Torture in Egyptian desertBy DALLIA MONIEM in Cairo | Friday, March 2 2012 at 15:51
They're promised a safe passage to their destination in return for a hefty sum to help them escape to what they believe is a better future. The reality is; many African migrants crossing the Sinai Desert face torture, captivity and being held for ransom until their families pay the exorbitant money demanded - or they die.
With Europe tightening its borders and making it exceedingly difficult to slip through, many African migrants were looking to Israel as an option. With a relatively sound and stable political, social and economic life, the Jewish state appeared the best choice for those seeking to escape the hardship in their own countries.
But with the continuing political instability in Egypt, the Sinai Desert had become the playground of smugglers, who manage to evade capture by the authorities and to extend their torturous tactics on their captives, through such means as rape, electrocution and beatings.
African migrants, mainly Sudanese and Eritreans, both Muslim and Christian; were caught between a rock and a hard place. The hardship and difficult life they lived in their own countries forced many to take the steps of migration, usually via dangerous methods, to escape the extreme poverty, conflict and political suppression.
Reportedly, some 50,000 Africans had entered Israel in recent years with the aid of smugglers, mainly nomadic Bedouin tribesmen in the Sinai Desert, whose knowledge of the rugged terrain gave them the advantage. The Bedouins offered their 'services' safe in the knowledge many were too desperate to risk their lives and pay the exorbitant prices demanded.
The trade in human cargo had always been lucrative, but with Israel speeding up the construction of a border fence, smugglers had jacked up their prices.
Various human rights groups reported that due to construction of the fence, migrants were becoming even more determined to reach Israeli borders before it became near impossible, resulting in smugglers meting out harsher torture methods as well as more money being demanded as payment – as much as $40,000.
According to Elizabeth Tsurkov of Hotline for Migrant Workers: “In recent months, the rate of arrival of African asylum seekers has increased. On average, about 2,000 people enter Israel through Sinai each month. It is hard to estimate the exact percentage of asylum seekers who undergo abuse, but it is safe to say that a large number of asylum seekers go through the torture camps of the smugglers in Sinai.”
The extreme level of abuse and torture faced by African migrants at times came with a very heavy price – their lives.
Israel's Physicians for Human Rights, an NGO that provides free medical care, reported that “59 per cent of the refugees they treated were held in captivity, either by being shackled or guarded by armed men, 88 per cent were deprived of food and 52 per cent were tortured”.
Tsurkov told of an interview conducted with a Sudanese refugee who described how out of 20 people he was chained with, only he and his friend survived the torture they were subjected to, which included being scalded with burning plastic bags; when their captors left them for dead.
The torture experienced by many of the migrants was, at best horrific, at worse insufferably cruel and inhuman, with methods ranging from electrocution, beatings, kickings, sodomy, rape to being deprived of food and water.
“Some of the people who arrive in Israel are in extremely bad shape, at times, crippled for life,” said Truskov.
“The most common forms of torture are punching, kicking and whipping of the refugees. Most asylum seekers report being deprived of water and food. But there are also much more severe forms of torture. Many detainees are burned with hot iron or burning nylon, others are electrocuted, hung from their hands or feet, buried in the sand or forced to work for entire days, without pay, of course.
"Most, if not all female refugees, are repeatedly gang-raped and sodomised, but some male detainees are also sodomised. Hundreds of female refugees have arrived in Israel pregnant as a result of the rape.
"Many of the asylum seekers die while in captivity due to the torture.”
In another report, the migrants stated that often “...they were shackled together in groups as their armed captors kept them under guard. At one of the camps, captives were given t-shirts with numbers printed on them and were referred to by those numbers.”
Fingers have been pointed at authorities on both sides of Sinai for not doing enough. In the case of Egypt, a combined factor of the lack of security in the post-Mubarak era as well as the fence has played its part has been blamed.
Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch Egypt said cases of migrant workers crossing Sinai had increased recently, with “the current environment allowing it to flourish”, but that it could not be put down as being directly related to last January's uprising.
Furthermore, even though an anti-trafficking law was recently passed; “it's not being applied, particularly in Sinai even though it is the government's responsibility to protect victims of trafficking at minimum. Law enforcement is failing as is the provision of a preventative remedy”.
For years, relations between the Egyptian Government and the Arab tribesmen of the Sinai has been fractious, with Bedouins often complaining of discrimination and harsh treatment at the hands of the Egyptian authorities.
Clashes between the two have led some to describe the Sinai Desert as a “lawless no man’s land”.
On Israel's side, the state did not allow asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, who were 80 per cent of the seekers, to go through the Refugee Status Determination procedure. What they were granted though, were a “conditional release status” which must be renewed every few months and doesn't grant asylum seekers any right, not even to work.
However, assistance was offered “to asylum seekers who were enslaved in the Sinai Desert because then they qualify as human trafficking victims,” but as only a few were recognised, most help came from “civil society organisations, private citizens, or inter-community organisations that the refugees have set up for themselves”.
Many Israeli advocates contended that though the torture occurred in the Sinai, Israel could do more for the freed captives once they crossed into the country.
Furthermore, approval had recently been granted for the building of a detention centre for illegal immigrants, mainly Africans, who could not immediately be deported back to their own countries for various legal reasons; with officials hoping the centre would act as a deterrent.
The business of human trafficking was a lucrative one to those involved. With ransom money reaching as much as $40,000 at times, smugglers had set up a well oiled payment system.
“They usually torture the captives while the refugees are talking on the phone with their relatives, to scare the families into coming up with the money.
"Relatives who hear their loved ones screaming in agony are usually willing to do anything to save them, which includes selling their houses, cattle, land and possessions, to finance the release of their relative in captivity.”
Another method was via a network of expats living in Europe, the US and Israel, made up of friends, family members and fellow countryfolk, who helped by paying the money to middlemen. Those whose ransom was paid were released, those who could not, remained in captivity – some survived, many don't.
Advocacy and human rights groups in both Egypt and Israel had taken up the fight of asylum seekers and migrants, but so far, those who could implement legislative change and clamp down on the smugglers, were not interested – ie the governments.
The Israeli Government worried about the effects of the presence of growing numbers of non-Jews having an effect on the character of the state, while for the Egyptian regime, the prevention of the torture and murder of Africans was not a priority. As such, the plight of migrants and the torture they faced could continue unabated.
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