Photo: Vice-Chancellor of the Great Zimbabwe University, Prof. Rungano Zvobgo (facing camera) and Prof. Mirjam van Reisen (left) at the book launch. Credit: Klara Smits | IDN-INPS - Photo: 2017

Digital Era Aids Human Trafficking of Eritrean Refugees

By Klara Smits

LEIDEN, The Netherlands (IDN) – The digital era brings opportunities for international cooperation and development, such as e-health and large-scale data sharing, but it also brings dangers. One of the prime examples of such dangers is the billion-dollar human trafficking business of Eritrean refugees by their own regime.

Modern technologies such as mobile money and mobile phones play a crucial role in this trade, according to a new book titled ‘Human Trafficking in the Digital Era: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Trade in Refugees from Eritrea’, edited by Prof. Mirjam van Reisen and Prof. Munyaradzi Mawere.

Many Eritrean refugees are trapped in a cycle of exploitation. They are kidnapped, threatened, held for ransom and tortured. Based on years of research by 15 authors, the new book examines the practices of this relatively new modus operandi of human trafficking, also called ‘Sinai trafficking’ referring to the location where it first developed.

Besides describing the spread of Sinai trafficking and its effects in terms of trauma, the book also examines the question of accountability: the origin of Sinai trafficking is traced back to Eritrea itself, where policies of human rights violations and deliberate impoverishment force thousands of Eritreans to flee.

As there are no legal ways to do so, the book shows how this has led to a complex system of human trade and enslavement, which involves trafficking gangs, Eritrean government officials and military authorities. Such a network is not possible in the strictly-controlled country without the endorsement of the Eritrean regime itself.

The widespread practice of human trafficking for ransom with severe torture practices has collectively traumatised Eritreans – both victims and bystanders – who have been able to access the stories and images of tragedy through social networks. This may impact not only this generation, but the next as well, warned Selam Kidane, psychotherapist and one of the book’s contributors.

Whereas the human trafficking started in the Sinai desert in Egypt, the trafficking for ransom has developed and spread within Egypt and throughout Libya – sex enslavement and organ harvesting are now part of the dangers facing refugees in the region.

The book was launched on March 10, 2017 in a roundtable event at Leiden University, The Netherlands. It was followed by the inaugural lecture of one of the editors, Prof. van Reisen, on the topic of “International Cooperation in the Digital Era”. Guests of honour included the Vice-Chancellor of the Great Zimbabwe University, Prof. Rungano Zvobgo, and Zaminah Malole, a member of the Equal Opportunities Commission in Uganda.

The main speakers, who also included Eritrean lawyer Daniel Mekonnen and psychotherapist Selam Kidane, explained the main conclusions of the book, with Prof. van Reisen noting that it was only in the late stages of the book, when all the chapters began to come together, that the authors started to see the emerging conclusion: the origin of the human trafficking, victimising many Eritreans, can be traced back to Eritrea itself.

As the Eritrean government has shown no interest in prosecuting those responsible, Mekonnen said the only viable option is the International Criminal Court, through a referral by the UN Security Council. “We are very hopeful that one day, there will be accountability for what is happening in Eritrea now.”

Referring positively to the book, Malole commented that it was important for collective action on human trafficking, including support for victims, while Prof. Zvobgo lauded the bold decision of the authors to address the complex topic in detail and said that such issues require genuine debate that should also be held in Africa. He also noted that the Great Zimbabwe University (GZU) is fully committed to collaboration on similar issues between Leiden University.

In her inaugural lecture, Prof. van Reisen pointed to the damage that technology can do but also looked forward to a more constructive use of technology in international cooperation, outlining the promising developments of technology in aging populations and describing her own experiences as Ebola broke out in Liberia.

She described the global response to Ebola, which was first of all to close the borders. Only when a case of Ebola was discovered in the United States was it realised that cooperation, not isolation, was required. Eventually, technology would come to play an important role in the fight against the disease: satellites were deployed, and new data science techniques, data sharing and new mathematical models were developed. However, when the crisis subsided, so did the new digital health system.

According to Prof. van Reisen, structural solutions are missing. Short-term solutions can be disruptive and are often poorly adapted to local realities. After all, she noted, technology works differently in various areas in the world. This is shown for example in the fact that digitalisation in Africa often does not rely on broadband connection and remittances are revolutionising entire economies through mobile money.

She also explained that the way factors differ in areas of the world may lead to vastly different outcomes in terms of technology and development pathways, implying that ‘international cooperation’ cannot involve the exportation of technology from the West, but rather the bridging of different realities and learning from each other. Systems should be fed from within, she said.

As a promising future development, Prof. van Reisen pointed to the establishment of a common data protocol, making data Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable (FAIR). Under this protocol, an Open Science Cloud can be established that allows data to be shared, yet also maintains personal data protection. This will cause a revolution for life sciences, she predicted.

She closed her lecture with a quote from President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia: “As human beings, we are not fighting to die, but to live. We invoke the spirit of communities, of all men, women and children of Liberia, of Africa and of the world to stand together. If we care about our communities we can resolve conflict, overcome the hardest challenges and rebuild our peace.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 March 2017]

Photo: Vice-Chancellor of the Great Zimbabwe University, Prof. Rungano Zvobgo (facing camera) and Prof. Mirjam van Reisen (left) at the book launch. Credit: Klara Smits | IDN-INPS

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate

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