Migrants as profitable commodities

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There has been no worse time like the present for migrants around the world. Migrants are subject to violent xenophobic attacks, inhuman detention, deportation,theft of human organs, etc. everywhere they live.News Reports from Egypt, Sudan and Yemen frequently show that individuals caught up in the flow of mixed migration from the region are increasingly becoming victims of harrowing and violent crimes after they leave their country of origin.Migrants on the move in the region have always faced abuse at the hands of robbers, unscrupulous smugglers and certain government officials. New evidence indicates that, more than ever, they are viewed as just profitable commodities with high potential value, extracted primarily through extortion; and extortion facilitated, critically, by modern communication technologies.
Stories and allegations of kidnapping, torture, trafficking, theft of human organs and murder are surfacing with alarming frequency. While reports of this nature from the Sinai area of Egypt began to gain media coverage in 2010 and 2011, similar phenomena are becoming evident in eastern Sudan and Yemen.
Detailed, terrible accounts of migrant and refugee mistreatment in the Sinai have been circulating for many months through different media outlets including the mainstream ones. The refugees and migrants who fall victim to detention and kidnapping are mostly Eritrean, although some Somalis, Ethiopians, and Sudanese are found in their ranks. They are mostly on their way to Israel. In 2010, the Israeli government reported that an estimated 11,763 people entered the country illegally through the Egypt-Israeli border.
According to different news reports and personal accounts of the victims, specifically, Bedouin tribes have reportedly kidnapped, enslaved and tortured migrants and refugees who can’t or won’t pay extortion money, and even some that do. Women and girls in particular can face brutal sexual violence and sexual enslavement. Today, there are hundreds who continue to be held by human traffickers in compounds and caverns in the lawless and unrestricted Sinai region bordering Israel. The age of most of those held range from 11 years old to their late twenties.
According to various reports and a widely publicized CNN documentary released in November 2011, there is compelling information that their captors may also be stealing organs. Activists claim organs are taken from refugees while they’re still alive; corneas, livers and kidneys are among the most sought-after, fetching tens of thousands of dollars apiece, on the growing and lucrative black market in human organs. Personal accounts of victims asserted that those from whom the parts are taken are said to be left to die after the operations.
The traffickers want their captives to communicate with their relatives therefore allow them to use their phones. As a result, activist organizations globally  have unprecedented telephone contact with some of those incarcerated, who give precise details of their location, their numbers in captivity, the crimes committed against them and even the names and descriptions of their captors. According to activists, the brazen indifference of the traffickers seems to be justified because, despite the level of incriminating evidence available, the Egyptian police appear unable to take action in the sensitive zone due to lack of will or capacity. The Israelis, in spite of their apparent enthusiasm to break up trafficking gangs, have no jurisdiction in these parts of the Sinai.
In early February 2011, a report released on the BBC World featured cases of kidnapping increasingly occurring in Eastern Sudan, where Eritrean refugees are being abducted from the UNHCR camps in Shagarab, and where asylum seekers are being intercepted and taken before they arrive. Eritreans working as farmers in local communities have also been taken. The BBC report is one of numerous reports identifying the risks facing those escaping the Eritrean regime and others who are reportedly kidnapped from inside Eritrea itself. According to the victims, the Rashaidas who are the Bedouin ethnic group of Eritrea appear to be the main perpetrators.
They allegedly snatch their victims and forcibly take them into Egypt to sell or hand over to others for trafficking and extortion in the Sinai. UNHCR officials interviewed for the BBC program said the practice had been going on for some time and was of grave concern. They disclosed that they knew of at least 20 Eritreans kidnapped from the camps in January 2012 alone.
In recent years, the primary risks facing those crossing the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden to Yemen, were the rough seas and dangerous smugglers, but recently the dangers are far more pernicious and brutal. According to the latest report of the UNHCR, at least 103,000 people from Ethiopia and Somalia are known to have arrived in Yemen in 2011 alone, around 80% of whom were from Ethiopia. Landing and disembarking on the beaches of the over 2500 km of Yemen’s coast, they are the latest group falling prey to smugglers and traffickers waiting to receive them.
Since the beginning of 2011, as Yemen became distracted and embroiled in its own version of the ‘Arab Spring,’ a steady stream of news and witness reports from refugees and migrants indicated that there is an alarming pattern of abuse facing new arrivals. The trend appears to be rising fast with higher numbers of rape, kidnapping, torture and extortion being reported each month by migrants interviewed by UNHCR, IOM (International Organization of Migrants) and the Danish Refugee Council in Yemen. According to the victims, those that try to escape their captors risk being shot or further punished. IOM reported that on the 16th of February three Ethiopians were shot as they tried to escape their tormentors. IOM also reported that migrants using their clinics in Yemen increasingly have wounds and injuries that are the result of torture.
International migrants learned long ago that to travel with any valuables is ill-advised. Several victims testified that what few valuables they may have carried (hidden amounts of cash, mobile phones, clothing, shoes) were normally stolen by the smugglers they were using, or by bandits, corrupt police and border guards. With the flow of people in mixed migration increasing in the Horn of Africa region, those intent on taking advantage of migrants, have become more inventive and bold. The proliferation of mobile phone networks and money transfer systems, both formal and informal, that assists migrants in communicating and funding their journeys, have more recently become a curse where they are used to contact relatives of the migrants to extort ransoms.
Instead of robbing migrants and their families of a few hundred dollars, kidnappers are now demanding vast ransoms. This is a significant change in this harrowing and inhuman business. According to victims, in the Sinai the payments are commonly in the tens of thousands of dollars and it is not certain that the victims will be released after payments have been made. Some are enslaved and forced to work in marijuana fields or other forms of agricultural labor.
According to the IOM report, in Yemen, the ransoms appear to be lower at present. Relatives in the countries of origin, or relatives in the Diaspora, struggle desperately to raise the demanded sums and torture is often used to encourage relatives at the other end of the phone to pay up promptly. It appears that payments are being made which will doubtless perpetuate the practice and, step-by-step, raise the amount demanded.
Despite a recent case in early February, where Yemeni police liberated kidnapped migrants in a raid on a smugglers’ camp in Haradh, the gangs generally operate unhindered by law enforcement. There are indications that there may be cases where local authorities also collude with the criminals who operate with impunity.
The analysis of the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) is that with respect to risks facing migrants and refugees, important and dangerous changes are taking place in Yemen. Similar changes are taking place in Sudan and have been evident for some time in the Sinai. Migrants were previously, and continue to be, seen as targets for opportunistic robbery and abuse, but modern communication systems and cash transfer mechanisms mean that criminal gangs now see them as valuable commodities.
In the cases mentioned here, the shift from human smuggling to human trafficking is clear, as gangs operate using force combined with the intention to exploit. Additionally, the source of their profits comes from explicit exploitation and not from transportation payments etc.
The much-vaunted traditional hospitality for travelers in the region appears to be in very short supply as migrants now face uncertain and dangerous welcomes. For the government, what is expected, at least as a first step, is to highlight the extreme nature of these human rights abuses and transgressions of normative international laws that are designed to protect refugees, asylum seekers, those who are trafficked and economic migrants – wherever they are.