Friday, October 31, 2014

Eritrean resistance steps up pressure on President Isaias Afewerki | Global development | theguardian.com

Two opposition members tell the Guardian how Eritreans are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the repressive regime


MDG : Eritrea 's President Isaias Afwerki
Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afewerki, runs a one-party state and brooks no opposition.Photograph: James Akena/Reuters
Eritrea is the most closed and repressive country in Africa, routinely denying access to the international media. No foreign journalists are based in the country and there is no independent local press. However, in a rare and courageous breach of the wall of silence, members of the internal opposition spoke to the Guardian and Radio France International last weekend.
Since independence from Ethiopia in 1993 Eritrea has been ruled by as a one-party state by President Isaias Afewerki, who brooks no opposition.
Two members of the Eritrean resistance, speaking via a secure connection, described conditions inside the country. “Essentials like water, electricity or petrol have disappeared,” they said. Food is so expensive that even middle-class families find it difficult to find enough to eat.
They said tension in the capital, Asmara, is high, with reports of trucks filled with Ethiopian “mercenaries” – from the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM), known locally as Demhit, which Eritrea supports – ringing the city. The last round of compulsory military service failed, with only around 50 of the expected 400 conscripts reporting for duty. “We think it is highly likely that Demhit will carry out a door to door sweep to round up recruits,” said Sami (not his real name).
The TPDM, drawn from the ethnic group that now rules Ethiopia, has been given sanctuary, arms and training by Afewerki. Eritrea and Ethiopia have a long-standing border dispute, which has resulted in tens of thousands of troops confronting one another in the bleak, mountainous border region. Supporting Demhit is Eritrea’s means of maintaining pressure on the Ethiopian government.
UN report published this month estimated that some 20,000 TPDM fighters are based in Eritrea, bolstering the president’s security. The report described them as having “a dual function as an Ethiopian armed opposition group and a protector of the Afewerki regime. Its fighters, who are from the same ethnic group as Afewerki, are seen to be personally loyal to him, unlike the defence forces whose loyalties have been questioned by the president in recent years.”
Since a failed army mutiny against the Eritrean regime in January 2013, the TPDM has become central to Afewerki’s survival. This reliance on foreign forces is deeply resented by the Eritrean population. “They demanded the identity documents of a friend of mine and I,” Sami said. “When this happened earlier this year there was a riot. People really hate them.”
Despite the intense security, the resistance is finding new ways of getting its message across. The group, which began over two years ago,started by helping organise phone calls from the diaspora abroad to Eritreans back home.
The resistance told the Guardian how it evaded tight security to put up posters protesting against conscription. “We lay on the streets, pretending to be homeless people,” said Sami. “It was freezing cold, but the security officials walked right over us. When they had gone we could put up our posters.
A smuggled video of “Freedom Friday”, now on YouTube, shows people in Asmara crowding round to read the posters.
Sami described the growing contempt for the regime. “In coffee bars you hear people talking – even high-ranking officials complain openly about the regime.” The government led the struggle for Eritrean independence, and for years relied on its legitimacy to demand the population’s support. “The movement was treated like a religion then, like the Bible or the Koran, and followed unquestioningly,” said Sami’s colleague, Temasgen. “Slowly, this has fallen away – and now it is gone.”
Both men know the risk they are taking in speaking to the international media. “I am willing to pay with my life,” Sami declared. “In history I would rather be remembered as someone who made the ultimate sacrifice rather than just sit and complain to my neighbours.”
They appealed for international pressure to be maintained on Afewerki: “Listen to our agony. We thank you for giving shelter to Eritrean refugees abroad, but if you are a decision-maker we beg you to keep up the pressure on the Eritrean regime.”
The opposition’s growing confidence and the fragility of the regime comes at a time when discussions are taking place about relaxing the sanctions against the Eritrean government. There are suggestions that the European Union is thinking about a new approach towards Asmara, and offering aid worth €200m (£158m) as a carrot for improved human rights.
Previous attempts by the former EU development commissioner Louis Michel to negotiate the release of the Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak in return for aid resulted in empty promises. Neither Dawit nor other political prisoners were freed. Instead, repression intensified, resulting in an exodus of refugees, who find their way across the Sahara and the Mediterranean to arrive at Calais in their hundreds.



