Concerns over rising cases of human trafficking in Sinai

A Norwegian tourist, who was kidnapped by armed Bedouin in Egypt's Sinai peninsula, following her release early on March 26, 2013.   PHOTO | AFP.

Rights body Amnesty International has called on the governments of Egypt and Sudan to step up efforts to end human trafficking of refugees and asylum seekers in Sinai.

The plea comes after a surge in cases of refugees and asylum seekers forcibly taken from the Shagarab refugee camps in eastern Sudan, near the Eritrean border. Most of the victims are Eritreans, though there are some Ethiopians, Somalis and Sudanese.

Different reports indicate that victims are captured by Sinai Bedouin gangs who demand huge ransoms.

The methods used to extract money from the captives' families includes forcing them to place phone calls while they are being beaten or burned, whereby the screams would forcibly intimidate the families into finding whatever means to pay up, such as either selling land or property or collecting funds from extended family members and communities in the diaspora. The ransoms demanded can be anything from $30,000 to $50,000.

The conditions are such that some of those held captive are murdered if the ransoms demanded are not met, while others die from their injuries or due to the dire circumstances they live in.

Since the popular revolution in Egypt, security in the Sinai peninsula has been close to non-existent. According to a report in Der Spiegel newspaper, “the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula has slipped further out of the country's political control. It has become a lawless region and a hotbed of criminals and terrorists. Groups of young men armed with AK-47s loiter in the streets. The business of human trafficking is booming, and the murder rate has skyrocketed.”

Indifference

In essence the Egyptian authorities have washed their hands off of the refugees seeing them as illegal and that it's not incumbent on them to help in any way, thus breaking international refugee law. “The Egyptian government refuses to let the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) visit these prisons. It claims that the people being held in them are economic refugees who have no right to asylum because they are in Sinai illegally.”

Local Egyptian NGO's hands are tied, as the government refuses to help while the area is in essence controlled by family clans who apply their own rules. One Bedouin family that does not partake in the trafficking said to Der Spiegel: "I can't free them. No one can interfere in another clan's affairs." Doing so could spark a bloody feud between clans. I can only help the Africans if they escape on their own."

Amnesty International has called on both the Egyptian and Sudanese authorities to step up their investigations into the compounds where captives are being held and the security apparatus which allows for their kidnapping in the first place.

“The Egyptian authorities have a duty to protect any individual on their soil, and must urgently take steps to free all people held captive and subjected to appalling abuses in Sinai, and provide them with immediate medical attention and access to asylum procedures and support,” said Claire Beston, Amnesty International’s Eritrea researcher.

“It is particularly worrying that numerous victims have alleged that the members of the Sudanese National Security Service are involved in the kidnappings near the borders with Eritrea and Ethiopia. The Sudanese government must investigate all allegations of the involvement or complicity of Sudanese officers and where sufficient evidence is found, individuals must be arrested and prosecuted,” she added.

An Eritrean survivor described to the rights group what happened to one of the other captives who was “made an example of: because he said his family could not pay: “He was bleeding all over. After more beatings, they poured petrol on him and set him on fire. After he died, they left his body in the room with us until it became rotten and worms started crawling. They forced all of us in turns to hold him.”

It's estimated that some 7,000 refugees have been abused and that some 4,000 may have died according to rights groups in Israel, the US and Europe.

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