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Human Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees Between Life and Death

[Protesters outside the Eritrean embassy in Tel Aviv in March 2011. Image by Physicians for Human Rights via Flickr] [Protesters outside the Eritrean embassy in Tel Aviv in March 2011. Image by Physicians for Human Rights via Flickr]

[The following report was published by Tilburg University and Europe External Policy Advisors on 26 September 2012.]

Human Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees Between Life and Death

Summary 

This report describes the horrific situation of trafficking of refugees in the Sinai Desert, a crisis that started in 2009. The refugees include men, women, children, and accompanying infants fleeing from already desperate circumstances in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan. An estimated ninety-five percent of the refugees held as hostages in the Sinai (also referred to as hostages) are Eritreans. Smuggled across borders by middlemen or kidnapped from refugee camps in Ethiopia and the Sudan as well as their surrounding areas, and then captured or sold, the refugees are held hostage close to the Israeli border in inhumane conditions and tortured for ransoms up to USD 50,000. A large number of the refugees have died, either while being held hostage or after their release – often even after their ransom has been paid. A large number of refugees simply "disappear," killed while being held or shot by the Egyptian military guarding the border with Israel after release.

The aim of this report is to give the Sinai refugees a voice. Through the interviews, we can hear their stories and connect with them. We hope that this document will raise awareness among the broader public of the  desperate plight of these people as a step towards stopping this crime. A second aim of the report is to contextualise these practices within the international legal framework, and, in this way, highlight the obligations of states and international organisations, including the EU, to take action against these practices.

This report examines the processes involved in the trafficking of the refugees (i.e., how the refugees are recruited; how they are transported to the Sinai, including their routes; and the conditions under which they are being held) and the international legal framework applicable to these practices (i.e., whether or not these practices can be considered "trafficking in persons," "torture," or other).

The empirical evidence for this research consists primarily of recorded interviews with the refugees conducted mainly by Meron Estefanos (radio presenter for Radio Erena, which broadcasts from Sweden to Eritrea). A number of interviews were also conducted by others with resource persons and with former traffickers and accomplices of traffickers.

A total of 123 interviews are included in this research, from which 363 persons have been identified as being held hostage in the Sinai. Checks were made to identify duplication in the interviews (same person interviewed or referred to at different times), where possible. These include five children under ten and sixteen children between ten and eighteen. Of these, 104 interviews were carried out with refugees, and primarily while they were held as hostages. This gives the interviews a particular characteristic. The interviews were translated into English where necessary, then analysed and categorised into a database to quantify information and identify patterns. To the extent possible, the findings were crosschecked with other empirical datasets, in particular, interviews carried out by Physicians for Human Rights, Israel with former hostages (which is based on a total of 1,300 interviews). However, due to limited access to the region, lack of funding, and security reasons, not all information was crosschecked.

During their journey to the Sinai, the position of those captured varies; they might start as a smuggled person, a migrant, or a refugee, but end up as a hostage, victim of trafficking, and/or victim of torture. In this report, we refer to this group of people as "refugees," which is defined in Article 1 a (2) of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 as a person who, “for fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion,” is not in his country of nationality and is unable to return there. Although we have not investigated whether or not each individual being held in the Sinai falls within this definition, it is clear from the interviews that many of them, especially those of Eritrean origin, feel that they cannot return home safely.

Based on the interviews, the refugees being held hostage in the Sinai can be categorised as either: 

  • kidnapped (and subsequently sold or surrendered to Bedouins); or
  • smuggled (initially voluntarily, but then sold or surrendered to Bedouins).

Many of the refugees who are being held hostage in the Sinai were on their way to refugee camps or to a family reunion somewhere in Sudan or Ethiopia. The vast majority claim that their original destination was not Israel. A significant proportion report being kidnapped from inside a refugee camp, particularly from Shagarab in Sudan or Mai Aini in Ethiopia. A number of refugees reported being kidnapped from the Eritrea-Sudan border. Some of them were taken by force while working in the area surrounding the refugee camp in Kessala, Sudan. A smaller number reported being kidnapped from Khartoum in Sudan, or on the way to Khartoum, and some from Cairo in Egypt.

The organisation of the kidnapping involves members of the Rashaida tribe in Sudan and Eritrea, as well as many Eritreans. The refugees are transported to the Sinai by car and then handed over to members of the Bedouin tribes, residing in the Sinai.

In many instances the refugees are exchanged (sold) several times, and often after their ransom has been paid. The trafficking generally consists of a combination of the following steps:

  1. Initial payment made by the refugee to be smuggled out of their country of origin
  2. Payments made by the refugee to guides en route to destination (refugee camps at Mai Aini or Shagarab)
  3. Abduction; payment demanded from refugee to reach a safe place (pretext)
  4. Sold on; payment demanded from refugee for the sale
  5. Sold on; payment demanded from refugee for the sale
  6. Ransom for release of refugee
  7. Sold on; payment demanded from refugee for the sale
  8. Ransom for release of refugee
  9. Release or death

Ransoms are being paid despite the excessive amounts demanded. Relatives sell their possessions, including houses and land, to come up with the ransom. Relatives in the diaspora in the West are specifically targeted. It is reported that the ransom is collected through a network of illegal financial transactions and transfers involving Eritrean middlemen. Transfers are usually made through Western Union and MoneyGram.

