The Untold Horror of Human Trafficking

Eritreans protest abuse in Sinai

Eritrean refugees protest in front of the US embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel (25 Nov 2011) demanding protection of human rights on way to Israel via Sinai desert, Egypt. Photo by: Oren Ziv/ (used with permission)

About 30,000 people have been trafficked to Sinai, Egypt, over the last five years. Cairo-based journalist Bel Trew tweets from a Press conference on the matter, to shed light on “a hugely under-reported issue.”

She tweets:

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The heavy, brown tarpaulin tent-flaps slap against the wind in dusty eastern Sudan.  UNHCR is cast in broken black stencil across their limp sides.   Plastic bags circle the cracked feet of the inhabitants of Shagarab – a constellation of three refugee camps – as they trek across the arid escarpment of one of the world’s largest refugee populations. By early 2013 estimated figures placed the number of occupants at around 86 000, with 2000 new entrants every month, though this figure swells beyond the net of those capable of counting.  It acts as a haven to internally displaced Sudanese, stateless South Sudanese and fleeing Eritreans who flock to its barren outskirts to obtain legal refugee status which assists them in obtaining work.  The desiccated sense of hope that cracks across the rough surface of Shagarab is stolen by a sweeping underbelly of malevolence.  Shagarab is a centrifugal node in a destructive network of human trafficking.

Cash is scavenged in Shagarab.  Basic labour services and collecting firewood earns sufficient funds to buy water and bribe officials to join the stymied lines leading to the administrative services.  These operations ensure the safety of refugees by processing ID cards which prevent their forced return to their country of origin.  Despite the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees which protects persons from being delivered back unto areas inherently threatening to their lives Shagarab can only offer this shelter to refugees once registered.  In the parts of the world where rule of law deteriorates in the face of corruption it is often those most in need who suffer from naked exploitation.

There is no police or security control within the encampment.  Under the glare of the sun refugees roam the makeshift avenues in search of work but once the shadows steal across the forlorn tent roofs the sinister figures of those directing the underworld creep to the fore.   There are no central kitchens within the camp, young boys and girls are sent to the outskirts to collect firewood to heat their homes, where they are met by heavy set vehicles and rough hands.  They are bundled into the cars and driven to holding cells in eastern Sudan, before being transported by armed convey in squalid conditions onto another desperate destination.  The same is true of young men and women working the fields that wash out from the camp.  Some are stolen from inside the relative safety of their homes; beaten blue in the night before being ushered into waiting vehicles.  For others it is a matter of manipulation; employers who refuse to pay their labourers instead hail the services of the Rashaida, well known for their connection to human trafficking, who facilitate the removal of demanding labourers by couriering them into the Sinai.

A disproportionately large amount of trafficked victims are Eritrean: 95 per cent.  Whilst most are taken from the surrounding areas of Shagarab many fall prey to a web which extends beyond governmental lines.  An unflinching dictatorship denies Eritreans freedom of speech; the media is an extension of the vocal chords of the state.  Conscription, random detention and imprisonment without trial leave Eritreans fearing for their futures.  Civil society exists only as a whisper.  They have no liberty of movement or religion; they are prisoners of their own state.

Neighbouring states offer little incentive to fleeing Eritreans: Sudan, Ethiopia and Yemen have strict encampment policies; detaining and arresting unregistered refugees.  Desertion is not looked kindly upon by the Eritrean government; those that are returned face death or a near certain life of incarceration.  Fugitives face being shot by border patrols, both domestic and international; there is no guarantee of a welcome in Northern Africa.

Despite these obstacles the UNHCR estimates that 3000 refugees enter eastern Sudan every month, 2000 of which are seeking asylum in the slums of Shagarab.  Eritreans make use of smuggling networks, similar to those employed by gun runners, to enter the country.  Often smugglers assume the dual role of working for the Eritrean government.  The already wry lines of smuggling and trafficking blur when runners turn on their cliental, delivering them unto the Rashaida instead of the promised destinations of Shagarab, Cairo or Jerusalem.  Between 2006 and 2012, 59 858 asylum seekers entered Israel, 57% (33 912) being Eritrean.