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Over 104,000 Eritreans flees into Ethiopia up to date over 200 in a daily basis


More than 200 risk their lives every day, UN says, crossing a heavily-fortified border between arch enemy states.

Last updated: 29 Oct 2014 10:49


Thousands of Eritrean refugees are currently living in refugee camps in Ethiopia [AP]
Over 200 Eritrean refugees are crossing the heavily fortified and dangerous border into neighbouring Ethiopia daily, the United Nations said in a report noting a "spike" in those fleeing.

Tens of thousands of people have fled the Horn of Africa country, escaping open-ended conscription and the iron-grip rule of President Issaias Afewerki, with many continuing northwards to brave the often harrowing journey towards Europe.

"The number of daily refugee arrivals spiked since the first week of September," the October report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) read.

"At present, more than 200 Eritreans cross the Ethiopian border each day."

Over 3,500 Eritreans have fled into northern Ethiopia in the past two months, taking the total to over 104,000 Eritrean refugees in the country.

No reason was given for the rise in numbers, but reports by rights groups say people are struggling under Asmara's repressive government.

Thousands have also fled into Sudan, although the UN in July reported that Khartoum has forced some to return.

Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia in 1991, and the countries went to war in 1998-2000. They remain bitter enemies, with their troops still eyeing each other along the fortified frontier.

The two are at odds over the flashpoint town of Badme, awarded to Eritrea by a UN-backed boundary commission but still controlled by Ethiopia. Eritrea, with a coastline on the Red Sea, has a population of about five million  people.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Eritrea: Asmara residents will retaliate against roundups by Ethiopian mercenaries deployed by the regime- Asmarino







(Asmara 24/10/2014) Arbi Harnet (Freedom Friday) activists in Asmara warn that any action from the regime involving mercenaries from Tigray Liberation Movement TPDM, an armed Ethiopian opposition group, known locally as Demhit, fully supported by the regime, will trigger violence in the Capital.



In response to the silent but stanch refusal to report for military training as part of the ‘Popular Army’ or national service, mounted by residents of the city, it is anticipated that the regime would deploy Demhit mercenaries to round people up and force them to go to their respective training centres.



‘People are looking out for each other and supporting each other, unlike never before, particularly in inner city neighbourhoods like Abashawl, where young people go round ready to act against anyone who abuses them or a fellow resident. Last week a police officer was beaten severely. Bringing in Demhit would just be the worst thing that they can do now’ said an Activist reached in the early hours of this morning.



A UN report leaked three days ago estimates that there currently are tens of thousands of TPDM fighters, being hosted in Eritrea,  and are being singled out for by the regime in Eritrea for extra support to build “far more fighting capacity” than other Ethiopian groups. The UN also received information that the weapons in the logistics department of the Eritrean Defence Force are being systematically transferred to TPDM.



However according to Asmara residents the humiliation of being harassed by Ethiopian mercenaries could prove to be the final trigger to a public that have suffered silently for far too long. 


---End—
Arbi Harnet (Freedom Friday) is an Erit

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Leaked UN Report Says Eritrea Arms and Trains Ginbot 7 Members | Strategic Thinking on East Africa




