In 2009, in the Sinai desert of Egypt, migrants from Eritrea and Sudan were abducted, tortured, and held for ransom against their will. Many of those who escaped have made their way to Israel. An unknown number have died and others are permanently scarred or psychologically traumatized. Although media, human rights organizations, and scholars have published on the topic over the last five years, very little has actually been done by either Egypt or Israel to prevent what is considered to be human trafficking and torture.
Routes to Coercion and Exploitation
Human trafficking involves forms of coercion to achieve the consent of an individual in order to gain control over them and exploit them. Exploitation includes forms of forced labor or services, servitude, sexual exploitation, slavery or practices resembling slavery, or the removal of organs.1 Alternatively, migrant smuggling involves the for-profit facilitation of cross-border movement without the consent or authorization of the State.2 In some instances migrant smuggling begins to resemble human trafficking. In the Sinai peninsula, numerous reports have indicated that the smuggling of migrants from Eritrea and Sudan through Egypt to Israel has begun to resemble human trafficking and torture. Why has this happened? How can we explain the rise of human trafficking in the Sinai?
First, conditions in Eritrea and Sudan are driving the movement of refugees throughout the region. Eritrea is a militarized authoritarian state which actively persecutes particular social groups in the country. As Eritrean refugees have crossed into east Sudan for protection, they have been coerced or kidnapped and brought to Sinai to be held ransom and tortured. In Sudan, generalized violence in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile has involved the movement of refugees into neighboring States. Persecution and generalized violence in particular regions of East Africa are driving the movement of Eritreans and Sudanese, making them vulnerable to coercion and exploitation en route.
Second, Egypt has emerged as an important transit country for migrants from Eritrea and Sudan. In transit through Egypt, Eritrean migrants may find themselves without access to asylum procedures or refugee protection, placing them at risk for further exploitation. Since the fall of Mubarak in 2011 the Sinai Peninsula has become relatively ungoverned, lawless, and subject to occasional unrest and violence, contributing to the growth of trafficking and torture in the region.
Third, since 2005, the number of African refugees entering Israel has increased to more than 60,000 from only a few hundred. The majority of registered asylum seekers in Israel come from Sudan and Eritrea. In response, Israel has criminalized refugees, preventing those entering from Sinai from receiving international protection: the Israeli response has been to erect a border fence to prevent further entry and detain and deport those who have already arrived. Preventing the entry of potential victims of torture and trafficking and failing to provide adequate protections for those who have accessed Israeli territory raise serious human rights concerns and fails to prevent the growth of trafficking and torture in the Sinai.
Testimonies of Torture and Ransom
Torture is the intentional act of inflicting severe pain or suffering (physical and mental) for obtaining a confession, punishment, intimidation or coercion, inflicted with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or person involved in an official capacity.3 There are three crucial questions which must be answered based on the formal UN definitions of torture and trafficking: Do the events in Sinai amount to torture and trafficking? If so, who are the traffickers and torturers? What is the involvement of State or public officials in trafficking and torture?
The testimonies of survivors of trafficking in the Sinai reveal a number of abusive practices which extend beyond trafficking into torture. Testimonies of trafficked migrants include descriptions of coercion, abduction, captivity, extortion by ransom, sexual violence, and homicide. Amnesty International reported in 2013 on the specific methods used, revealing an extensive list of violent treatment amounting to torture which was used to hold migrants for ransom and gain money from relatives.4 Furthermore, scattered reports have surfaced stating that migrants in Sinai are having organs removed for commercial organ trafficking (including corneas, livers and kidneys), organized with the support of corrupt local doctors. Various actors in Sinai have inflicted severe pain in order to intimidate and coerce a third party into paying ransom to release a migrant held in captivity through coercion, or have engaged in the removal of organs. Based on such reports, the events in Sinai amount to human trafficking and torture.
Multiple transnational actors are involved in trafficking and torture to the Sinai. Take for example movement from Eritrea: local brokers in Eritrea may assist migrants to cross into east Sudan where they may be kidnapped by another group and taken to Sinai where they are transferred to yet another group who hold them for high ransoms before releasing them or killing them.5 Thus, the number of different transnational groups complicates efforts to prevent trafficking and torture, prosecute those involved, and protect those harmed.
Finally, reports have indicated the involvement of Eritrean, Sudanese, and Egyptian officials – such as members of the security forces, soldiers, and police – in the abduction and trafficking of migrants, whereas local non-State groups in Sinai are involved in the exploitation and torture of the migrants sold to them.6 Even when local traffickers or torturers are detained by police, they may be set free. Local police actions may fail to have effects because of the complicity of public officials or official denial.
Lack of Response
No significant action has been taken by either Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, or Israel to end trafficking and torture in Sinai, even as publicity on the topic has increased and public demonstrations against trafficking and torturous practices in Sinai have been held. The lack of a response has been puzzling.
The complicity of the State and involvement of transnational non-State actors has complicated efforts to stop trafficking and torture in Sinai. Ongoing persecution in Eritrea and the involvement of Eritrean security forces has contributed to the persistence of trafficking in the region. In Egypt, survivors of torture may be placed in detention following their ordeal, or they may not receive adequate medical attention, psycho-social support for their trauma, or legal protections for human trafficking, placing them in further danger. The alleged involvement of Egyptian security forces in perpetuating or turning a blind eye to abuses in Sinai may further complicate the issue.
The Israeli response to migrants entering from Sinai is to treat them as ‘infiltrators’ subject to detention and deportation, according to the much criticized 2012 ‘Anti-Infiltration Law’ and its subsequent reformulation in 2013.7 In 2013, it was estimated that approximately 200 survivors of torture and trafficking in Sinai were being detained in Israel since the implementation of the new law in June 2012.8 In addition, a 230 kilometer long, 7 meter high border fence was erected between Israel and Egyptian Sinai to prevent the entry of migrants crossing the Sinai desert. Preventing migrants from accessing protection or punishing asylum-seekers for unlawful entry is illegal under international refugee and human rights law (Israel has signed and ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention). Since those crossing Sinai face serious abuse at the hands of traffickers holding them for ransom, the construction of the Sinai fence only exacerbates current difficulties of providing adequate protection for tortured and trafficked migrants. Rather than detaining and deporting, the governments in the region need to begin protecting victims and preventing further victimization.
States must prevent any act of torture occurring in any territory under their jurisdiction, and no person shall be returned (refoulé) to a place where there are substantial grounds for believing that they would be in danger of being tortured. Efforts to end torture in the past have, with good reason, focused on torture by States and public officials. However, transnational non-State actors, with evidence of State complicity, have been responsible for the majority of abuses against migrants in the Sinai. States, however, have positive obligations to prevent non-State actors from abusing the human rights of migrants. In the case of torture, the principle of ‘due diligence’ means States have a duty to afford migrants protection, either through legislative or other means, from torture carried out by public or private individuals.9
A number of recommendations can be made based on human rights practice. First, protecting and assisting those harmed by trafficking and torture is an important priority for all actors involved. Second, preventing further harm will assist in protection and assistance. Third, prosecution of both State and non-State actors complicit in torture and human trafficking can prevent the further growth of harmful abuses. Finally, transnational cooperation between States and civil society in the region and abroad can facilitate the protection of those harmed and prevent further abuse.