30,000 trafficked in Sinai

A guest post from contributor Parastou Hassouri, who lives in Cairo, works in the field of international refugee law, and specializes in issues of gender and migration.

Photo of central Sinai courtesy of Shutterstock

Photo of central Sinai courtesy of Shutterstock

On Wednesday night, the report The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond, was launched in Cairo (it was launched simultaneously in several other cities including Tel Aviv, Brussels, and Lampedusa). The 238-page report is based on interviews with 230 trafficking survivors:  persons who survived the hellish ordeal of being kidnapped, held hostage and tortured brutally in the Sinai. It is a follow-up to a 2012 report, Human Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees between Life and Death

I was first alerted to the issue of human smuggling and trafficking in the Sinai around 2007.  At the time, I was working at the NGO Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA).  The issue most often came up when we had to assist those who had been apprehended trying to reach the Sinai (and would be detained by Egyptian authorities, even if they were registered with the UNHCR as refugees). Back then, most of the cases we dealt with involved refugees who were voluntarily crossing the Sinai in hopes of reaching Israel, where they expected to find more work opportunities and perhaps an easier way of reaching Europe. Our biggest concern was the fact that Egyptian authorities in the Sinai were using lethal force to stop this “irregular migration,” which had resulted in numerous fatalities. There was a belief, at the time, that the Egyptian authorities were only responding to pressure being placed upon them by Israelis to stem the flow of migrants. I remember spending a lot of time advising clients against making the journey, telling them the risks were not worth it (especially as so many of them faced detention once in Israel anyway).

Over the course of months, we started to hear about situations involving hostage taking: that the smugglers who had promised to take the refugees, asylum seekers or other migrants to the Sinai would inform them mid-trip that they were being kept hostage until they could pay them more money than initially demanded.  However, the situation was one that still started out “voluntarily”:  the migrants were choosing to undertake the journey, despite the risks. The numbers choosing this route seemed to increase as the number of refugees being resettled to third countries (i.e. the U.S. and Canada) declined (this started during a period when the resettlement of Iraqis had taken priority for political reasons).The people going were from different countries:  Sudan, Ethiopia, and often Eritrea. I once assisted two men from the Ivory Coast who had been detained after being abandoned by their smuggler, when he realized he had no chance of getting more money out of them. Looking at the turn things have taken, those men are lucky they lived. 

In the years since, the human trafficking networks appear to have gotten more extensive and definitely more brutal. 

Although there are still cases of smuggling that have turned into involuntary imprisonment, there has been an alarming rise in the number of cases that start out as kidnapping. The victims are actually abducted and forcibly transported to the Sinai – sometimes the abduction takes place in Sudan, especially in Eastern Sudan near the Shagarab refugee camp. The authors of the report also interviewed individuals who were kidnapped within Eritrea.    

According to the authors, between 2007 and 2013, some 25,000 to 30,000 persons have been trafficked in the Sinai.

The other thing that astounded me was the amount of money the kidnappers are now demanding in ransom.  In some cases, ransoms of 30,000 and 40,000 US dollars are being demanded.  Again, the authors estimate that some 600 million US dollars have been collected in ransom by traffickers over the past several years.

The prime targets for these kidnappings are Eritreans (and most of the survivors interviewed were Eritrean). The authors posit several reasons for this.  First, the kidnappers choose Eritreans because the extensive Eritrean diaspora makes it more likely that the victim has relatives abroad who have the financial means to pay the ransom. The authors believe that another reason for this is the involvement of some Eritrean authorities and military officials in the trafficking network (especially given that some of these abductions are happening inside Eritrea). 

The victims are transported from Eritrea to Sudan, and then taken by boat to Egypt, where they are handed off to others who bring them to Sinai and hold them hostage until ransom is collected. Some are held hostage in “torture houses” that seem to have been specifically constructed for this purpose – for example, they feature hooks on the ceilings from which the kidnapped are hung as they are beaten.

Those who are able to pay their ransom are released. Many who are unable to are either shot, or tortured and left with no medical treatment until they die. 

The launch of the report included some readings of testimonies from trafficking survivors, who recounted in gruesome details the torture to which they are subjected while held hostage. The traffickers sometimes place calls to their relatives as they torture them, in an effort to make sure the ransom is paid. The tortures include beatings, burning of the skin, electrocution, and sexual violence. 