Security Council resolution 1907 (2009) specifically prohibited Eritrea from “harbouring, financing, facilitating, supporting, organizing, training, or inciting individuals or groups to perpetrate acts of violence or terrorist acts against other States or their citizens in the region”.
Ginbot Sebat
78. Ginbot Sebat is a banned opposition group formed in 2009 by Amhara political elites committed to regime change in Ethiopia through armed struggle.[i] The Monitoring Group has previously documented Eritrea’s support to Ginbot Sebat (see S/2011/433 and S/2012/545). In 2012, the Group received corroborating testimonials that three Ginbot Sebat fighters had been trained in the western military border zone under the direction of Colonel Fitsum. At the time, the Monitoring Group was unable to reach a conclusion as to the former fighters’ organizational affiliation or to verify their accounts of military training, but it did conclude that they had direct contact with Colonel Fitsum [Yishak].Eritrean laissez-passer found on a Ginbot Sebat fighter 3
80. The first fighter was captured in January 2014, while on a reconnaissance mission inside Ethiopia. During a meeting with the Monitoring Group on 3 February 2014, while he was in detention in Ethiopia, he said that he had been a supporter of Ginbot Sebat and that he had been recruited into their military wing while working as a day labourer in neighbouring Sudan. Eritrean soldiers picked him up and took him to Eritrea, where he was subsequently sent to a training camp in Harena (see annex 7.1 for a map with the location of Harena). There, he joined 28 others and they were taught how to operate machine guns, bombs, and hand grenades. He identified a captain in EDF(Eritrea Defence Force) by the name of Dawitt as the person in charge of running the training and day-to-day operations for Ginbot Sebat. In December 2013, the detainee said that Dawitt had instructed him and two other Ginbot Sebat members to travel to Ethiopia to identify strategic locations and routes for the future movement of weapons. Areas identified were Awasa in the Great Rift Valley, Gewane in the Afar region, and Gondar in the Amhara region of Ethiopia (see annex 7.2 for map). Ethiopian security forces arrested the three fighters while they were travelling through the forest in Gondar on 20 January 2014.
81. When he and his colleagues were captured inside Ethiopia, they were allegedly carrying weapons that were made available to the Monitoring Group for inspection. These included hand grenades, AK-47s, and ammunition (see annex 7.3 for the weapons recovered from the fighters). The Monitoring Group examined the weapons and found that the serial numbers of the grenade pins were in similar sequence to grenade pins that the Monitoring Group had documented in 2011. The grenade pins that were found in 2011 were recovered on ONLF fighters trained and armed in Eritrea. They followed a sequence of “79”, which is the same serial number that was marked on the grenade pins recovered on the Ginbot Sebat fighters during the course of the current mandate.[ii] The consistency in sequencing strongly suggests a single original supplying source for the two sets of grenades, which the Monitoring Group established to be Eritrea in 2011 (see annex 7.4 for photographs of the pins inspected by the Monitoring Group in 2011 and 2014).
