Egypt Should Free African Migrants Being Tortured in Sinai – HRW

Eritrean Community Help Kidnapped Family
Arab traffickers are holding hundreds of Africans hostage in Sinai

AFRICANGLOBE – Egypt should use its increased security force presence in the Sinai Peninsula to free hundreds of African migrants held for ransom and abused by human traffickers and other criminals. Security forces should detain, investigate, and prosecute the traffickers.

Human Rights Watch has documented the trafficking of the mostly African migrants and asylum seekers in Sinai, who are tortured and sexually assaulted to press their relatives for ransom. Under Mubarak, law enforcement officials did not intervene to protect the victims, although Egypt has a strong anti-trafficking law. President Muhammad Mursi ordered security forces to “impose full control” over Sinai following the August 5, 2012, attack on a security post on the border with Israel that left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead.

“Thousands of African asylum seekers and migrants attempting to cross the Sinai have fallen victim to abusive traffickers and other criminals,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “Egypt’s new government should use its increased law enforcement operations to rescue victims of trafficking and end these abuses.”

Credible sources in Cairo confirmed to Human Rights Watch a steady increase in the number of trafficking victims who have been tortured, raped, and otherwise sexually assaulted over the past two years.

Human Rights Watch has received numerous reports in recent years of organized criminal groups detaining asylum seekers and migrants in Sinai for extortion before allowing them to complete the journey to Israel. In December 2010, Human Rights Watch reported a well-established trafficking network in Sinai that victimized hundreds, perhaps thousands, of African asylum seekers and migrants, most of them Eritreans. The traffickers imprison their victims in various locations in Sinai for weeks or months until their relatives abroad pay tens of thousands of dollars to secure their release. Those unable to pay are kept in captivity and made to work off their debt, sometimes through agricultural or cleaning tasks, credible community sources told Human Rights Watch.

Under former President Hosni Mubarak the government refused to acknowledge that African migrants were falling victim to these criminal networks, which have flourished in the absence of proper law enforcement in Sinai, Human Rights Watch said. This position is inconsistent with Egyptian and international law on trafficking, which requires the government to protect victims of trafficking and prosecute traffickers.

Egypt’s Law 64 on the Combat of Human Trafficking in article 2 defines trafficking 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 labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery or servitude.

Trafficking of African migrants and asylum seekers in Sinai falls squarely within that definition, yet Egyptian authorities have not taken action to stop the trafficking, protect the victims, and prosecute those responsible, Human Rights Watch said. There have been no known prosecutions of traffickers and other criminals responsible for abuses against African migrants and asylum seekers in Sinai.

Human trafficking prosecutions are rare, according to the groups working most closely on the issue, and investigations have focused solely on cases of foreign domestic workers or Egyptians being trafficked abroad. In one recent case, on August 20, the Omraniya prosecutor’s office ordered the detention of a Cairo-based Qatari police officer and his wife on charges of trafficking after their 26-year-old Indonesian domestic worker jumped to her death from the fourth floor of their apartment building in Giza, Cairo. The worker was regularly locked inside, the official charges said. Prosecutors released both on bail the next day.

“President Mursi’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.” Stork said. “Law enforcement in Sinai should be conducted in line with human rights law to avoid a further breakdown of trust with Sinai inhabitants.”

Trafficking in Sinai

Sources with extensive knowledge about the situation in Sinai who asked not to be named told Human Rights Watch that the sums traffickers demanded from the migrants have increased from about US$2,500 in 2009 to as much as US$30,000. The traffickers torture the migrants and beat them while they plead with relatives abroad by phone for money to meet their captors’ demands. Victims include children as young as 14.

Over the past year, some Eritrean victims of trafficking have made their way to Cairo, where they can access some services and are not at risk of arrest and indefinite detention by the Egyptian police. Credible groups in Cairo familiar with their situation said that over the past five months they have confirmed at least 53 cases in which Eritreans, including 19 children, had been held and abused by traffickers in Sinai. They said the kidnappers demanded US$33,000 to take each person to the border with Israel.

One person with access to the members of the group told Human Rights Watch:

Members of the group passed on contact details of relatives in Eritrea or other countries and 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.

Torture, Sexual Assault, and Rape

African Migrants in Sinai
African migrants torture by their Arab captors

Sources in Egypt with regular access to these trafficking victims told Human Rights Watch that since late 2010 the sources have consistently confirmed cases of torture of African asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants at the hands of the Arab traffickers, and more recently rape and other sexual assault of women. One source told Human Rights Watch:

Many of the women I see who were raped say this occurred at points of kidnap in the country of origin or in the transit country. I have also come across some cases of rape in Sinai. There has definitely been an increase in the sexual abuse of women this year, especially in the last three months, where almost all women we come across have been subjected to some form of sexual assault. The women report that traffickers grope them and penetrate them with their fingers. I have seen at least four women who had burns on their genitalia and the breasts.

In one recent case, a person in Cairo familiar with the situation in Sinai told Human Rights Watch that members of a group of 26 victims of trafficking consistently testified that 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 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.

Photographs obtained by a local Bedouin Sinai resident, and viewed by Human Rights Watch, of this group of migrants rescued from traffickers after the intervention of a tribal leader, Sheikh Mohamed, confirm this abuse.

Another community source told Human Rights Watch that traffickers torture the detained migrants to extract as much ransom money as possible:

Traffickers make victims call their relatives on the phone and then beat them so that their relatives rush to collect the money. Traffickers know that nobody can pay amounts like US$30,000 in one go, so they keep torturing them to maintain pressure on the relatives. Victims of trafficking I have seen have wounds on their back from whipping and burning with hot rubber and marks on their wrists and ankles from where they were chained. The women were stripped naked and beaten with sticks. One 16-year-old I saw later could barely lift her arms because traffickers had hung her for hours by the arms.