Once initially captured the refugees are sold onto Bedouins who transport them into the confounding heat of the desert, holding them hostage in concealed outposts nestled between rocky dunes.  Conditions are deplorable as the Bedouin traders aim to extort the families of the captured  victims; there is little motivation for keeping them any more vigorous than shallowly panting for breath.  Eritreans are targeted by traffickers because of the large nexus of diaspora that exists beyond the walls of the state; many in Europe or the United States.  They are held, an inch from the ends of their life, for ransom.  If their families are unable to satisfy the grossly extorionate ransom demands – up to US $50 000 – they are killed.  In rare cases they are sold onwards until reaching a position of virtual servitude in some Middle Eastern nations; however few reach this point as their bodies disintegrate under the strain of torture.

 Trafficked victims are kept in the basements or the garages of their Bedouin captors.  They rarely see the light of day, their huddled bodies chained together in the dark.  At night temperatures drop below zero, frail and bruised frames cling to one another for calefaction.  In their dank prisons diseases spread without treatment; diarrhoea being the first symptom of many.  They are refused access to washing themselves.  They are not allowed to observe religious rights.  They are barely fed.

In order to hasten the payment required for their release prisoners are routinely tortured; a message conveyed back to their families, with whom they are put in touch with on a regular basis.  They suffer group electrocution, they are burnt by open flame, they are whipped.  Their fingers are broken by boot heels and their bones macerated by batons.  Open wounds are sealed with slow-dripping burnt plastic.  Escape is thwarted by hanging prisoners upside down and beating their feet until walking is impossible.  Women are gang raped.  Children and infants are not spared from torture; beaten in front of their mothers.  For those caught beneath the red sand of the Sinai, death is a welcome hope.

Reports of organ harvesting have emerged as some prisoners have had their blood taken before being murdered.  Other captives attest to having seen the corpses of deceased detainees thrown alongside them; their withered skins bearing mangled stitching along their sides.

Currently 1000 refugees are held captive in the Sinai, though this number is decreasing.  When once there were as many 400 Eritreans detained against their will today this number is closer to 150.[Full story]

Sinai Torture Camps
By Stephen Lendman

A November 30 Physicians for Human Rights/Israel  (PHR-I) report explains “chilling evidence” of atrocities committed against sub-Saharan African refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers.

Titled, “Hundreds of Refugees Held Hostage in Sinai Torture Camps Need Rescuing,” it discusses their horrific ordeal in captivity, including torture, other physical abuse, male and female rapes, and killings.

Human traffickers mainly hold Eritreans for ransom. Relatives are pressured to pay. Tactics include phoning them to hear loved ones cry out in pain. Survivors report starvation, punching, slapping, kicking, whipping, burial in sand, electric shocks, hanging by hands or legs, branding with hot irons, as well as rape or other forms of sexual abuse.

Despite appeals for help, detention, extortion and torture continue. Hundreds remain captive.

A November 22 Amnesty International (AI) report discussed abuses committed against refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, including:

Egyptian security forces shooting unarmed individuals trying to reach Israel; deaths and injuries resulted, some serious;

others face arrest and prosecution in military courts, as well as imprisonment for trying to emigrate;

forcibly returning individuals to countries of origin where they risk “egregious human rights violations;” and

others abducted, held captive, tortured, raped, or killed by human traffickers, “while authorities have done little to protect them.”

Egypt is party to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, its 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. They require signatories protect refugees and prevent repatriation to countries of origin or third ones where serious human rights abuses may occur.

In addition, according to a 1954 Memorandum of Understanding between Egypt and UNHCR, authorities must grant asylum-seekers access to the agency and respect its determination of refugee status. Egypt systematically violates its obligations under international law. It also delays or limits UNHCR access.

AI received “numerous reports of hostages being shot dead by their captors to demonstrate to family members of other hostages the seriousness of their threats.”

This issue follows others about subjecting sub-Saharan African refugees to forced organ harvesting. Most often, victims don’t survive.

Egypt is also party to international conventions relating to human trafficking. They include the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees; the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrants Workers and Members of Their Families; and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.

It supplements the 2004 UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Egypt’s statute laws also prohibit human trafficking and abuses relating to it. Its junta government ignores its legal obligations.