82. The two other former Ginbot Sebat fighters were part of another five-person fighter cell recruited in Johannesburg, South Africa, where they were working at the time. The Monitoring Group interviewed them individually on 16 and 17 January 2014. The first identified himself as a founding member of the armed wing of Ginbot Sebat, but he did not have any documentation to show his alleged rank or status within the group. He told the Monitoring Group that in October 2012, while living in South Africa, he had helped to establish the “Popular Front”, which he said was intended for drafting community members in the diaspora into the armed wing of Ginbot Sebat.
83. The second former Ginbot Sebat member told the Monitoring Group that he had been recruited by the Popular Front. His recruiters informed him that he would be sent to Eritrea for military training. The Embassy of Eritrea in Pretoria issued the new recruit with an Eritrean laissez-passer on 9 October 2012, which he used three days later to travel from Johannesburg to Asmara via Cairo on 19 October 2012 (see annex 7.5 for the travel document and electronic ticket provided to the fighter).Copy of an Eritrean-issued visa to Yussuf Mohamed Hussein
84. When the two newly recruited fighters arrived in Asmara, Ginbot Sebat Secretary-General Andargachew Tsige reportedly met them.[iii] They spent six months awaiting their training, which began in April 2013. The two men told the Monitoring Group that they had joined a group of 30 to 60 Ginbot Sebat fighters at the Harena military camp, where they claimed they had stayed until they fled to Ethiopia in December 2013. They reported seeing other armed Ethiopian opposition groups in Harena, including TPDM, the Amhara People’s Democratic Movement (APDM), and the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF).[iv] The training lasted for a month and it included guerilla warfare tactics and firearms training with hand guns, automatic weapons, explosives and anti-tank weapons. The fighters claim they then spent seven months in Harena waiting to be assigned on mission.
85. The Monitoring Group was unable to independently verify the claims of the former Ginbot Sebat fighters. But based on their corroborating testimonials and the inspection of documents and weapons recovered from them, it appears that Eritrea continues to provide some support to Ginbot Sebat. The Monitoring Group cannot, however, assess the extent of this support as compared with Asmara’s support of Ginbot Sebat in the past.
86. The Monitoring Group shared its findings with the Permanent Representative of Eritrea to the United Nations, Ambassador Tesfay, during a videoconference on 28 July 2014 and requested that Eritrea provide an explanation about the matching grenade pin serial numbers and the travel documents recovered from one of the Ginbot Sebat fighters. Ambassador Tesfay said that either Ethiopia or those captured by Ethiopia must have provided the group with the hand grenade pins and that Eritrea was also in possession of serial numbers of Ethiopian weapons. His answer was echoed in the official response of the Government, dated 13 August 2014 (see annex 4), in which it stated: “Travel documents that may have been easily forged by forces who have an interest in framing Eritrea; serial numbers of bullets or weapons that may have exchanged hands between Eritrea and Ethiopia in the course of their multiple wars in the past years … cannot be taken as iron-clad proofs of Eritrea’s misconduct that entail punitive action by the United Nations Security Council.” Moreover, the Government of Eritrea did not provide evidence to support Ambassador Tesfay’s claim that it was in possession of serial numbers of Ethiopian weapons.