The large number of hostages originating from Eritrea is explained by a number of factors: 

  • the large Eritrean diaspora (with finances at their disposal) and their tightly-knit family/community structure, which makes ransoms easy to collect;
  • the large number of Eritrean refugees and lack of alternatives for Eritrean refugees;
  • the destitution of Eritrean migrants and inclusion of Eritrean migrants in the trafficking network; and
  • the involvement of (some) Eritrean authorities and military officials in the trafficking and their links with a criminal organisation.

In the Sinai, the refugees held hostage live in the houses of the Bedouin families in dehumanising and humiliating conditions. The spaces are very small, often without light. The hostages are exposed to extreme heat from the sun and freezing cold temperatures at night. They are chained together without toilets or washing facilities and dehydrated, starved, and deprived of sleep. They are subject to threats of death and organ harvesting, including through the death or killing of other hostages. The hostages are without recourse to medical assistance. Those who attempt to escape are severely tortured.

As reported in the interviews torture is carried out routinely and includes severe beating, electrocution, water-drowning, burning, hanging, hanging by hair, and amputation of limbs – and is often a combination of these. Children, even the smallest babies, are reported to have been beaten. Women are subjected to cruel rape or gang rape on a daily basis, in view of the other hostages. Women are also tortured in the company of their children, and children are tortured in the company of their mothers. Women are tortured while pregnant – and their pregnancies are often the result of the rapes they suffer. If they find themselves pregnant, women hostages are told that the ransom will double once their baby is born. Many hostages succumb to the torture. This torture can be functional as it takes place to extort the ransom from relatives, but it can also be gratuitous.

Human trafficking in the Sinai involves the commoditisation of people in which profit seems to be the only consideration. It is characterised by an extreme and excessive level of violence. The threat of organ harvesting and death is part of the pattern of torture regularly described in the interviews. The bodies of the dead are not buried, but thrown and left to rot in view of the hostages.

The hopelessness of the situation of the hostages often leads to a wish to die. Despite this, the report testifies to some courageous and generous acts by the hostages (and accomplices of the traffickers). Examples include (attempts to) escape, the collection of ransom for the weakest hostages and children, and care for those close to death.

Based on the definition in the trafficking protocol to the UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime, it is widely recognised that "trafficking in persons" consists of three elements: (i) the recruitment (including transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons) (ii) by means of threat or use of force (also including other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or position, etc.) (iii) for the purpose of exploitation. Although difficult to prove, exploitation as a motive is sufficient, while the coercive element of the definition relates primarily to the force used in recruitment. The relationship between smuggling and trafficking can be complicated, something that starts as a case of smuggling can turn into a case of trafficking in persons, or what appears to be a situation of smuggling can actually be a case of trafficking if the person is misled as to the intentions of the smuggler and is not aware of his/her aim to exploit.

Trafficking in persons for the removal of organs must be distinguished from the trafficking/trade in organs itself, which is also illegal if regulations are not followed, and which can follow a case of trafficking in persons for the removal of organs, but does not always. Looking at the medical care required for the transplantation of organs, and the fact that this has to take place within a very short time after removal of the organ, a sophisticated infrastructure (removal, preservation, transport, and transplantation) is required for this form of trafficking in persons. Although reports indicate that the forced removal of organs takes place in the Sinai, further information and research is required to determine whether or not, and to what extent, trafficking in persons for the removal of organs is taking place in the Sinai.

Based on the human rights legal framework, the obligations of States in relation to trafficking in persons is framed in the 3-P paradigm: the prosecution (including the prohibition) of trafficking in persons, the protection of its victims and the prevention of this crime. For states to live up to their international obligations to combat trafficking in persons they need to take action on all three levels.

States that have signed the Geneva Convention can expel a refugee from their territory only on proven grounds of national security or public order, and only after due process of law. However, according to the principle of  "non-refoulement" (or  push-back) contained in the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, in no situation can a refugee be sent to a territory where his “life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” In brief,  the principle of nonrefoulement makes it illegal to forcefully return a person to a country where he or she faces persecution.