Current Status of Sinai Hostages

As of mid-November, one group of 165 Eritrean refugees are held hostage. Three contacted the Hotline for Migrant Workers, saying eight smugglers hold them, 13 women and 15 unaccompanied minors (aged 14 – 16) captive.

They’re secluded north of Mansoura, not Sinai. They’ve been tortured to pressure family members to pay $30,000 ransoms. Women are raped nightly. Abuse caused five deaths.

Another group of 59 hostages are held for $23,000 ransom. Similar abuses are being committed, including a seven-month pregnant women multiply raped.

A separate group number 111 hostages held for $28,000 ransom. Their whereabouts isn’t known. A Sudanese refugee in Israel told PHT/I about 17 others in Sinai. Captives demand $5,200 in ransoms. They’re part of a larger group released after payments were made. Some are currently in Israel.

The Eritrean Movement for Democracy and Human Rights (EMDHR) learned of 200 more Eritreans transferred from Sudan to Sinai. Prominent smugglers include Abu Abdullah, Abu Musa, Abu Ali Ibrahim, Khaled and Ahmed.

Refugees at times are sold from one smuggler to another. In 2011, PHR/I’s Open Clinic interviewed about 800 patients arriving in Israel via Sinai. Nearly 80% reported abductions, threats at gunpoint, abusive chaining, and torture. In addition, women and some men are raped.

Some involuntarily arrived in Israel after being held for months. In mid-November, Egyptian media reported violent tribal confrontations in central Sinai after accusations of involvement in organ trafficking.

Victim Accounts

One said:

“I paid $3,000 to the smuggler Abdullah to transfer me to Israel. He then demanded an additional $10,000 and tortured me – hooking up the metal chains to the electricity until we fainted. I went through torture like this for two and a half months, until my relatives from the USA, Europe, Saudi Arabia and Sudan managed to collect the additional $10,000.”

Another said:

“We, the men in the group, tried to protect the young women from the smugglers who wanted to rape them. They took us, put our legs and hands in chains and raped us as a punishment.”

A man said:

“Baha, the night guard, always looked at one of the women. We could tell that he wanted to rape her, but didn’t want to leave us unwatched. On night he ordered all of us to look the other way and raped her right next to us. We heard her cries. We couldn’t help her.”

Another one said:

“I didn’t know they were taking me to Sinai. In Sinai we were taken to Davit, from Eritrea, and two Bedouins: Khaled and Abdullah. They told us to pay to be smuggled to Israel. Only then did I understand that they wanted to transfer us” there.

A woman said:

“I was a virgin when I arrived in the desert. During the first few times that I was raped I cried and resisted, but that didn’t help. They wouldn’t leave me alone. After that I stopped resisting.”

Another woman said:

In Sudan, “I agreed to pay the smugglers $2,500 to transfer me to Israel. When I arrived in Sinai, the smuggler sold me (and others to) Abdullah. (He) demanded an additional $10,000.”

“I had no way to raise” the money. He “raped me for five days.” So did two other smugglers. “I wanted to resist but I had no strength and the smugglers nearly strangled me during the rape.”

“I got pregnant (now seventh months along). During this time, I was chained to another woman. We received food every few days and I managed to wash myself three times during the entire period.”

“Only after eight months was my father able to send the smugglers $5,000. They released me and allowed me to cross the border to Israel. I must have an abortion. My husband should not know what happened….and I must not give birth to this child.”

Other testimonies revealed similar horrors. Some were lucky to survive to tell them.

The Greater Human Toll

According to a Research and Information Center of the Israeli Parliament report, 11,763 people were smuggled for ransom into Israel in 2010. Many were Eritreans and Ethiopians. Dozens of testimonies revealed they were held under horrific conditions and tortured until released.

The EveryOne Group of Italian human rights organizations confirmed similar reports, including killings, male and female rapes, and organ trafficking.

PHR-I asked the Ministries of Health and Welfare to grant social residency status to refugees and asylum seekers so they’d have access to public health.

It also asked Egypt’s new government to help locate and free refugees and asylum seekers and not shoot those trying to enter Israel from Sinai.

No known actions have been taken. Neither country treats refugees or asylum seekers humanely under international law or their own.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at

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