The following is the text of the UN Monitoring Group on Eritrea concerning Eritrea’s support of the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement–an armed Ethiopian opposition group founded by dissidents from the TPLF.
Tigray People’s Democratic Movement
70. The Monitoring Group received multiple corroborating testimonies that Eritrea continues to support the Tigray People’s Democratic Movement (TPDM), in violation of paragraph 15 (b) of resolution 1907 (2009).
71. TPDM, also known by its Tigrinya acronym “Demhit”, is an armed Ethiopian opposition group founded in 2001 by dissidents from Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) of Ethiopia. TPDM says its aim is “to establish a popular democratic government of Ethiopia where the rights of nation and nationality are respected”.[i]
72. The Monitoring Group has previously reported on Eritrea’s support for TPDM (S/2012/545). In 2012, the Group found that TPDM was being trained in Harena, a Red Sea island off the eastern coast of Eritrea, as well as in smaller military training outposts close to the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Monitoring Group obtained information that TPDM continues to be trained in Harena (see annex 7.1 for a map with the location of Harena).[ii]
73. TPDM regularly issues publicly available videos in which it affirms its commitment to taking up arms against the Government of Ethiopia.[iii] It is, however, difficult to verify information about military confrontations between TPDM and the Ethiopian army. A member of an NGO in contact with TPDM leaders told the Monitoring Group that he was informed of clashes in Benishangul, near the Amhara region of Ethiopia, in November of 2013.[iv] A former Eritrean general with active contacts inside the Eritrean military also told the Monitoring Group about an armed clash between the Ethiopian military and TPDM in the fall of 2013.[v] Moreover, the Monitoring Group received information that TPDM had participated in an armed crackdown on internal dissent inside Eritrea at the end of 2013.[vi]
74. Independent sources with relationships in the Eritrean military and with the Movement’s own leadership have told the Monitoring Group that TPDM had become the most important Ethiopian opposition group inside Eritrea and it had a dual function as an Ethiopian armed opposition group and a protector of the Afwerki regime.[vii] Its fighters, who are from the same ethnic group as President Afwerki, are seen to be personally loyal to him, unlike the defence forces whose loyalties have been questioned by the President in recent years.[viii] This is seen to be particularly relevant after the failed attempted “Forto” army mutiny confronting the Eritrean regime on 21 January 2013 (see S/2013/440).
75. The Monitoring Group estimates that there currently are tens of thousands of TPDM fighters.[ix] Two former senior Eritrean officials and a former Eritrean general, all of whom are in contact with officials in the military and Government, have told the Monitoring Group that Eritrea’s support to TPDM appears to be more
sustained and organized than its support for other Ethiopian armed groups.[x] A source with direct contacts within the leaderships of a number of armed groups described the TPDM as appearing to have “far more fighting capacity” than other Ethiopian groups.[xi]
76. The Monitoring Group also received information from two sources with active contacts inside EDF that weapons in the logistics department of EDF are being systematically transferred to TPDM.[xii] A reliable former senior Eritrean military source told the Group that he was informed by his former colleagues that the following weapons had been transferred from EDF to the TPDM in autumn 2013, most likely during the month of September: sniper rifles, Walther PP semi-automatic pistols, Doshkas, Tokarev T pistols, and binoculars.[xiii] The Monitoring Group has not been able to substantiate the information provided nor confirm whether the weapons given to TPDM came from old EDF stock or whether TPDM is being armed with weapons procured for the army after the adoption of resolution1907 (2009).
77. In Cairo on 15 February 2014, the Monitoring Group raised the question of the source of the weapons used to arm TPDM with the Senior Political Adviser to the President of Eritrea, Mr. Gebreab. Mr. Gebreab told the Group that the Government of Eritrea does not support TPDM, which he said was interested in fighting the Government of Ethiopia. He further stated that in his view, there were no arms going to TPDM. The Monitoring Group requested additional information on TPDM in two letters dated 7 March 2014 ( see annex 1) and 1 August 2014 (see annex 3). During a videoconference on 28 July 2014, Ambassador Tesfay, did not answer the Monitoring Group’s questions about TPDM, and he said that Ethiopian armed groups were a creation of Ethiopia’s internal dynamics. He stressed that Eritrea was not engaged in any internal destabilization in Ethiopia.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Criminals demand millions for Eritreans - SWI swissinfo.ch

