FILE - In this Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012 file photo, African refugees sit on the ground behind a border fence after they attempted to cross illegally from Egypt into Israel as Israeli soldiers stand guard near the border with Egypt, in southern Israel. On Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said thousands of migrant Africans who sneaked into the Jewish state will be sent home. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File)

Since February 2011, Meron Estefanos has acted as an interpreter, negotiator and kind of lifeline for Eritrean refugees held hostage in the Sinai desert.

Meron’s story recently appeared on This American Life, the Chicago based radio program. As the show documented in a one-hour episode on August 9 (you can still download and listen to the podcast), Meron randomly began receiving calls over two years ago from Eritrean hostages and their kidnappers in the Sinai.

The hostages are refugees, kidnapped by Bedouin gang networks when crossing the border from Eritrea to Sudan or from refugee camps inside Sudan. The hostages are transported to underground cells in Egypt, tortured and forced to call Eritreans abroad for ransom money; the requested sum typically ranges from $20,000 – $40,000.

Meron estimates at least 500 people, the majority Eritreans, are currently being held in underground prisons in the Sinai. The number could be much larger – Meron has pieced together the estimate from the information she receives personally from hostages as well as other Eritreans abroad who receive the ransom calls. Meron spoke with Africa is a Country via Skype about the impact of the This American Life program, her ongoing work to free the hostages, and her recent trip to Israel where some of the freed hostages now live in difficult conditions as unrecognized refugees.

A bit of background first about Meron: she emigrated from Eritrea to Sweden when she was 14, shortly before Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia. Her father was already living in Sweden; Meron and her brother arrived as Swedish citizens. Meron became a youth activist, joining a movement of Eritrean student exiles named the Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights. The group promoted non-violent resistance to Eritrea’s increasingly repressive Isaias Afwerki-led regime, and Meron ran a radio program about Eritrean issues that traveled over short-wave into Eritrea. Since then, she has worked as a journalist in Sweden and as a continued human rights activist. Currently she is a member of Freedom Fridays, a loose collective which encourages Eritreans to stay home from work on Fridays to protest the Afwerki regime.

How her number originally became circulated among the hostages is unclear, but likely is because she’s a public figure in the Eritrean exile community. But despite increased media attention over the past year worldwide about the Eritrean hostage crisis, Egypt has not intervened to find and arrest the gangs in the Sinai. Egypt alternates between conveniently claiming there is no problem and that they do not have the capacity to find and remove the gangs; the latter despite their ongoing military crackdowns in the Sinai after militants targeted and killed Egyptian soldiers stationed there. The African Union has attempted to raise the issue, but without success; talks have been stalled with Egypt after the recent military coup.

What has the reception been like once the This American Life episode aired? Do you think it increased the visibility of the issue among an American audience?

Meron Estefanos: It seems like Americans just woke up the issue in general. I was shocked when the Wall Street Journal covered it on the front page last year. The New York Times also covered it last year, and CNN has made two documentaries on the situation in the Sinai. So I was surprised by how big an impact the radio had – I’m receiving 30 – 40 emails a day and people are donating small donations from $5 to $500 [to support my work]. Since This American Life aired the episode, I’ve raised $3,000 in additional funds.

Did anything surprise you about the way they covered your story? What about the survivors interviewed in the episode – did anything surprise them?

They excluded a lot – we’ve been working on this for over six months. But I have so much material – whether it’s 1 hour or 10 hours, it’s not enough. Their original plan was to only do a 30-minute story, but then there was so much material that they decided to go with one hour.

One survivor has heard it, from the first group who contacted me. He understands English, and he was happy with it. It took him back to those times when he was desperate; he said he felt like it was happening right now.

Shegerab Refugee Camp in Sudan

Given Egypt’s currently political turmoil, the chance of getting Egypt to take action in the Sinai region where the hostage camps are seems even more unlikely. Meanwhile, other nations claim it’s not their problem. What do you think can be done?

Every country says it’s not our problem. But you have to understand: 2,000 Eritrean Americans have been affected by the Sinai tragedies, and have paid ransom money. If they have paid $30,000 each, that means it’s American money going to these criminals – we don’t even know if they’re [also] terrorists. In Sweden, 500 Eritreams have paid ransom, and it’s the same in Norway. I believe countries should follow that up.

We are responsible for every human being – it shouldn’t matter what color or nationality they are. Americans were kidnapped in the Sinai recently and they were out within 24 hours. To me, it’s all about race. If those people were white it wouldn’t last this long – it would be over in a week.

What does it mean for countries to be signatory of UN [human rights] conventions if you can’t even protect other people?

The This American Life episode mentions Eritreans are kidnapped from refugee camps in Sudan. Can you tell us more about how this process normally occurs? Do you think there are contacts for the kidnappers inside the refugee camps?

