Sinai Desert: A Brutal Prison and Grave for Thousands of Ethiopian, Somali, and Eritrean Refugees

By Betre Yacob


“We were 16 people. Once we first arrived inside the house, we were asked for money. One guy said straight away that he won’t be able to pay. They [the captors] wanted to make him an example; so they undressed him in front of us and started beating and poking him with big wooden sticks. They then inserted a stick into his… He was bleeding all over. After more beatings, they poured petrol on him and set him on fire. After he died, they left his body in the room with us until it became rotten and worms started crawling. They forced all of us in turns to hold him.”

This story may seem to be taken from a Hollywood horror movie as it is so horrific. But, unfortunately, it is a true story. It is what an Eritrean survivor, held captive in Sinai for eight months after being kidnapped from Eastern Sudan, said recently while describing his ordeal to Amnesty International.

Kidnapped mostly from Eastern Sudan, many Ethiopian, Somali, and Eritrean refugees are held captive in Sinai Desert by Bedouin criminal gangs [people-traffickers] with the objective to obtain tens of thousands of dollars in ransom money in exchange for their release. During their captivity, they are subjected to several acts of extreme violence and brutality, including rape of men and women and other forms of sexual violence. Some of those who are unable to pay a ransom are simply killed like what we have seen here above in the story; some others are murdered to demonstrate to the families of other captives the seriousness of the threats. Many die as a result of routine torture.

Lamlam, 17, is another survivor. She experienced extremely brutal abuses. She says that everything was a nightmare more than one can imagine. “The kidnappers would make me lie on my back and then they would get me to ring my family to ask them to pay the ransom they wanted,” she says. “As soon as one of my parents answered the phone, the men would melt flaming plastic over my back and inner thighs and I would scream and scream in pain. This, they hoped, would put extra pressure on my mother and father to find the money.”

The New York Times estimates that 7,000 Ethiopian, Somali, and Eritrean refugees have been abused this way over the last four years, and that 4,000 of them have died. The victims include men, women, children, and even accompanying infants. The majorities of them are also estimated to be aged between 15—25. However, some NGOs and international organizations place the number of the victims far higher. According to different human rights organizations, this new form of brutal ‘business’ has been escalating, as the impunity guaranteed to the criminals continues. Reports indicate that there have been no prosecutions of criminals responsible for the abuses so far.

Different testimonies and reports shows that the methods of tortures that are often used to increase the urgency of captives’ pleas to relatives to pay the money to secure their release are extremely brutal and often lead to a wish to die. These include electrocution; pouring gasoline over the body and setting it on fire; burning with cigarette butts or heated rubber and metal objects; water-drowning; amputation of limbs; beatings with objects such as metal chains, sticks and whips; suspension from the ceiling and suspension in contorted positions for prolonged periods of time; hanging by hair; and forcing to stand for extended periods of time in desert heat. According to testimonies, captives often face a combination of these all methods.

In its latest report Amnesty International said that victims have also reported having fingernails pulled out. The group further said: “Many have also reportedly been deprived of food, water, medical treatment and showers for prolonged periods. Many former captives also reported being chained throughout the duration of their captivity, often to other captives.” A research conducted by Tilburg University and Europe External Policy Advisors shows that women are tortured while pregnant – and their pregnancies are often the result of the rapes they suffer. If they find themselves pregnant, women hostages are told that the ransom will double once their baby is born. Many hostages succumb to the torture. This torture can be functional as it takes place to extort the ransom from relatives, but it can also be gratuitous.

Different reports indicate that ransoms are often paid despite the amounts demanded by the criminals are very excessive—often from USD 30,000 —50,000. Relatives sell their possessions such as houses and lands, to get the money demanded and free the hostages suffering from extreme acts of brutality; many borrow while some go from church to church begging people to contribute. Some hostages are, however, killed even after their ransom has been paid after many up and down.

Kidnapping in Eastern Sudan,

Many Ethiopian, Somali, and Eritrean, who left their repressive and impoverished countries in search of a better security and life, get kidnapped and become hostage every single day. The significant majority of the victims are, however, Eritrean. Different researches indicate Eritrean refugees are often kidnapped on their way to refuge camps in East Sudan, where asylum-seekers undergo a refugee status determination procedure and are issued with documentation. There are, however, significant reports of kidnapping from inside refuge camps, particularly from Shagarab. There are also some incidents from Mai Aini camp in Ethiopia.

