Mirjam van Reisen won’t be intimidated

Being critical of the Eritrean regime is not without risk – even for academics at Tilburg University. Despite threats and intimidation, professor Mirjam van Reisen has published a new book on an international trafficking scheme that targets Eritrean refugees. Shockingly, this billion-dollar trade seems to be run by Eritrea’s government.

 On the same day that professor Mirjam van Reisen presented a report that would later become a chapter of her new book, a six-year-old boy was thrown from a wall in Eritrea. It may seem absurd to think that these events could be connected to each other. But for Van Reisen, it was the first thing that came to mind. It’s how the Eritrean regime operates, she explains. “It’s impossible to prove, but I don’t believe it was a coincidence”, she says. It’s common practice in Eritrea to punish people for the actions of others. “For Eritreans in the Netherlands, there is a real threat of reprisals against family members who still live inside Eritrea.”

Long arm of Eritrea

As professor of international relations at Tilburg University, Van Reisen has spent years doing research on Eritrea. She has personally felt the ‘long arm’ of the Eritrean regime on many occasions. Threats, intimidation and a lawsuit – supporters of the regime have made legal and illegal attempts to silence her over the past few years. Nevertheless, Mirjam van Reisen presented her new book in Leiden on March 10th, together with Zimbabwean co-author Munyaradzi Mawere.The book carries a lengthy title – Human Trafficking in the Digital Era: The Ongoing Tragedy of the Trade in Refugees from Eritrea – and results from five years of ethnographic fieldwork. What exactly does that mean, doing ethnographic fieldwork? Van Reisen explains how she and Mawere operated. “We worked with a team of PhD students, journalists, and a medic. We interviewed Eritrean trafficking victims in Europe, Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan, Israel and Egypt. Our on-the-ground investigators helped us verify the information we collected. And we also worked with a physician from Eritrea, who medically examined survivors of the human trafficking crisis in the Sinai in order to assess the physical and mental trauma suffered by these victims”, she says. “The trauma was much more severe than we knew. Both women and men had often been subjected to extreme sexual violence.”


Towards the end of 2008, a new form of human trafficking emerged in the Sinai desert. Mirjam van Reisen is internationally considered an expert on this phenomenon, which has come to be known as ‘Sinai trafficking’. Sinai trafficking is characterized by the kidnapping, torture, extortion and killing of refugees from the Horn of Africa – particularly from Eritrea. Victims are sold and re-sold, forced to beg family members for ransom. Mobile phones are a central part of Sinai trafficking. “For our research, we often used mobile phones to make contact with victims of trafficking and to conduct interviews”, Van Reisen says. But, tragically, mobile phones have not just been helpful to Van Reisen and her team. “Mobile phones are used by traffickers to extort the families of hostages. While a hostage is subjected to torture, a phone call is made to family members so that they can listen to the screams. As you can imagine, this is an effective way to pressure relatives into transferring money.”

“While a hostage is subjected to torture, a phone call is made to family members so that they can listen to the screams”

In the span of a few years, tens of thousands of people were trafficked and tortured in the Sinai desert. Family members of hostages paid hundreds of millions in ransom. In her new book, Van Reisen traces back the origins of these practices to Eritrea itself. She argues that the regime’s deliberate policy of impoverishment and human rights violations has driven Eritreans to leave the country en masse. “On the one hand Eritreans are not allowed to leave the country, while on the other hand they don’t have access to sufficient food”, she says. Although leaving the country is illegal, thousands of Eritreans continue to flee each month to escape poverty, persecution and the prospect of potentially indefinite military service. “The situation hasn’t changed”, Van Reisen says. “Eritreans are still forced into military service that amounts to modern slavery, and Eritrea is still imposing its shoot-to-kill policy against anyone trying to flee.”

Involvement of the regime

As Eritreans continue to escape the country, they continue to fall victim to traffickers. Although anti-terrorist operations largely put an end to Sinai trafficking in 2015, Van Reisen says that the phenomenon of trafficking for ransom has not ended. Eritrean refugees are now trafficked and tortured in other parts of Africa. “Sinai trafficking has spread throughout Libya and Sudan, for example”, Van Reisen says. “And the influence of Eritrea in these regions is significant. The key figures in the trafficking chain, reaching from Libya all the way to Europe – they’re all Eritreans.”

The involvement of the Eritrean regime in the trafficking of its own people is perhaps one of the most shocking discoveries presented in the book. Van Reisen and her team have laid bare the structures of a billion-dollar trafficking scheme controlled by government officials, military personnel and criminal gangs. Even the authors were surprised at the level of organization behind the trafficking cycle. “Because victims are generally passed around from location to location and from one trafficker to the next, we always assumed that these traffickers acted as individual ‘links’ in the trafficking chain”, Van Reisen says. “But we discovered that there is a higher organizational structure at play, which holds this chain together. The trade in Eritrean refugees seems to be far more well-organized, well-structured and well-coordinated than we ever could have imagine.” 

Big fish

Van Reisen and Mawere were able to identify five major players at the top of the trafficking chain. Although they operate in different countries, they are all Eritrean nationals. “With the knowledge that we have today, we can conclude that it is vital to further investigate the regime’s involvement”, Van Reisen says. Although she stresses that her work is an ethnographic study and not a legal investigation, Van Reisen calls for justice and accountability. “Victims not only suffer from the physical and psychological traumas they have endured, but also from the lack of accountability for those traumas. Europol recently reported that it had made a large number of arrests, but it is not enough to go after small fish. They are easy to catch, and easy to replace”, she says. “We need to go after the big fish, the people at the top. In Cairo, a number of people were arrested recently for trading organs of Eritrean refugees. But according to our sources, the military officials at the top of the organization went free.”

“If I would stop what I’m doing, freedom would not win”

What should Europe’s role be in battling the impunity of human rights violations against Eritrean refugees? In the first place, Van Reisen says, Europe should stop facilitating the governments that commit those crimes. “What we should absolutely not be doing is providing financial support to governments that are involved in human trafficking – including Eritrea.” Europe should not be making deals with Libya or Sudan, Van Reisen says, because Eritrea holds significant influence in these countries. “Instead, we should collaborate with countries like Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya, where refugees are protected and camps are a lot safer. The aim of such collaborations should not be to stop refugees from coming to Europe by cutting off their options, but to create a safe zone in the region.”


The six-year-old boy that was pushed from a wall in Asmara survived. But thousands of others did not. An estimated one-fourth of Sinai hostages did not come back from the desert. Those who survived, are deeply scarred. “It’s a forgotten crisis”, Mirjam van Reisen says. “As an academic, I feel that I have a responsibility to bring it to light, to make sure that that knowledge is not lost.”

Driven by a strong sense of responsibility, Van Reisen refuses to let the long arm of the Eritrean regime restrict her. “I think carefully about what I do and don’t do, but I won’t be intimidated. If I would stop what I’m doing, freedom would not win”, she says. “I’ve always believed that you can’t defend freedom if you allow yourself to be intimidated.” 

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