This young Eritrean needs skin grafts as a result of torture suffered in the Sinai. (Moises Saman / Magnum Photos)
This young Eritrean needs skin grafts as a result of torture suffered in the Sinai.
(Moises Saman / Magnum Photos)

Tens of thousands of Eritreans are held and tortured for ransom in the Sinai. The tentacles of the organised kidnapping groups extend to Europe, including Switzerland. But authorities are hardly aware of the issue.

swissinfo.ch spoke to victims of this cruel trade in Ethiopia and Switzerland.
“I heard the screams on the other side of the wall, but I didn’t know how many prisoners were there. I just knew that there were ten of us in our cell. Our feet were chained to the wall. There was also a small child who cried non-stop.”
Rahwa* is 21 years old. She is fragile and slightly built, her eyes ringed with the exhaustion of a person who cannot sleep well. She fled Eritrea for Sudan in August 2012, with the goal of reaching Shagarab, a large refugee camp just a few kilometres over the border. An estimated 1,600 Eritreans cross the border every month to seek refuge in Shagarab, though most see Sudan as a transit country.
Along with a group of other refugees, Rahwa was kidnapped and schlepped on a gruelling journey to the Sinai, a strategically located peninsula that belongs to Egypt and abuts Israel. The Sinai, which has become increasingly lawless since 2009, is a haven for transnational crime, including weapon, drug, and people trafficking.
Rahwa, wearing a white headscarf and sitting in a corner, stares motionlessly at the coffee pot. Finally, she fills five cups – one for each of the former Sinai kidnapping victims living in this rough cement hut on the outskirts of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
Her friends encourage her to continue speaking. “It’s very difficult to talk about what happened to me…they beat and raped me, and tortured me with electric shocks. They stuck burning plastic to my skin. Do you see the scars?”
While she was screaming in pain, her torturer telephoned her relatives in Eritrea and Europe and demanded a cash ransom of $25,000 (CHF23,700). Rahwa was at the mercy of her abductors in the Sinai for six months.
Her friend Gebre* was imprisoned there for one and a half years, his family unable to raise the demanded ransom of $40,000. “They thought I was dead,” he said, “so they tossed me onto the street like garbage, on top of a pile of corpses of other migrants.”
 (swissinfo.ch)
(swissinfo.ch)
Thugs earn millions
The grim phenomenon of people trafficking in the Sinai has been repeatedly condemned by the international community, initially by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), then by the United Nations, and finally by the European Parliament in aresolution adopted in March 2014.
Even so, up to now almost nothing has been done to attack this evil at the source, said Méron Estefanos, co-author of two major studies on the topic. An Eritrean journalist and activist who holds a Swedish passport, Estefanos has collected thousands of eyewitness accounts over the past few years and submitted them to the European authorities. She has become a person of trust for Eritrean migrants, who pass her number on to desperate countrymen.
According to Estefanos’ estimates, at least 32,000 people were abducted and forcibly brought to the Sinai between 2009 and 2013. The kidnappers have extorted ransom of about $622 million. Approximately 40 criminal groups are involved. The devastating effects of these torture camps are felt as far away as Europe, where the families of abducted Eritreans are pressured to pay ransoms to middlemen.
Families in Eritrea are unable to get hold of such large sums of money. And their relatives abroad are often refugees who are themselves struggling to keep their heads above water. So the families turn to associations, churches, neighbours and distant relatives, often plunging themselves into debt to save their loved ones.
Furthermore, while it is difficult to prove, there is suspicion about whether a side industry of loan sharking has developed parallel to that of abductions.
“My mother collected $35,000 dollars to purchase my freedom,” said 21-year-old Asmaron*. “Now she has nothing, but she still has to pay back all the money she borrowed from those who helped her. I have no idea how she’s going to do that ...”
Sold like chattel 
Initially, Eritrean refugees attempting to cross the Sinai to reach the Israeli border were kidnapped on the peninsula itself. The Sinai route had increased in popularity as a result of the bilateral immigration agreement between Italy and Libya in 2011-2012, which had made passage across the Mediterranean almost impossible.
But with the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011 and the decision of the Netanyahu government in Israel to build a 230-kilometer barrier at the Sinai border in 2012, the situation changed again. The main route of migrants reverted back to Libya and across the Mediterranean.
Now that Eritreans no longer go to the Sinai, they are kidnapped by the nomadic Rashaida Bedouins in Sudan or even in Eritrea itself and then sold to Sinai Bedouins. The European Parliament has accused the Sudanese and Egyptian security forces of complicity in this people trafficking. 
 (swissinfo.ch)
(swissinfo.ch)
“The trip to the Sinai took about 20 days,” said Rahwa. “There wasn’t enough water and there was nothing to eat. We passed through several checkpoints, where the soldiers spoke Arabic. I didn’t understand what they were saying, but no one stopped us.”