The kidnappings are mainly carried out by Sudanese criminal networks made up of local tribesmen with the support of different individuals— often Eritreans. There are also allegations of the involvement of members of the Sudanese security forces and corrupted Eritrean military officials working around Eritrea-Sudan border. According to testimonies, once the Eritreans refugees are kidnapped, they are soon sold to the major criminal gangs known as Rashaida in East Sudan. They are then forcibly transported to Sinai in harrowing journeys that last for several weeks, and sold to Bedouin criminal networks that held them hostage and torture them to extract ransom payments from their families. Reports indicate that during the journey to Sinai refugees are subjected to violence, including beatings and rape, and cruel treatment, including deprivation of food and water.


2013 UNHCR regional operations profile – East and Horn of Africa

Working environment

As in previous years, in 2012 the East and Horn of Africa region continued to draw the attention of the world for the scope and magnitude of the humanitarian challenges facing it. There are more than 7.3 million people of concern to UNHCR in the East and Horn, with assessed needs for 2013 amounting to more than USD 1 billion. The biggest operation in the region remained the response to the Somali emergency, followed closely by the Sudanese refugee situation.

Throughout 2012 the East and the Horn saw armed conflict in Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The incursion into Somalia by Kenyan forces to bolster the activities of the already present African Union forces (AMISOM) was a significant event during the year.

The security situation in Dadaab, Kenya which hosts more than half a million Somali refugees, took a serious turn for the worse at the beginning of the year. Humanitarian workers were taken hostage and reportedly taken across the border to Somalia. Roadside bombs and improvised explosive devices frequently targeted the Kenyan personnel responsible for camp security, resulting in a number of deaths and injuries among both police officers and refugees.

The creation of South Sudan last year has not ended the conflict between the two Sudans, with clashes largely driven by issues left unresolved in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the two countries. Among the contentious issues were the sharing of resources and the presence of proxy militias on both sides of the border. The conflict drove refugees into Ethiopia and South Sudan. Particularly in South Sudan, refugees moved into areas which lacked basic infrastructure or host communities and were largely inaccessible during the rainy season, raising huge challenges in providing protection and humanitarian assistance. Many refugees had experienced crop failure in Sudan before seeking refuge. Isolated, refugees had to depend mostly on themselves as well as the assistance they received from the humanitarian community. The confluence of all these factors has resulted in many refugee children and other vulnerable groups being malnourished, and many have died.

Humanitarian access in Sudan, particularly in the contested regions of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, has become increasingly limited. A tripartite agreement to allow humanitarian assistance into these regions was signed in August, but it remains to be seen how this will alleviate the situation. In Darfur, clashes between rebels and the Sudanese Government continue to cause more displacement. Clashes between government forces and a new rebel group known as M23 in the eastern DRC have forced more than 41,000 refugees to seek protection in Uganda. Many of them have been moved away from the transit centre at Nyakabande to settlements, including the Rwamwanja site, which is being rehabilitated. Some have chosen to monitor the situation back home from the transit centre, while a small number have returned home.

Strategy in 2013

UNHCR is maintaining and strengthening its emergency response capability throughout the region to ensure that arriving refugees receive robust protection and assistance. The strategy requires enhanced coordination with other core humanitarian actors such as WFP, UNICEF, donors and NGOs, a well maintained regional stockpile, and careful management of standing arrangements with partners for the rapid deployment of assistance and personnel.

Among UNHCR’s top priorities is ensuring adequate assistance in life-saving sectors such as water, shelter, health, sanitation and core relief items. Unfortunately, needs in many other important areas, such as livelihoods, support for host communities, alternative energy and education, have been impossible to fill or insufficiently addressed due to funding constraints.

In 2013, logistics and supply management will be of critical importance to the programmes in South Sudan and Ethiopia due to the remoteness of the areas hosting refugees, the absence of basic infrastructure and ongoing insecurity. UNHCR has already had to invest heavily in infrastructure, such as road construction and maintenance, in South Sudan.

While the number of new arrivals from Sudan has dropped because of the rains, it is expected that more will come after the rainy season ends at the close of the year. Air and ground attacks in Sudan’s Southern Kordofan State in September drove a new influx of about 100 refugees a day into South Sudan, where UNHCR and its partners will ensure enough food is available.

A smaller number of arrivals is expected in western Ethiopia, where UNHCR will continue to transfer refugees away from transit sites and improve facilities and services in new settlements.

Some 170,000 Somali refugees have sought protection and assistance in the Dollo Ado region of Ethiopia, overwhelming the local population of 130,000 people. The refugees are currently hosted in five camps, with a sixth to be opened to accommodate those currently in transit centres and decongest some of the existing camps. It is likely that more Somalis will arrive, especially as military action inside Somalia continues. The aim is to have robust livelihood interventions to reduce refugees’ dependence on humanitarian aid. Innovative projects in sectors such as livelihoods, agriculture and alternative energy will also be implemented.

