Roger writing the LAWmag
Jan 2013

Voyage of the Damned, Circa 2013

Want an out-of-body experience? Any lawyer or law student wishing to live, first-hand, the misery of medieval times need only book a flight to Eritrea and join thousands of refugees trying to escape their dilapidated African country.

This experience of lawlessness in 2013 is to die for.

The Homeland

The territory now known as Eritrea has been a colony of a succession of conquering states: Ethiopia, Arabic states, Britain and Italy.

In 1993, Eritrea became an independent state but that did nothing to ease the bleeding and the instability. The ongoing tension between Muslim countries and Israel on the Red Sea (on which Eritrea borders the southern end), antagonized internal problems since about half of the 6 million people are Roman Catholic and the other half, Muslims. Constant strife, a broken economy, mandatory military service and a virtually perpetual state of war against one neighborly state or the other, caught up to Eritrean and by the thousands they fled in a chaotic stream of refugees.

EritreaSome are lucky if you can call an asylum application in Uganda lucky. In early December 2012, almost the entire national soccer team of Eritrea, including the team doctor, attending a tournament in Uganda, secretly left their hotel and applied for asylum.

For the masses. all paths lead north. For the Muslim Eritrean refugees, this meant traveling through Sudan to reach Egypt. For the Roman Catholic Eritrean refugees, the journey has been fraught with danger as they had to reach Israel through Egypt. Desert navigators (aka human smugglers) are hired to get the refugees to Israel through Egypt.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't: the smell of money is not lost on human smugglers.

The smugglers, operating outside the reach of any law, and in breach of contract, sell many of the Eritrean refugees to Sinai Desert human traffickers.

The Finish Line

Tens of thousands of refugees have made it to but stopped in their tracks at massive barb-wired refugee camps literally at the border of Israel. Israel is, of course, deeply and understandably concerned about bogus Muslim refugees that might be hidden in the camps and are looking to enter Israel to pursue Jihad; a species of fake refugees Israelis call infiltrators. Eritrea, after all, has a record of harboring al Qaeda.

Israel is between a rock and a hard place. Even the legitimate Muslim refugees, their culture dictates that the essence of their refugee claim is not to seek the protection of Israel. They are merely seeking to live on land they believe does not belong to Israel in the first place.

Some refugees have gained refugee status but the isolated incidents of Eritrean crime and violence that they are involved in is unfairly generalized across the refugee fence. For example, shortly after the rape of an 83-year-old woman by an Eritrean refugee in Tel Aviv, the Israeli Interior Minister stepped up a plan to deport all 30,000 of the Eritrean refugees now on Israeli soil - back to Eritrea. With no other taker-country stepping forward, the refugees are naturally horrified at the prospect of a return to Eritrea since they are unlikely to be welcomed with open arms and may face official persecution as traitors or deserters.

Eritrean refugeesIt is a horrific stalemate especially for the many women and children that literally tent at the very edge of the barb-wire fence and beg for food and water which can be passed through small opening in the barbed-wire fence by Israeli soldiers. Stuck between two fences, they move like pigeons at a park for bread crumbs.

Eritreans that have made it through the Israeli refugee system now congregate in public and lead noisy demonstrations to expedite refugee claims of their fellow Eritreans. This does not sit well with their Israeli hosts.

A common refrain presumes that an air strike by the US Air Force is the panacea to all distressed refugees:

  • Where is America?
  • America Save Our Lives!

The Really Unlucky Ones

Israel is not the only country housing Eritrean refugees. Legitimate refugee camps are also set up in Egypt and in ... Sudan.

The runner-up of the annual world's most dangerous country award for 2012 as selected by Travel and Leisure magazine?

Sudan (Eritrea is 12th).

Eritreans can't really hop on a boat and just cross the Red Sea to Yemen since Eritrea and Yemen have a long and ongoing history of military disputes.

Eritrea's traditional enemy: Ethiopia.

That leaves the path north. And the journey north from Eritrea means crossing the lawless Sinai desert where, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and many other observers and news sources such as CNN and the BBC, one of the most despicable of all crimes is being perpetrated on these refugees.

They are being subjected to triage by Bedouin and other desert gangs for the purposes of human trafficking, ransom money or slave labor.

