CAIRO - A coalition of 100 Egyptian child rights advocacy groups is intensifying its pressure on the government to take measures to counter rising child abductions across the country, threatening to resort to the UN if the government does not take action.
“The government does not attach enough importance to the problems suffered by children,” Hani Helal, secretary-general of the Egyptian Coalition on Children’s Rights, told IRIN. “This leads to increasing violations against the children. But if the government does not act now, we will have to take the matter to the UN.”
A noticeable rise in child abductions has swept through the country, with the media reporting a new child abduction case every day - either in the capital Cairo or in the other governorates, putting parents on alert and challenging the police service.
The Interior Ministry has not given exact figures about the rise in child abductions, but independent security experts say it has increased as much as threefold since a popular uprising ousted former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. The political transition has been accompanied by an almost total collapse of Egypt’s security system, with police absent from the streets for extended periods of time.
“The kidnapping of children has become a very worrying phenomenon,” ex-policeman and security expert Maher Zakhry told IRIN. “Our country’s deteriorating security conditions make this crime more possible.”
Egypt’s National Motherhood and Childhood Council called on the government to take action against what it described as a “rising crescendo of child abductions”, warning against the serious consequences of turning a blind eye to the problem. The council has launched a new hotline service through which it can receive complaints by parents, refer them to police and better lobby the government.
The Coalition on Children’s Rights says the number of calls about abductions it receives from parents has increased 300 percent - from one or two a day before the revolution, to six or seven on some days now. Helal says most of the people who call his coalition are poor and have no connections. They come from all governorates, but more often from Cairo and the coastal city of Alexandria. Most of the kidnappers know the families of the children they abduct, he added.
“We have major difficulties dealing with the government, which does not view children as first-rate citizens like everybody else,” Helal said. “But what I want to say to the government is that its silence will encourage criminals to kidnap even more children in the future.”
Advocates are calling for tougher action by the government against criminals; a larger police presence on the streets; and laws that would increase punishments for those who violate children’s rights. Many Egyptians, especially activists involved in the revolution, believe the government is intentionally neglecting safety and security to increase a desire for “the good old days” under Mubarak and to justify the continued rule of the military council that took over after Mubarak left.
Anecdotal evidence appears to indicate two main motives for the abductions - body organs and ransom money.
When Hayam Rabie left her one-year-old daughter, Alia, with neighbours in a vegetable shop while doing some shopping, it did not cross her mind that she would never see her again.
But when Rabie, a mother of two from the poor village of Damleeg in the agricultural governorate of Sharqia in the Nile Delta, came back one hour later, she could not find her daughter.
That was one year ago.
“Until four months ago, I had hopes that I could find my daughter,” Rabie said. “But this hope turned to be a mere illusion.”
Rabie discovered that one of her neighbours had kidnapped the girl, hid her inside her home for few days, and then killed her before she put her body in a sack and threw it in a village canal.
Mahmud Al Badawi, head of local NGO Egyptian Society for the Assistance of Juveniles and Human Rights, says child abductions and organ trafficking are strongly interconnected in Egypt.
When Rabie’s relatives and neighbours broke into the house of her daughter’s kidnapper, they found empty blood bags, syringes and tubes.
“Nobody understood why an uneducated woman would need these tools,” Abdel Aleem Al Guindy, the girl’s father, said.
The mother of a child kidnapped in Alexandria told private Al Nahar TV in February that her son heard children screaming and calling for help while held by his kidnappers. His parents paid a ransom to get him back.
“One of the kidnappers told my son that the children would be sold to body organ traders,” the mother said.
Security experts say most kidnappers demand a ransom from the parents of abducted children - starting at 5,000 Egyptian pounds (US$833) and going up to six million pounds (US$1 million), if kidnapped children’s parents are wealthy enough.
A famous construction mogul had to pay two million Egyptian pounds (US$333,000) in February to secure the release of his two grandchildren.
“As a sign of Egypt’s deteriorating security conditions, child abductions have become an easy way for criminals to make money,” ex-policeman Zakhary said.
He advises parents not pay ransoms, and instead to report the kidnappings to police. But child rights activists say the police do not have a very good track record of arresting or prosecuting kidnappers, and have only succeeded in rescuing children in a few cases.
In April 2011, police arrested five suspects in relation to the kidnapping of the daughter of Effat Sadat, a businessman and the nephew of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, but only after Sadat paid the kidnappers five million pounds (US$833,000).
“Poorer parents, however, cannot find the money necessary for the return of their children,” said Al Badawi of the juveniles’ society. “This is why many of the abductions go unreported because the parents are simply not connected.”