Another convention that is relevant in this context is the Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, which was adopted by the Organization of African Unity (later the African Union) in Addis Ababa in 1969 and entered into force in 1974. This Convention is meant to supplement the Geneva Convention. Article 1 of the Convention reiterates the definition of refugee as defined in the Geneva Convention. This Convention confirms the principle of non-refoulement and establishes the obligation of states that ratify it to receive and welcome refugees who are unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin for the abovementioned reasons, to provide them with travel documents, and to cooperate with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

This framework is relevant not only to preventing the human trafficking and torture that is taking place in the Sinai, but it also provides a framework of support for refugees after they are released. At present, the refugees who are released and the few that are able to escape face many challenges. If they reach Cairo, they are put in detention centres and prisons to await deportation. Given that Eritrean refugees who are returned to Eritrea face imprisonment without trial, a few aid workers have tried to change the deportation destination to Ethiopia. Since the anti-infiltration legislation in Israel, the refugees are no longer admitted into Israel. A number of ex-hostages, including pregnant women and children, describe spending weeks in the hot desert between the fences of the Egyptian and Israeli border. They are given minimal food and water. Those who reach Israel are immediately taken into detention centres to await deportation.

It has been argued that the practice of refoulement from Italy to Libya may be aggravating the situation in the Sinai. The coincidence between the commencement of refoulement in 2009 under the Italy-Libya Agreement, the decreasing number of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and the beginning of the Sinai human trafficking crisis indicate that the push-backs by Italy may be compounding the human trafficking crisis in the Sinai. 

The pushback of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea has resulted in several court cases. A case that originated in an application (no. 27765/09) against the Italian Republic lodged with the European Court on Human Rights under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms by eleven Somali nationals and thirteen Eritrean nationals resulted in a judgement by the Court pronounced on 23 February 2012 (known as the "Hirsi Sentence"). The Court observed that, “according to the UNHCR and Human Rights Watch, individuals forcibly repatriated to Eritrea face being tortured and detained in inhuman conditions merely for having left the country irregularly.” The Court further considered that “all the information in its possession showed prima facie that the situation in Somalia and Eritrea posed and continues to pose widespread serious problems of insecurity.”

The judgment held that the Italian authorities did not properly register the persons involved and the procedure lacked adequate analysis of their personal situation, thereby violating Article 4 of Protocol No. 4 to the Convention which prohibits the collective expulsion of aliens. Moreover, the Court held that by intercepting vessels on the high seas and subsequently returning the intercepted migrants to Libya, Italy violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), encompassing the principle of non-refoulement. The Court held that, with this operation, Italy extradited people who “risked being subjected to ill treatment in the requesting country.”

In response to the humanitarian crisis emerging from the Libya-Italy Agreement, on 20 May 2009, António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, urged the European Commission to convene a gathering bringing together Italy, Malta, Libya, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and others to create a joint response to irregular migration across the Mediterranean Sea. The High Commissioner referred to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which, in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, guarantees the right to seek asylum in Article 18 and includes the customary international law principle of non-refoulement in Article 19, precluding sending people back to situations in which they run the risk of being tortured or being subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment.

In response to the crisis in the Sinai, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has also asked for additional resources to increase the security for refugees in the refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan.

Recommendations 

This report makes the following recommendations to bring to an end the refugee crisis in the Sinai:

  1. Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia: Cooperate in the fight against trafficking in persons and exchange information, preferably in cooperation with and through the channels of Interpol, with the aim to start criminal investigations against the perpetrators.
  2. Interpol: Support the start of criminal investigations on the organisation of trafficking in persons in the Sinai.
  3. Europol: Start gathering information on the practices signalled in the report on money flows from EU member states related to the ransom payments associated with the trafficking.
  4. The UN Monitoring Group for Somalia and Eritrea: Investigate further the role of Eritrean officials in the organisation of trafficking in persons in the Sinai.
  5. The UN Monitoring Group for Somalia and Eritrea together with UNHCR and the High Representative of the EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy:  Set up an action group with involved states in the complete trafficking chain, including source, transit, and destination countries, in order to structurally address the refugee crisis and associated human trafficking problems in the Horn of Africa.
  6. UNHCR: Ensure the security of refugees in the refugee camps, including by: 
    • Establishing reception units at the Eritrea-Sudan border 
    • Carrying out an investigation into the traffickers and how they are organised, including those operating from within the refugee camps
    • Ensuring a secure environment within the camps, including by providing alternatives to firewood (cooking stoves or central kitchens), employment opportunities within the camps, and schooling within the camps
    • Strengthening anti-fraud and corruption measures
    • Ensuring all refugees receive identity papers without payments
  7. Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt: Strengthen measures to protect refugees and migrants from being trafficked, including improved policing, investigation and punishment.
  8. Egyptian authorities (in dialogue with Bedouin leaders): Take measures to prosecute and punish the human trafficking network operating from the Sinai.
  9. All countries (including Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Israel, and the EU member states): Stop the refoulement of Eritreans on the basis of the justified fear of severe punishment of returnees.
  10. Israel, Egypt and the European Union: Develop a post-trauma support programme and reintegration programme for the victims of Sinai trafficking and torture and release them from detention centres and prisons.
  11. European Union: Cease bilateral aid with Eritrea, based on the serious human rights violations that are taking place and which have led to the exodus of refugees from Eritrea, and commence a programme to support Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan.
  12. European Commission: Start infringement procedures based on Article 258 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU against States which do not comply with EU legislation by violating the principle of non-refoulement.

[Click here to download the full report.] 

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