Self made tents by refugees who were stuck at the Salloum Land Border in Egypt. Picture: Phill Magakoe

CAIRO: War, religious persecution and poverty are driving thousands of sub-Saharan Africans north through Egypt to seek better lives in Israel or Europe. Many – perhaps most – never make it further than the border towns of Egypt.

According to human rights groups such as the Italian-based Eritrean agency, Agenzia Habeshia, slavery, forced repatriation, rape, torture and death await many of these migrants and refugees. The latest report by Agenzia Habeshia provides details of some 300 Eritreans and Ethiopians who are being held in police stations in Aswan and in the military camp of Shelal in “inhuman and degrading conditions”.

The inter-governmental organisation International Organisation for Migrants (IOM) has listed the situation in Aswan as “very serious”.

Several human rights groups have reported that brutal beatings are a regular feature of detention; that political and religious refugees in particular are subjected to torture to make them sign “voluntary repatriation requests”.

More than 100 Christian Eritreans who claim religious persecution and fear for their lives in Eritrea, were last week reportedly beaten repeatedly until they signed.

Yet the migrants in official custody are, in most cases, better off than those held in unofficial camps run by traffickers who promise, for a fee, to convey the sub-Saharan Africans through Egypt. Slavery is still very much a reality but there is also evidence that the traffickers have developed a lucrative sideline in body parts.

According to a doctor in the border town of Arish, a number of “disembowelled bodies” have been discovered. Organs, especially kidneys, were missing.

The Egyptian authorities deny that this trafficking takes place, but a recent car crash in Sinai provided evidence. The doctor who was driving the car was killed and, inside the vehicle, officials discovered a small refrigerator containing several human organs.

Against this background, a number of human rights groups have launched an urgent appeal to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other international agencies to demand that Egypt takes action to halt the ill-treatment of migrants.

One case listed is of a young Sudanese from Darfur who could not pay the additional fee requested by a trafficker. His ribs were broken and his body was sprayed with sulphuric acid. Cases such as this form part of a lawsuit against named human traffickers filed in Cairo by two human rights groups.

Although the traffickers have been named, there has been no sign of official action. Under a law passed last year, human trafficking carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment, along with a fine that can range as high as $84 000. - Weekend Argus