrocutions — have been widely reported, “Egyptian authorities have not investigated trafficking and torture in Sinai,” Human Rights Watch said.
As of December, Egyptian authorities had prosecuted only one person, the accomplice of a trafficker, according to Gerry Simpson, the author of the report. And while Sudanese authorities have prosecuted 18 people, including four police officers, the relatively low number of cases was “feeding the impunity,” Mr. Simpson said.
A spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry, Badr Abdelatty, acknowledged the trafficking but asserted that there had been a “drastic decrease” since early July, when the Egyptian military deposed President Mohamed Morsi. Since then, he said, Egypt has gained better control of its borders while stepping up its military operations in the Sinai Peninsula to rout jihadis who have been attacking security targets.
“We are dealing with this matter with a lot of importance,” Mr. Abdelatty said.
But the findings by Human Rights Watch suggested that the abuses were continuing. Mr. Simpson said that while reports of trafficking episodes slowed in September and October, the group received reports of dozens of new victims since then.
Victims and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch described the harrowing journeys of the refugees: passed off from one trafficking group to another, held for weeks or months and subjected to repeated bouts of brutality, including scalding with melted plastic or boiling water.
A 17-year-old trafficker who spoke to the group in 2012 said that he had bought roughly 100 refugees for about $10,000 each from someone in nearby village, selling them for two or three times that amount. “I torture them so their relatives pay me to let them go,” he said, adding that in a year, he made $200,000.
“The last group was four Eritreans, and I tortured them all,” the trafficker said.
“Sometimes I tortured them while they were on the phone, so the relatives could hear them scream,” he added. “I beat their legs and feet, and sometimes their stomachs and chest, with a wooden stick. I hang them upside down, sometimes for an hour.”
He added, “Three of them died because I beat them too hard.”
Meron Estafanos, an Eritrean journalist and rights activist based in Stockholm who is in frequent contact with many of the victims and their families, said she had recently been in touch with a 19-year-old man who has been held captive in Sinai for about seven weeks, by traffickers who were demanding a $40,000 ransom.
Some of the other refugees held with him had been able to find the money and were released, but the boy’s mother could not pay, Ms. Estafanos said.
“The torture is endless,” she said. “He has given up hope.”