Africa, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT: Fears Rise Over Spate of Missing Children

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani

CAIRO, May 15 2009 (IPS) - A surge in reports of missing children has set off alarm across the Egyptian countryside. The fears are being fed both by reports and rumour.

‘Provinces on fire with kidnapping rumours; every day more stories of missing children’, read the May 1 headline of independent daily Al-Dustour.

For months now, the independent press has been carrying reports of the disappearance of young children, mostly from Egypt’s rural provinces. On Apr. 11 two children from the Sharqiya province vanished without a trace; on Apr. 28, four young children – three of them under six years old – were reported missing in the northern city Mansoura. Dozens of other cases have been reported through this period.

According to sources cited in the local press, the cases have been most frequent in four Nile Delta provinces – Daqliya, Qalioubiya, Sharqiya and Gharbia – in addition to the Upper Egyptian provinces Minya and Beni Sueif. Precise numbers are difficult to ascertain, but ten children reportedly went missing in the Upper Egyptian city Sohag – just south of Minya – in March alone.

“The streets of Sharqiya are plastered with photos of missing children, while schools are seeing absentee rates of up to 70 percent due to kidnapping fears,” Al-Dustour reported Apr. 17. “Imams at local mosques are warning parents not to leave their children unattended.”

The rash of disappearances has led to deep fears among parents. “I’m afraid to let my children out of my sight,” Maha Zaki, mother of three from north Cairo told IPS. “The police are failing to protect children from kidnapping, which has become rife in the countryside and in areas around Cairo.” Zaki said she had witnessed an attempted kidnapping in her own neighbourhood that was foiled by passers-by.

Rabab Mahmoud, mother of two from the outskirts of the capital, was equally worried by recent reports of missing children. “We need more security and police to protect our sons and daughters from this scourge,” Mahmoud told IPS.

Government officials say the extent of the problem – fanned by gossip and hearsay – is being overstated.

“We hear daily reports of missing children, but this doesn’t represent a ‘wave’ of child stealing per se,” Assistant Interior Minister Gen. Hamed Rashed was quoted as saying. “We’re confronting a culture of rumour-mongering, which itself can represent a threat to stability.”

On Apr. 17, Hussein Abu-Shnaq, director of security in Sharqiya, was quoted as saying that claims of a surge in kidnapping were “nothing more than rumour and tall tales among the public.”

But independent researchers challenge such official reassurances, saying that the number of cases of missing children has risen noticeably.

“There is a serious lack of reliable statistics on the phenomenon, but it has definitely become more prevalent in recent years,” Hafez Abu Saeda, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, a Cairo- based NGO, told IPS.

According to Abu Saeda, kidnapped children usually end up being exploited for criminal activities.

“In most cases, children are kidnapped for use in criminal gangs – gangs of beggars, thieves or drug dealers – or for prostitution and sexual exploitation,” he said. “Of course, many cases are simply children running away from home due to domestic problems, or the result of a personal vendetta – not uncommon in the Egyptian countryside.”

Abu Saeda criticised official attempts to downplay the issue.

“Government claims that it’s all ‘just rumour’ betray a degree of negligence on the part of the security agencies,” he said. “These often vague and unconvincing denials are generally disbelieved by the public, much of which has come to distrust everything the government says.”

Fediya Abu Shohba, professor of criminal law at the Cairo-based National Centre for Social and Criminal Research, agrees that the trend – despite the absence of official figures – is becoming increasingly widespread.

“The disappearance of children has proliferated over the last five years, but has become especially acute over the course of the last year,” Abu Shohba told IPS. “And when a child disappears – and doesn’t come back – it usually means they have been kidnapped.

“The prevalence of the phenomenon can be attributed to several, mainly social, factors,” she says. “These include an increase in the number of vulnerable children living on the street, decreasing parental care due to economic pressures, the erosion of traditional religious values, and the promotion of violence and crime by the mass media.”

Abu Shohba stressed, however, that the problem should not simply be chalked up to poverty. “Egypt has always had its share of extreme poverty, but children have never gone missing at the rate they are now.”

On May 1, the local press reported that the body of a 16-year-old boy, missing since February, had been found in Daqliya, decapitated and badly mutilated. The incident contributed to growing speculation that kidnapped children were being harvested for their bodily organs, for purchase by wealthy patrons abroad for medical purposes.

Abu Saeda, however, ruled out organ trafficking as a possible motive for the recent spate of kidnappings.

“This would require extremely sophisticated medical knowledge and medical facilities – maybe even the participation of a fully-equipped hospital,” he said. “I seriously doubt that gangs of organ-traffickers in Egypt have attained this level of sophistication.”

“The phenomenon of disappearing children needs to be studied and better understood,” Abu Saeda said. “In order to distinguish facts from baseless rumour, a plan of action must be drawn up with full coordination between security agencies and local researchers.”

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