3,000 to 5,000 people flee every month from Eritrea because we have the most repressive regime in the world. They flee every month to Sudan or Ethiopia – at the border of Sudan people start taking advantage of them.

As soon as you reach Sudan, the first people you see are soldiers guarding the border. The Eritreans ask for asylum – but instead of taking them to the refugee camp, some of the soldiers sell them to the [gang networks of] Bedouins.

At the refugee camp, the soldiers who are supposed to secure the camp are corrupted. People are kidnapped in daylight while everyone is watching; they wait on Sundays outside the church.

I just returned from Israel on Monday where I spoke to a young Eritrean man, 28 years old. He had suffered for three months; they hung his hands from the ceiling on a hook like a slaughtered beast. When they finally took him down four days later, his limbs have gone dead. He will never feel his fingers again.

The money I’m collecting now is to get him an artificial hand – but for him to have the necessary operations will cost $200,000. There is a deposit of $50,000 just to get a visa from Israel to the US where they can do the operation.

Once some of the Eritreans do make it to Israel, they face tremendous challenges trying to re-build their life with no support from the Israeli government. How do they cope with these challenges?

Every time I go to Israel I get angry, it takes me three weeks to calm down. These are people who have nothing – you think they would be received with open arms. Instead; you can live but not work, and you can’t access medical treatment. If you’re lucky, you know people, and you have a place to stay – if not, you sleep in the park. There are some small NGOs helping but it’s not enough – if you need an operation, they can’t help you. Most of them are suffering mentally and there are no mental health services.

In Israel, being given the status of refugee is a commodity – the Eritreans beg to be called refugees, instead they are called infiltrators.

So even though these are people who fled their country, were kidnapped, tortured, and released somewhere in the desert between Egypt and Israel, Israel refuses to recognize them as refugees? What does that mean for their chance of being re-settled in another country?

Yes exactly – Israel refuses to recognize them. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, the main UN agency facilitating refugee re-settlement) is in Israel, but UNHCR cannot do anything – if Israel does not accept these people as refugees, then UNHCR cannot process them and re-settle them somewhere else.

Israel also passed a new law in July 2012, known as the “anti-infiltration law” – it says that anyone who enters Israel illegally [aka including through the Sinai] can be held for a minimum of three years in jail. And for those who are in imprisoned in Israel, every day someone comes and tells you you’ll be in prison the rest of your life – or you can sign this “voluntary form” to return to your country. Fourteen Eritreans just “voluntary returned” – people think, if I’m going to be in prison, it’s better I’m in prison with my own people.

Israel’s Sinai Border Fence

What happens to these Eritreans when they’re returned to Eritrea?

Usually you get arrested as soon as you arrive. Israel is the only country refusing to accept Eritreans as political asylum seekers – in Sweden, 95 percent of Eritreans get asylum within 2 weeks of arrival.

Eritreans living outside their country have become increasingly aware of and affected by this issue. Yet the episode mentioned some members of the expat community refuse to believe this is happening. How has the community’s views changed on this issue in the past year as more media has reported on it?

I don’t know any Eritrean that hasn’t been affected – my own cousin was kidnapped and I paid the ransom – everyone knows someone – it could be your neighbor. But at the same time in the West there are many regime supporters that are afraid to acknowledge this issue – the moment they start acknowledging it people will discuss the root cause , which is why are so many young people fleeing Eritrea?

As a journalist, how has becoming an activist affected the way you see journalism and its effectiveness as a force for positive change in society?

To me as a journalist, it’s our responsibility to cover issues no one covers – now it’s the other way around. Unless someone else covers it, no one wants it. Some issues will go on for a long time because they don’t think it would sell.

In the beginning you talk about your frustration in convincing Swedish colleagues that it was a story worth covering, one that would appeal to Swedish audiences. Can you say more about the challenges of covering diaspora / immigrant communities, especially Africans, in Western Europe?

I found many journalists who were interested, but many of their bosses would block them. The media unfairness is unbelievable – if you remember [the news story] when 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed in Sinai, I was shocked to hear that no journalists managed to ask the question, ‘while you are in sinai, are you going to free the African hostages?’

Norway is the only country that was covering the Sinai hostage issues almost two years ago – it was on the front page, TV, radio, everything.

The criminal gangs seem to have contacts around the world that facilitate the exchange of money for hostages. Has there been progress in tracking them in countries like Sweden?

The Bedouins have contacts everywhere. I was extorted to pay ransom for a hostage I used to interview, and they wanted me to pay the ransom in Sweden – I called the police, and they wiretapped the phones – the [Bedouin affiliates in Sweden] got arrested and convicted in June – but one person just got probation and the second person received just one month.

Now we are appealing.

Meron has set up a PayPal account to collect donations to help the families of Eritrean hostages in Sinai. To donate, go to PayPal.com and transfer to the account soscare@yahoo.com, or email Meron for more information at: meron.estefanos@gmail.com
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