The long arm of Eritrea
Eritrean human traffickers force their victims to donate organs, as Mirjam van Reisen discovered. The top of the Eritrean regime is heavily involved.
Marleen van Wesel
Thursday 30 March 2017
In 2015, a United Nations report listed the different methods of torture applied by the Eritrean regime. The drawings were made by a torture survivor.

"Extortion as part of human trafficking is becoming more and more extreme and even includes organ trade," says Eritrea expert Mirjam van Reisen. "We always assumed that they were two separate phenomena but it’s actually happening to refugees who get caught in this trap: they flee from country to country until there aren’t any more financial resources available to them. In the end, there’s nothing left but horrific self-mutilation."

Van Reisen is Professor of Computing for Society at Leiden Centre of Data Science (LCDS) and has written the book Human Trafficking and Trauma in the Digital Era, the Ongoing Tragedy of the Trade in Refugees from Eritrea.

Last year, just after she was appointed at Leiden, she told Mare about the intimidation and threats by the Eritrean regime. At the time, she was taken to court for defamation and slander. She was acquitted, but the other party has appealed. "The case was scheduled for early March", she says now. "But the other party dismissed their lawyer a week before the date so the case has been postponed again."

In the meantime, the threats keep coming. "They’re watching me. Just recently, at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, I heard that a whole lot of people had allegedly been poisoned. I was shocked to hear it – I’m well protected, but I can’t say the same about Eritrean refugees.

"In October, we held a meeting about the long arm of Eritrea and sent a report to the Lower Chamber. We changed the location at the last moment, but Eritreans present told me an informer had still managed to get in. The very same day, the six-year-old nephew of one the people at the meeting was thrown from a high wall in Asmara, the capital; he survived. We can’t prove anything, but it looked like a warning."

For her book, Van Reisen and fifteen other researchers interviewed two hundred people. "Partly by mobile phone, but we also went to refugee camps. There are many victims in Tel Aviv and Cairo, but there are refugees in Uganda, Libya, Ethiopia and Europe too. We even managed to speak to people in Eritrea as well, but not directly. As for me, I’m not permitted to enter the country. We also helped set up an organisation for which specially-trained journalists collect information about the major refugee routes.

Mind you, the organ trade is not the researchers’ only shocking discovery. "It was only after we had put together all the chapters of the book that we noticed the parallels between all the different regions we had investigated: the Eritrean embassy was always involved, there was always a connection between local and Eritrean leaders and they always used the same methods to force refugees onwards to get more money out of them."

It’s far more organised then anyone supposed. Van Reisen estimates that the overall trade is worth more than a billion dollars.

"Eritreans control the human trafficking racket in all the countries we investigated. For example, there’s Medhanie; for a while, we thought that Sudan had extradited him to Italy. But it turns out that a refugee, not Medhanie, had been extradited. Then there’s Angesom, an important link in the networks between Eritrea, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. We’ve even heard that he was the head of the Eritrean Ministry of Defence’s security service until 2007.

Van Reisen and her colleagues can name a total of five major players. "It’s not just the fact that Eritrea’s policy facilitates human trafficking. On the one hand, people are not allowed to leave country; on the other, they are forced to flee so huge amounts of money can be made from them. In addition, the highest levels of human trafficking are actually dominated by a number of Eritreans."

Van Reisen stresses that her research is an ethnographic study. "But it’s essential that a legal investigation is launched now; there are plenty of leads. Recently, Europol gave itself a pat on the back for arresting a number of players in the human trafficking racket, but as so many people are involved, it’s logical that some small fry will be caught.

"The whole point is that we need to find the people at the top; at the moment, efforts are concentrated on the lower ranks. In Cairo, doctors were arrested for trading organs, but according to our source, the top-brass military who were also involved got away. In Medhanie’s case, you might wonder why a refugee was arrested by accident. Is someone taking us for a ride?

Van Reisen thinks that the international community must take action. "And I don’t mean voluntarily. A United Nations’ investigation committee has already decided that crimes against humanity are being committed in Eritrea. The UN’s General Assembly should have already addressed the matter. Besides, we’ve come to the conclusion that those crimes are not limited to Eritrean territory. We’re calling for a new committee with a wider mandate that focuses primarily on the human trafficking racket.

But even if the trafficking racket is ever dealt with, there will still be countless people with traumas. "In the Sinai, some 25,000 to 30,000 people became victims of human smugglers. A quarter of them survived and, partly because of the interest awakened by the study, that specific situation was cleared up after 2014. The trade has shifted to a major route from Sudan to Libya and the Mediterranean. Now Europe has shut off the routes, the smugglers are concentrating even more on extortion. All together, hundreds of thousands of people have become victims of it.

The researchers’ are mainly concerned about the last group of victims from the Sinai. "It’s quite a small group – sixty people – who are currently living in Ethiopian camps. One boy we spoke to there was missing half his skull. They had thrown him head first against a wall again and again."

Van Reisen adds: "It’s staggering that people are just being left to rot in camps without any medical or mental help. They should be entitled to asylum in Europe – and not by crossing the Med in a tiny boat but with a humanitarian visa."

The unforeseen side-effect of innovation

"Thanks to mobile phones, a new kind of human trafficking and extortion is possible that didn’t exist before 2009", Van Reisen explains. Ransoms are paid by phone and a person’s contact list gives an idea of how high the demand can be. "It’s an unforeseen side-effect of innovation and the consequences are far-reaching."

By contrast, her inaugural lecture as Professor of Computing for Society discussed the opportunities those same digital innovations offer for developing countries. "Big data can help stimulate local economies and improve healthcare."

She named The Zambia SmartCare Card and the India SmartCard for Health as examples, projects that not only collect data – they also help fund healthcare for the poor.

"Such progress is possible, especially on ‘greenfields’ that don’t have a history of previous systems. Smartcards like these, and mobile phones, rely far less on computers in developing countries.

For our study on human trafficking, we also use mobile phones and a PhD student is trialling offering help with traumas using digital technology, which means that what’s part of the problem, it can be part of the solution too."