Some of these trafficking survivors had initially thought about attending the launch to testify about their experience in person. However, at the launch, we were informed that the survivors were concerned about their safety, since even those who are now in Cairo live in fear of their traffickers. There were also reports that there were concerns about Egyptian state security. 

Instead of testifying in person, parts of their testimony were read. Also, we were shown one video of a survivor’s testimony (although the person’s face had been obscured).

Ahmed About Deraa, a reporter from the Sinai who has been following the situation, also attended the launch. He showed several extremely graphic photographs and some film footage showing some of the survivors bearing terrible scars and disfigurements caused by the torture. 

Abou Deraa spoke of the efforts of one local Sheikh, someone he referred to as Sheikh Mohammed, who has been trying to assist some of the persons who either manage to escape or are let go after ransom is collected. 

He also spoke a bit about the situation since June 30, 2013.  According to Abou Deraa, the military operations taking place in the Sinai since June 30th have led to the army raiding some of the “torture houses” and to the release of some of the kidnapped. Unfortunately, the people who have been “saved” are simply put into detention and charged with “illegal entry” into Egypt.  Apparently, approximately 144 such individuals are currently in detention in Egypt. The Egyptian authorities want to repatriate them back to Eritrea, but expects the kidnapped to pay for their tickets back. 

Although Abou Deraa seemed to think that there have been fewer cases of kidnapping and hostage taking since 30 June, 2013, those presenting the report seemed to think that the current situation in the Sinai may simply pushing kidnappers to use different routes. 

Lastly, even for those who are released by the kidnappers or somehow manage to escape on their own, the situation remains dire. They can try to reach Israel, which is quite difficult in light of the fence the Israelis have constructed. Once inside Israel, the migrants are subjected to the Anti-Infiltration Law which means months of detention. 

The other option is to come to Cairo, where the survivors continue to live in fear of the traffickers/kidnappers (some report getting threatening phone calls from them), and where the limited opportunities to work or study, combined with xenophobic attitudes (heightened since 30 June) and racism, make life very difficult. 

Also, these young men and women are suffering from extreme trauma, and though some are receiving some psychological counseling and support, the scale of abuse is great and the resources in Cairo are limited. 

Technically, as survivors of torture, refugees who have been kidnapped and held hostage in the Sinai should be prioritized for resettlement to third countries. The UNHCR does refer some of these cases for resettlement, but the process of resettlement is cumbersome and lengthy. Resettlement to the United States, for example, can take more than a year.

The situation described above has been going on for a number of years. It seems hard to believe that abuse of this scale can be happening with nothing really being done to address it. It seems especially hard to comprehend this, considering that some of the traffickers are identified by name in the report, that millions of dollars are being wired and exchanging hands, and that calls are being made to relatives and being received by the refugees from the traffickers. It seems like the authorities could identify and arrest at least some of the agents involved in this vicious and brutal cycle, if the political will to do something existed. It seems hard to believe that people could be kidnapped from Eritrea, taken through the Sudan and into Egypt – three countries with extensive state security networks – without any sort of detection. 

In fact, the horror of the situation is such that there was an element of incredulity on the part of some in the audience. The report was presented to a fairly large audience, most of whom were foreigners, but which included some Egyptians. As far as I noticed, the only people who asked questions tinged with skepticism were Egyptians. 

In response to one survivor’s testimony of being harassed by Egyptians in Cairo, one young man asked, almost incredulously, why an Eritrean would be harassed by Egyptians? He even said something like: “Are they wearing particular costumes that are making them stand out?” He could not bring himself to believe that the man’s foreignness and skin color would subject someone to taunts in Egypt. 

Some wondered how it could be that people were being kidnapped across borders and into the Sinai with all its checkpoints without the authorities stopping it. 

Indeed, the more one learns about the situation, the more convinced one becomes that the situation must be taking place with the complicity of officials. The report itself suggests that at least in Eritrea, military officials themselves have been implicated in the trafficking.

The launch was attended by some Egyptian journalists. One can only hope that media coverage of the issue in Egyptian papers (which so far has been virtually nonexistent) will bring more attention to the issue (and help also in countering attitudes of incredulity towards the problem).

Given recent events in Egypt, the political uncertainty and turmoil, the economic problems, people’s concern about increasing insecurity, it seems like the issue of the trafficking of African migrants across the Sinai is the last thing some may want to hear about. 

But horror of this scale cannot go on, and no one in Egypt should be unaware that it is happening.