Increased military operations in the Sinai peninsula have led to a surging wave of human trafficking survivors being arrested and treated as illegal immigrants, said a report on human trafficking released on Wednesday.
“The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond” was presented by the European External Policy Advisors — a Brussels-based center of expertise on the EU’s external politics — in Cairo at a press conference that was coordinated with simultaneous launches of the report in Tel Aviv, Lampedusa and London.
Researchers Mirjam van Reisen, Meron Estefanos and Conny Rijken collected years of research to compile the 238-page report.
The document highlights the inhumane torture inflicted on human trafficking victims in Sinai, and puts the responsibility for these acts on governments, including the Egyptian state, for failing to assist these victims after they escape or are released.
Between 25,000 and 30,000 people were victims of human trafficking in Sinai between 2009 and 2013, according to the report. At least 5,000 to 6,000 of these victims were tortured to death.
The situation in Egypt has grown worse since former President Mohamed Morsi was ousted on July 3. The report alleges that since June, 144 human trafficking victims were arrested as illegal immigrants.
The report details a vicious cycle that starts with kidnapping and ends with jail, deportation or living as a refugee in Egypt without adequate services and in a state of fear.
Most of these victims are Eritrean, though in recent years an increasing number of Ethiopians have also been targeted.
After fleeing their countries of origin — typically due to difficult economic conditions or to escape mandatory military service — the victims are often kidnapped from refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia, sometimes with the help of officials or their fellow countrymen.
The victims are then transported to Sinai. The report described the victims being locked in warehouses and subjected to brutal, increasingly sadistic torture by their Bedouin and Sudanese captors, in an effort to pressure their families to pay ransom money.
The perpetrators can demand ransoms of up to US$35,000, although the victims typically come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The ransom money that is systematically drained from Eritrean families is taking its toll on these struggling communities, the report said.
Transported from warehouse to warehouse, victims are subjected to torture such as being burned with hot metal rods, having plastic melted onto their bodies, starvation and being deprived of water, electrocution and being forced to commit rape.
Those who manage to pay the ransom or escape then find themselves stuck in the Sinai desert, unable to cross into Israel due to increased border security, and at risk of being arrested at security checkpoints if they try to venture to Cairo.
The speakers said that while there is a national action plan to combat trafficking in Egypt, in practice the victims are consistently being criminalized. Some of those who are arrested after their release do not receive medical care, while others are deported and forced to find money to pay for their flights home.
Those who are recognized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as asylum seekers stay in Cairo with limited access to work or education, due to Egypt’s restrictive policy regarding refugees, and live in fear of being recaptured.
A video testimony of one of the survivors was screened at the launch event. The victim, whose face was hidden, recounted being kidnapped by Sudanese police after fleeing to a refugee camp in Sudan in order to escape military service in Eritrea.
He described having oil poured on him and being set on fire, being beaten day and night and only eating one or two pieces of bread every day. After six months of non-stop torture, he was released when his mother sold her land to make bail. The victim lives in Cairo now as an asylum seeker, but he says he lives in fear of being recaptured and killed.
Another written testimony, which was read out during the event, tells the story of an Eritrean teenager who was also captured in Sudan after fleeing his country.
He said that the two most difficult moments were when his captors forced him to burn his bible as a form of psychological torture, and when they put the blood of one of the dead victims on his face. The victim says that the bodies of two victims who had died of torture were left in the room until dogs ate them, as the other captives watched helplessly. After two months, during which he sustained torture including electrocution and rape, he was released and declared an asylum seeker by the UNHCR.
The victim said he is staying with nine others in a two-bedroom apartment, and is given LE400 per month, which is sometimes not enough to buy food after paying his share of rent. He said that he is unable to go back to school because of these conditions.
“I can’t defend myself and I have no rights. There is no protection for me in this country. I was released from Sinai but I’m still not free, I’m in the land of the people who tortured me,” he said.
The report concluded with recommendations to the Egyptian authorities to stop the detention of human-trafficking victims in Egypt, and to grant them the right to asylum. The report also called on the Israeli government to stop pushing the victims back into Sinai when they attempt to escape over the border, and exhorted the Israeli, Egyptian and European governments to stop their deportation.
The report was also presented to the EU Commissionaire for Home Affairs on Wednesday at a hearing in the European Parliament.