According to the BBC:

"Over the last few years an estimated 10,000, mainly Eritrean, refugees have been kidnapped by people traffickers, largely based in Egypt's Sinai region. Most disappear on the way to seek a better life in Israel. During what is often months of captivity the captives are beaten and tortured and their families asked to pay ransoms as high as $40,000 for their release. Those who don't pay are killed."1

Phimolene SemerePictures are taken of the particular hostage and sent to the family in Eritrea or other family members who have mede it into Israel. In one particularly tragic case, tracked by the BBC, a young Eritrean, Mr. Philemon Semere was nabbed by kidnappers and sent to a human trafficking compound - a clearinghouse somewhere in the Sinai. According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide as of November 26, 2012, Mr. Semere was:

"… held hostage by Bedouin traffickers for three months has been given five days to raise US$25,000 or face illegal organ harvesting."

Semere's kidnappers actually facilitated an interview between Semere and a BBC journalist (click here to listen to the interview). During the interview, an anonymous kidnapper interceded to specify particulars for the delivery of the ransom money or 'I must kill Philemon here".

Mr. Semere has not been heard from since the end of November 2012.

Reports like these substantiate the horrific suspicion of large human trafficking compounds, "storage" bases on the Sinai which operate with impunity from Egyptian law enforcement officials.

These stories are everywhere in the news and include reports of abductions in downtown Cairo. One can barely imagine the plight facing young women and children.

According to a Sept. 5, 2012 report by HRW:

"Credible groups in Cairo familiar with their situation said that over the past five months they have confirmed at least 53 cases in which Eritreans, including 19 children, had been held and abused by traffickers in Sinai. They said the kidnappers demanded US$33,000 to take each person to the border with Israel."

The United Nations is as the United Nations is, offering a bureaucratic response: the appointment of an official investigator with a hoidy-toidy title: a rapporteur.

The official United States policy is economic sanctions … on Eritrea! In one of his very few public pronouncements on Eritrea, President Barrack Obama:

"We’re partnering with groups that help women and children escape from the grip of their (human trafficking) abusers."

Groups like the Egyptian private one-man operation of New Generation Foundation, based in Arish, North Sinai, Egypt, or the America Team for Displaced Eritreans or even Amnesty International.

Ground Zero for the most desperate of Eritrea refugees is Egypt which is in the midst of internal chaos of its own (Arab Spring). There is little energy or will to address the needs of poor, illegal Roman Catholic refugees on their way to Israel over Egyptian territory. Imposing human rights law on desert tribes in the Siena has baffled even well-intentioned Egyptian governments for centuries.

As the Egyptian blame the Israelis for the mistreatment of Eritrean refugees, so too do the Israelis and their political friends blame Egypt by highlighting the lawlessness of the far larger Egyptian slice of the Sinai Desert.

Voyage of the Damned

Meanwhile the Eritreans must feel like they are on the landlocked version of the MS St. Louis; the 1939 voyage of the damned. The St. Louis was a passenger ship flying the red Nazi flag, and full of German Jewish refugees that was spurned by country after country (including the USA and Canada) during the Second World War. Out of options , the St. Louis was eventually forced to return to Europe where at least a quarter of the passengers died in Nazi concentration camps.

Lawyers love to pontificate but that does not help the legitimately homeless Eritrean refugee. In spite of a strong assortment of refugee-friendly states in the world - USA, Canada, the EU, Australia - these refugees seem caught in the middle with barbed wire on one side and human kidnappers on the other.

And those are the ones that made it across the Sinai.

To call a day in the life of an Eritrean anywhere on the Sinai desert the equivalent of medieval times might be giving that area of the world an undeserving tribute.

Such horrific lawlessness even in 2013 reminds us all of the constant vigilance needed to expand the rule of law as carefully yet as quickly as we can.

As always, the international law question is: how long do we stand by in the name of a state's territorial sovereignty when atrocities are ongoing?

Committee meetings, protests and cheques into the empty holes of off-shore charities are fine but at the risk of being labeled a redneck, were there an international strike force, swat team that could go in, eliminate the cancer and get out, the sign-up sheet would beckon to many.

Somewhere, in the depth of the mind of some foreign affairs expert somewhere on the planet, must reside the spark of an idea to resolve this crisis. As to the government of Canada - click here to see our letters and reply to the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs.


Posted in Human Rights, Immigration Law

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  • Voyage of the Damned, Circa 2013