Uganda continues to receive Congolese refugees as a result of the ongoing conflict in the eastern DRC. While regional initiatives to end the conflict have not borne fruit, the number of arrivals has gone down and a few refugees from the transit sites have returned home. For those remaining, UNHCR will continue to improve key life-sustaining sectors such as shelter, health, water and sanitation.

Floods in 2012 have greatly affected most of the camps hosting refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) in Chad. UNHCR will repair and reinforce structures affected by the rains. A new, small influx of CAR refugees in July and August was assisted within the existing operation. UNHCR will continue to monitor conditions in the CAR and prepare for a possible larger influx.


As in previous years, many of the political, economic and social issues fuelling conflicts in the East and Horn region remained unresolved, resulting in continued displacement. The Sudan situation, which is still unfolding, has drawn heavily on UNHCR’s emergency preparedness and response capacity.

Security for refugees as well as logistical problems in South Sudan and Ethiopia continue to be of great concern. Secure access to populations of concern is another factor that has affected the humanitarian community. In Kenya, a new dimension in providing humanitarian safety and security emerged in early 2012 with the kidnapping of humanitarian workers in Dadaab, some of whom are still in captivity, and the use of improvised explosive devices. These dangers curtailed protection and assistance activities. UNHCR is now working with the Kenyan authorities under the aegis of the Security Partnership Project to restore the humanitarian character of the camps.

In Sudan, the lack of access to contested areas in Darfur has impaired UNHCR’s capacity to provide protection and assistance. Likewise, in South Kordofan, it has been difficult if not impossible to ascertain the situation of an estimated 300,000 IDPs in the region.

In Unity State in South Sudan, where some 64,000 people have sought refuge, there are challenges in maintaining the humanitarian character of Yida camp. Efforts to convince refugees to move away from the border will continue in 2013.

The lack of access in Somalia, where fighting continued to cause untold suffering, is expected to remain a serious constraint in 2013.

In Uganda and Ethiopia, the shortage of funding for assistance to refugee-hosting communities and the rise in the number of new arrivals have undermined local community support and threatened the protection environment. As in previous years, refugees in urban centres in Uganda and Kenya may not receive meaningful assistance due to funding constraints.


The operations in Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda are described in separate chapters.

People of concern to UNHCR in Eritrea are mainly Somali, Sudanese and Ethiopian asylum-seekers and refugees. The Government of Eritrea recognizes Somali and Sudanese refugees on a prima facie basis. Somali and Sudanese refugees are camp-based and reside in Emkulu and Elit camps. Ethiopian refugees, recognized under UNHCR’s mandate, reside mainly in the Eritrean capital, Asmara.

Ongoing international and regional efforts to bring stability to Somalia improved substantially with the inauguration of a president and prime minister in in 2012, as well as the fall of the port town of Kismayo, the last Al Shabaab stronghold. There is a growing sense that the situation in Somalia could gradually evolve into something more peaceful. Against this backdrop, there have been calls to re-examine the basic planning parameters for the Somali refugee operations, with a view to conditions improving in future and thereby allowing for safe and dignified voluntary returns. UNHCR stands ready to facilitate such a process.

The Regional Support Hub

As in previous years, the Regional Support Hub (RSH) will provide operational support and technical advice to countries in the East and Horn of Africa as well as to operations in the Central Africa and the Great Lakes region. A total of 23 specialists and many deployees from NGO partners provide support through the RSH supplementing sectoral gaps and capacity constraints in operations in the region. The RSH was instrumental in early 2012 in helping to devise an Operations Continuity Plan, following security incidences in Dadaab, Kenya. The framework helped to keep the humanitarian work functioning in the face of serious security threats.

The Regional Liaison Office to the African Union and the UN Economic Commission for Africa

This Regional Liaison Office is attached to the African Union and plays a significant role in ensuring that continent-wide issues that affect populations of concern to UNHCR are taken into account in the deliberations and resolutions of the African Union. Progress has been made with regard to ensuring that African governments ratify the AU Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa and that its various provisions are transposed into national law. These efforts will continue in 2013.

Financial information

UNHCR operations in the subregion have seen a significant increase in their financial requirements over the last five years, mainly due to a rise in the number of emergency refugee situations, including the Somali influx and the surge in the number of Sudanese crossing into Ethiopia and South Sudan. UNHCR’s budgetary requirements to protect and assist people of concern in the East and Horn of Africa region in 2013 will amounted to about USD 1.13 billion.


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