Wednesday

21st Apr 2021

EU grapples with smugglers as people fleeing conflict face torture

  • Thousands fleeing conflict are risking their lives to enter the EU (Photo: Paul Keller)

In a large concrete house somewhere near the Egyptian coastal city of Arish, 25-year old Daniel Eyosab had given up on life.

Eyosab, along with a dozen other people, was tortured on daily basis for nearly three months in 2012.

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“When some people started to die, I had given up hope of making it out alive,” he told this website on Tuesday (22 July).

His Egyptian Bedouin captures gave him a mobile to call his parents so they could hear his screams. His release cost them $30,000, paid in cash instalments over the weeks.

“It is a house, a normal house, but in the middle of the desert,” he said. He was kept blindfolded for most of the time.

Other forms of torture include plastic bags being burned and melted onto backs or simply breaking peoples' bones.

“I have different complications on my back, around my genitals,” he says.

Eyosab’s ordeal started in Eritrea after he had abandoned his army assigned post.

He took off to Sudan to reach Khartoum where he then wanted to go to Angola in the hopes of finding a job in his profession as an accountant.

But the border guards in Sudan, who told him he would be escorted to a refugee camp, had instead sold him off to the local Rashaida tribesmen.

They then took him, along with four other people, to the Sinai and sold him again to the Egyptians near the Israeli border. After his parents paid $5,000, the smugglers sold him to another gang, who then demanded $25,000.

He was then dumped just inside the Israeli border where soldiers carried him away to a hospital. After a week in treatment, he spent the next nine months in prison before he was officially recognised as a victim of torture and kidnapping.

Others are not so lucky.

“It is still happening. This is the sad part of the story," he said.

Closed borders and money

After Israel erected a 240km fence along its border in 2013, the number of migrants attempting to enter dropped almost immediately, forcing many back into Sinai and into the hands of predators.

“You cannot cross anymore and that is contrary to international conventions. I mean, if you have a refugee who arrives at the border, you have to let him in. They just closed the border,” said Laurent Muschel, who heads up the European Commission’s Task Force for the Mediterranean.

Earlier this year, Israel amended its laws so that asylum seekers can be kept in a prison for up to one year without trial, followed by indefinite detention in an internment camp in the Negev desert.

The EU is grappling with similar issues as it tries to formulate a coherent response to the tens of thousands who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean in overcrowded boats.

Many rely on smugglers, some paying up to $20,000 to sail across the water in the hopes of being picked up by an Italian ship.

The smugglers are attracted to Libya where a government in wrangles and all-around instability means they can operate with impunity.

Muschel said that on a given day, some 2,000 people can be found on the beaches near Tripoli, waiting their turn to embark.

“Everything is organised in open. They are benefitting from the chaos in Libya,” he said.

People are offered packaged deals while others with fewer means are crowded in the hulls, sometimes with deadly consequences.

“There is a price for crossing the Mediterranean Sea, there is price for going from Sudan to Libya or from Niger to Libya and it can also vary by the type of nationality,” noted Muschel.

The EU, for its part, is setting up a regional conference in Khartoum in October on how to put an end to smugglers.

Humanitarian visas and legal access into the EU

Suggestions to set up humanitarian visas, initially floated by the European Commission after the Lampedusa tragedy last year where hundreds drowned off the Italian coast, have largely been dropped as some member states move to shore up border security instead.

The idea was to set up a legal way so that people fleeing war would not have to turn to smugglers.

But on Tuesday, Italy’s minister of interior Angelino Alfano told MEPs in Brussels that the EU’s border agency Frontex needs to be reinforced and absorb some of the Italian-led search and rescue operations – Mare Nostrum - in the Mediterranean.

He also mentioned making better use of Eurosur, the European Border Surveillance System, resettling more Syrian refugees, getting the common European asylum system on track, and working with third countries to fight smugglers.

“We need to act in Africa to find solutions,” he said.

The EU is now looking at getting member states to resettle more Syrian refugees, of which there are about 3 million - and almost half of those are children - in camps in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan.

Around 13 member states have committed to resettle 26,000 Syrians.

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