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Eritrean regime trades its own nationals in a billion-dollar trafficking business

The human trafficking of Eritrean refugees is a booming business, where money is made with smuggling people, but also using violence, hostage situations and even torture. Modern communication methods like money transfer via mobile phones play a vital role in this, conclude professor Mirjam van Reisen (Leiden University) and professor Munyaradzi Mawere (Great Zimbabwe University) after over five years of fieldwork. On 10 March they publish their findings in the book ‘Human trafficking and trauma in the digital era. The ongoing tragedy of trade in refugees from Eritrea.’

Human trafficking a thriving ‘industry’

The human trafficking of Eritrean refugees is a booming business with an estimated value of USD 1 billion. As Europe employs ever greater migration control mechanisms and governments within the region turn a blind eye to this illicit business, Eritrean refugees are caught in a brutal cycle of exploitation. As they are forced to crisscross through the region without a place of safety, they are looted, threatened, intimidated, violated and held for ransom.

Eritrean government involved

These illicit practices are examined in depth in a new research book, titled ‘Human trafficking and trauma in the digital era. The ongoing tragedy of trade in refugees from Eritrea’ and edited by Mirjam Van Reisen and Munyaradzi Mawere. Based on extensive research, the book locates the origin of these practices within Eritrea itself. A deliberate policy of slavery, deliberate impoverishment and human rights abuses drive thousands of Eritreans out of the country every month. As legal emigration is almost impossible, refugees are forced to entrust themselves into the hands of government officials and smugglers who sell cross-border mobility: a dangerous deal. The book reveals how individuals within Eritrea trade their fellow nationals in a complex regional system involving government officials, military personnel and criminal gangs – a system sustained by the tacit approval and involvement of the Eritrean government.

The role of ICT

The use of information communication technologies (ICT) is identified as key to the new modus operandi of this criminal business: mobile phones are used to extort money and collect the ransom. Furthermore, ICT is found to facilitate widespread trauma beyond the primary victims of Sinai trafficking. As the narratives of tragedies are shared through telecommunication and digital networks, they are integrated into a collective consciousness of desperation, vulnerability and shame.

Extreme forms of violence

As the trafficking business expands, the authors further identify the development of extreme forms of violence. Eritrean refugees may fall victim to sexual abuse and torture by traffickers for the extortion of ransom, to beheading and sex enslavement by terrorists in Libya and to organ harvesting by criminal gangs in Egypt.

Appeal to European Union

Throughout the book, the authors identify a clear need for accountability and justice. They call on the European Union to stop the deterrence of Eritrean refugees and on regional governments to control collaborating officials and to actively persecute trafficking gangs. Most importantly, new policies must tackle the problem where it emerges: in Eritrea.

Human trafficking and trauma in the digital era

Human trafficking and trauma in the digital era. The ongoing tragedy of trade in refugees from Eritrea (ISBN 9789956764877) is published by Langaa RPCIG en and is available through the webshop of African Books Collective (Oxford, Verenigd Koninkrijk).