In recent months the trafficking of refugees has shifted course yet again, according to Estefanos, the journalist and activist. The kidnapping operations in the Sinai have been temporarily suspended due to the increased presence of the Egyptian army fighting against Sinai-based jihadists. Today, Eritrean refugees are held against their will in the Sudanese desert or sold as slaves in Libya, where they are forced to transport weapons or toil in the mines. 
Freed, but no freedom
Night falls over Addis Ababa, and rain beats down steadily on the tin roof of the cement hut. It is cold, and Rahwa and her friends are wearing all of the tattered clothes they own in an attempt to stay warm. Tonight they have a roof over their heads. But in a few short days they will once again join the large numbers of homeless living on the streets of the Ethiopian capital. The refugee who had paid their rent up until now has left for Sudan. 
A temporary shelter for Sinai victims in Ethiopia (swissinfo.ch)
A temporary shelter for Sinai victims in Ethiopia
(swissinfo.ch)
It is no coincidence that swissinfo.ch met the Eritrean victims in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia has a history of receiving displaced people from neighbouring countries, including Eritrea.
The nightmare is not over for Eritrean victims once the ransom has been paid and they are freed in the Sinai. Because the Egyptian authorities consider them foreigners in an illegal situation, they are stopped and detained.
“We spent four months in a cell in Egypt. Nobody asked me anything, nobody told me why,” said Asmaron. “Then one day the Egyptian authorities told me I could choose to be deported to Eritrea or Ethiopia. So I came to Ethiopia.”
A number of Sinai victims in Egypt and Sudan have appealed to Switzerland for asylum, to no avail.
“Asylum or an entry visa [for clarifying an asylum application] are not awarded as compensation for harm suffered, but to protect against a current or future threat,” said the Federal Office for Migration, a position that has been upheld in a Federal Administrative Court judgement. 
Extortion in Switzerland
Back in Switzerland, we meet Habtom*, who described the situation from the perspective of the families who are contacted by the blackmailers. “My brother was crying out in pain, begging me to help him.” That was in 2009, when the ransom money demanded by abductors was still limited to a few thousand dollars.
“I gave $2,800 to a person in Zurich, who sent it to Egypt via Western Union. I don’t know whether the money ever actually arrived.” Habtom waited, but there was no word about his brother for many months. Then one day he received a photograph by e-mail. “It was of the corpses of my cousins ​​... and my brother.”
Three years later, history repeated itself when Habtom’s 15-year-old brother was kidnapped in Sudan. “If you do not pay up, we will bring him to the Sinai,” threatened the kidnappers. Unemployed, Habtom nevertheless managed to raise the money.
“Everyone gave me what they could, sometimes only ten francs. I myself have done the same for others. That’s how my brother was released. He was then able to make his way to Switzerland by sea.”
Habtom’s story is not an isolated one in Switzerland. The Tracing Service of the Red Cross has received at least 40 requests for assistance from Eritrean Sinai victims since 2010, as indicated in a report made available to the Swiss daily newspaper Le Temps in March 2014.
Jeanne Rüsch, deputy head of the tracing service, explained how the service works. “It’s up to the person affected to lodge a complaint. All we are able to do is offer support. But the procedure is complicated. The claim first has to be submitted to the municipal police, who often have never heard of this phenomenon. From there it goes to the cantonal police, then to the federal police and finally to Interpol, because the offense was committed abroad.”
Almost no complaints
Because the ransom demands in Europe have increased significantly, Europol, the European Union’s law enforcement agency that handles criminal intelligence, has urged EU member states to join forces to fight people trafficking and raise public awareness of the phenomenon. 
For years, Switzerland has been a preferred European destination for Eritrean refugees, along with Sweden, Norway, Germany and the Netherlands. These countries are therefore prime targets for this type of extortion, which has generated millions in profits for criminal groups.
Even so, the victims of blackmail rarely submit complaints to the authorities.
“Eritreans live in constant fear, and it is hard for them to trust people,” explained Estefanos. “This is not difficult to understand when one considers that they have grown up in a paranoid dictatorship.”
Habtom never went to the Swiss authorities. “Why would I have done that? There was no time – otherwise my brother would have been killed.”
This reportage was carried out as part of eqda.ch, a journalistic exchange project between Switzerland and developing countries.
In order to bring about change, a few NGOs have reported certain extortion cases to the Federal Office of Police (Fedpol). But Fedpol told swissinfo.ch that it had “no knowledge of extortion cases as described by Europol” and suggested contacting the cantonal police.
Among the authorities contacted in some of the largest Swiss cantons, only the Bernese cantonal police confirmed receiving a complaint of extortion in connection with a case of human trafficking in the Sinai.
In Switzerland and the EU, the blackmailing of migrants remains virtually unpunished. After numerous failed attempts, Estefanos finally managed to alert the Swedish police to this issue, thanks to the intervention of a journalist.
Her complaint led to the arrest of two middlemen. A drop in the bucket perhaps, but one that might well begin to breach the murky world of human trafficking.