The Sinai crossing: African migrants' desert nightmareBy DALLIA MONIEM in Cairo | Monday, September 10 2012 at 13:30
Torture, abuse, sodomy, rape, beatings, being held captive and extortion are just some of the horrors that the majority of African migrants face when attempting to cross the Sinai Desert into Israel. But their other major problem is not just the Sinai Bedouins who routinely take them prisoners but also the governments of both Israel and Egypt who refuse to offer them protection nor assistance.
Campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently* released its report on the continuing case of human trafficking in the Sinai Desert and called on the Egyptian government to bring an end to the illegal trade.
The report, Egypt: End Sinai Nightmare for Migrants, details the cases of African migrants, mainly Eritreans though there are a number of Ethiopians and Sudanese, and the harrowing abuse they are subjected to in their attempt to escape their lives to one they hope is better.
According to Mr Joe Stark, the deputy director of the Middle East and North African division of HRW, "thousands of sub-Saharan asylum seekers and migrants attempting to cross the Sinai have fallen victim to abusive traffickers and other criminals. Egypt’s new government should use its increased law enforcement operations to rescue victims of trafficking and end these abuses.”
In the past two years the number of trafficking victims has steadily increased with reports of the abuse they face worsening especially following the popular revolt of 18 months ago which has seen a vacuum in security and law enforcement in the desert peninsula.
Since March 2012, according to various reports some "58,000 sub-Saharan nationals have entered Israel from Sinai, 56 per cent of them Eritrean and 26 per cent Sudanese.”
HRW says that during former President Hosni Mubarak's rule there was no official acknowledgement that sub-Saharan African migrants were falling victim to these criminal networks which went against both Egyptian and International law on trafficking.
Egypt's Law 64 on the combating of human trafficking explicitly defines it “as the sale or transport, of people through the use of force, or abduction, fraud or deception, or exploiting people for purposes such as forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery or servitude,” which is precisely what the migrants are subjected to and face over extended periods of time.
And yet authorities have not taken the action nor the steps to “stop the trafficking, protect the victims, and prosecute those responsible,” Human Rights Watch said.
"President [Mohammed] Morsy's government should distance itself from the policies of the Mubarak regime and take the rights of victims of trafficking into account in planning law enforcement operations in Sinai," Mr Stark added. "Law enforcement in Sinai should be conducted in line with human rights law to avoid a further breakdown of trust with Sinai inhabitants."
Plead with relatives
According to HRW sources the sums paid by migrants to smugglers in their quest to reach Israel has jumped from $2500 in 2009 to being in the region of $30,000 today. Furthermore, payment of the money does not necessarily mean a safe passage as most migrants are tortured and beaten while held captive and then made to plead with their relatives back home to pay up the demanded amount.
"Members...were beaten while speaking to those relatives to ask for payment. A number reported that relatives arranged payment by selling property in Eritrea or elsewhere. Many in the group reported being taken to locations that were described as "stores.
"These were locations in which members of the group were detained in large numbers - one of them reported a "store" containing more than 100 persons, mostly Eritrean but some Ethiopian and Sudanese among them. They were chained at the feet and tied or chained at the wrists. Access to food and water was inadequate and beatings were frequent," the report detailed.
Sexual violence on migrants is all too common with rape being the method of choice in the case of females and sodomy on the males, amongst other forms of abuse and torture.
One group of 26 victims testified that for two months straight, from January to March 2012, “They were blindfolded and chained at the hands and feet. Beatings with metal rods were administered - often to the hands, soles of the feet and backs... Other treatment that members of the group reported include burning by cigarettes, burning by dripping molten plastic from water bottles, kicking, and punching.
"Female members of the group reported being stripped, lined up facing a wall and having their buttocks whipped. Female members of the group also reported having plastic piping inserted into their anuses and vaginas. Male members of the group reported having plastic piping inserted into their anuses. All females in the group reported being raped. One female reported the burning of her nipples.”
However, the ordeal the migrants go through is not just confined to Egyptian territory as once they reach the Israeli border there is no guarantee of them allowed entry. Recently, a group of some 21 migrants, mainly Eritreans, were barred from crossing the border into Israeli territory nor where they able to return back to Egypt – they remained trapped between two steel fences on the Egypt-Israel border.
According to the Israeli NGO Hotline for Migrant Workers the Israeli army was “preventing their entry,” for seven days, but started to provide them with food when previously they were only allowed to give them water “as little as possible” the Haaretz reported.
A week after they remained stuck in limbo, the Israeli government relented and allowed two women and a teenage boy to enter the country but deported the remaining 18 men back into the Sinai desert.
On top of the governments stance there is also rising resentment in certain sectors of Israeli society against African migrants which culminated in violent anti-immigration protests breaking out. Meanwhile the country's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explicitly stated recently “It is important that everyone understand that Israel is no longer a destination for infiltrators,” the Hebrew term commonly used for all migrants who slip into Israel from Egypt.
Israel's message to those seeking refuge in the Jewish state cannot be more clear following the construction of the border electrical fence along the border was sped up and the current building of detention facilities near the Egypt border.
Southern Sudanese citizens were deported recently after a court ruled it was safe enough for them to return to their home country while the Minister of Interior Eli Yishai said the authorities “would begin rounding up Sudanese citizens this fall and would keep them in detention until they could be deported. He has vowed to clear the country of all illegal immigrants within three years.
This, coupled with the Egyptian government's indifference and "turning a blind eye" to the abuse and torture African migrants continually face while crossing the Sinai and it's refusal to acknowledge their plight nor intervene to protect them, paints a very bleak future for those forced to seek a better life outside their home nations.
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