Refugees from Africa arrive in Israel seeking
Refugees from Africa arrive in Israel seekingReuters

Against the backdrop of debate in Israel of what to do with the thousands of African refugees in Israel and those that continue to pour into the country, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, a larger problem is looming – before they reach the border with Israel these refugees face kidnapping by criminal gangs in Sinai and it seems the Egyptian police cannot get a grip on this lawless region.

The New York Times reports that despite the Egyptian government’s attempt to root out extremists in Sinai, criminal gangs continue to kidnap those headed for Israel seeking asylum, holding them ransom and in many cases torturing the refugees.

“This is one of the most serious human rights concerns in Egypt and it’s not being addressed,” Nicholas Piachaud, North Africa campaigner for Amnesty International, told the Times. “It’s a tragedy which has unfolded across many different countries and is playing out on an international scale but being ignored by the international community.”

According to the Forced Migration Review, cases of serious abuse and torture by smugglers, who are often paid a sum of around $2,000 to help the refugees get into Israel. There have been reports of rape, kidnapping and killing of those who are unable to come up with additional payments. The Review reported cases of refugees being taken by smugglers to within 50 meters of the border fence, and told to run and climb the fence but allege that instead of being given the chance to hop the fence, the Egyptian police began shooting the migrants.

The Review pointed to Israel as a symbol of hope for these refugees, who express relief at finally being physically secure, with many respondents saying they do not take the safe environment for granted.

Shahar Shoham, who works at Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, which provides medical treatment for refugees, said that an estimated 20 to 30 percent of migrants who have passed through the region since 2009 have been tortured.

African refugees began migrating towards Israel in 2006 in search of asylum and a better life. By the end of 2010, there were reportedly 33,273 African migrants in Israel.