New Internationalist

The deadly scale of trafficking in the Sinai

View of part of Sinai Peninsula
The Sinai Peninsula has become especially dangerous for refugees fleeing Eritrea Thomas Depenbusch, under a CC License

‘He was bleeding all over. After more beatings, they poured petrol on him and set him on fire. After he died, they left his body in the room with us until it became rotten and worms started crawling. They forced all of us in turns to hold him.’

These are the words of an Eritrean trafficking survivor in the Sinai, speaking to Amnesty International. He is sharing a first-hand account of what happened to another trafficking victim whose family could not afford to pay the ransom fee demanded by his captors.

Sadly, this is not an isolated case. The kidnapping and exploitation of asylum seekers and refugees in the Sinai, largely by nomadic border groups, is rampant.

Smuggled across borders for extortionate sums, or kidnapped from refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan, many refugees end up being held hostage in purpose-built facilities near the Israeli border. Eritreans – fleeing their country’s oppressive regime – constitute about 95 per cent of these hostages. The other 5 per cent is made up of Sudanese, Ethiopians and Somalis.

Testimonies gathered by Amnesty International and other human rights groups show that the individuals held captive are being subjected to extreme violence and cruelty, including rape, beatings, torture, organ harvesting and death.

Khataza Gondwe of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) says that the families of the captives are forced to listen to their screams via the telephone and send ransoms of up to $40,000 to set them free. ‘Small wonder people hearing the screams sell everything they have and borrow to the hilt to pay the ransom and end such appalling suffering,’ she adds.

This terrible phenomenon, which has been occurring since 2009, has intensified as traditional routes to Europe (via Libya and Tunisia) have become progressively more difficult, necessitating passage through the Sinai instead.

Gondwe points out that Eritrea is often referred to as the North Korea of Africa: ‘A consequence of this wide ranging and severe repression is the fuelling of a mass exodus, with Eritreans constituting one of the largest populations of refugees per capita,’ she explains.

In a sinister twist, Gondwe says that alongside their shoot-to-kill border policy certain Eritrean officials benefit financially from the covert trafficking of citizens. For instance, in the 2012 UN Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group report, an Eritrean General (General Kifle) was cited as one of those responsible for the smuggling of people and weaponry into the Gaza Strip.

In addition, instability and lawlessness in the Sinai Peninsula has created a fertile environment for crime and trafficking. The situation has further deteriorated since the Egyptian revolution, causing the region to become even more marginalized and dangerous.

It is estimated that 7,000 refugees have been abused and 4,000 have lost their lives in this crisis.

At a recent conference held at Cardiff’s Welsh Centre for International Affairs, members of the Eritrean community were adamant that awareness should be raised about the tragic human rights abuses happening in the Sinai.

Yet rhetoric must be translated into mobilization, as Khataza points out: ‘Only sustained and robust action locally and internationally will assist in dismantling these criminal syndicates responsible for human and organ trafficking in the Sinai, and setting these captives free.’

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