February 11, 2014


To make us pay, they abused us. They raped women in front of us and left them naked. They hung us upside down. They beat and burnt us all over our bodies with cigarettes. My friend died in front of us and I wanted to lie down and die.
—Eritrean trafficking victim on the abuse he and others suffered at the hands of Egyptian traffickers in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in early 2012.
We reached the checkpoint at the big bridge [at the Suez Canal] … and I saw three traffickers get out and speak to the police. They checked other cars, but not our truck. The traffickers got back in and we crossed the bridge.
— Eritrean trafficking victim on what he saw from underneath the canvass in the back of a pickup truck at Egypt’s only bridge for vehicles across the Suez Canal at al Qantara, July 2011.

Since 2006, tens of thousands of Eritreans fleeing widespread human rights abuses and destitution in their country have ended up in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Until 2010, they passed through Sinai voluntarily and generally without problems and crossed into Israel. But over the past three years, Sinai has increasingly represented a dead-end comprised of captivity, cruelty, torture, and death.

Since mid-2010, and as recently as November 2013, Sudanese traffickers have kidnapped Eritreans in eastern Sudan and sold them to Egyptian traffickers in Sinai who have subjected at least hundreds to horrific violence in order to extort large sums of money from the victims’ relatives.

A common technique traffickers use is to hold a mobile phone line open to their hostages’ relatives as they physically abuse their victims. The relatives hear the screams and the kidnappers demand the ransom for the victims’ release. Many Eritreans have told the UN, non-governmental refugee organizations, activists, and journalists of their experiences of rape, burning, mutilation and deformation of limbs, electric shocks, and other forms of violence.

The mutilated hands of an Eritrean trafficking victim who says traffickers in Sinai abused him, permanently injuring his hands, to force his relatives to pay tens of thousands of dollars for his release. Victims have described to Human Rights Watch the techniques traffickers in Sinai used to force them and relatives to pay ransom, including rape, burning, mutilation of limbs, prolonged suspension by the ankles or wrists, and giving electric shocks. © 2013 Moises Saman/Magnum

An Eritrean trafficking victim recovers from skin transplant surgery in Cairo, Egypt after traffickers in Sinai chained her ankles causing a severe infection. Trafficking victims have described to Human Rights Watch and other NGOs how traffickers chained them—often to one another—for months on end, while abusing them, including by raping women in front of other trafficking victims. © 2013 Moises Saman/Magnum

In some cases, these crimes are facilitated by collusion between traffickers and Sudanese and Egyptian police and the military who hand victims over to traffickers in police stations, turn a blind eye at checkpoints, and return escaped trafficking victims to traffickers.

The crimes described in this report constitute trafficking offenses under international law with criminals transporting, transferring, and harboring Eritreans by using force or the threat of force for the purpose of slavery.

Sudan’s very limited prosecutions of traffickers of Eritreans and other trafficking victims, and Egypt’s failure to investigate and prosecute traffickers, as described in this report, means both countries are breaching their obligations under national and international anti-trafficking laws, international human rights law, and national criminal law. These require the authorities to prevent and prosecute trafficking and to guarantee the right to life and physical integrity of everyone on its territory.

The authorities also have an obligation to investigate any official suspected of colluding with traffickers who inflict severe pain and suffering, failing which they are in breach of the UN Convention Against Torture. To Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, Egypt has not prosecuted a single official for such collusion while Sudan only prosecuted four officials in 2012 and 2013.

According to the UN Committee on Torture, which reviews State compliance with the Convention, where state officials have “reasonable grounds to believe … that acts of torture or ill- treatment are being committed by … private actors” and “fail to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish such … actors,” such that the state “facilitates and enables [traffickers] to commit acts impermissible under the [Torture] Convention with impunity,” the state then “bears responsibility and its officials should be considered as authors, complicit or otherwise responsible under the [Torture] Convention for consenting to or acquiescing in such impermissible acts.”

The extent of the readily-available evidence in the public realm about the widespread abuses committed in Sinai—as set out in this report—as well as detailed information about trafficker locations given to the Egyptian authorities, means Egyptian officials are therefore also responsible on numerous occasions for breaching Egypt’s obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture. Sudan’s limited prosecution of both traffickers and officials who collude with them means some Sudanese officials are similarly responsible for violations of Sudan’s responsibilities under the convention.

According to UN reports, Eritreans’ ordeal typically begins in or close to Africa’s oldest refugee camps in eastern Sudan, near the Eritrean border, sheltering about 75,000 mostly Muslim Eritreans who have lived there for decades.

Between 2004 and mid-2012, about 2,000 mostly Christian Tigrinya-speaking Eritrean refugees also registered in the camps each month after fleeing widespread rights abuses against Christian communities in their country, with the numbers dropping to an average of about 500 a month since then. But faced with life in remote, poorly serviced camps—with no access to work, no right to leave eastern Sudan, and surrounded by Muslim communities whose language they do not speak—they have moved on in search of protection, work, education, and other opportunities to restart their lives in safety and dignity. Some have travelled to Cairo and Khartoum, from where unknown numbers moved on to Libya and the European Union or to Djibouti, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. Others have paid smugglers to take them to Israel via Sinai.

In 2010, the first reports surfaced of smugglers turning on their clients during the journey, kidnapping and abusing them to extort money from their relatives in exchange for onward travel. By 2011, Sudanese traffickers had started to kidnap Eritreans from inside or near the UN-run refugee camps near the town of Kassala in eastern Sudan and transferred them to Egyptian traffickers against their will.  

In 2012, Eritreans told Human Rights Watch about the abuses they suffered in Sinai and about the collusion of Sudanese and Egyptian security forces with the traffickers. They said that in Kassala, Sudanese police and soldiers handed Eritreans over to traffickers, including at police stations. They also said that in Egypt, soldiers and police colluded with traffickers every step of the way: at checkpoints between the Sudanese border and the Suez Canal, at the heavily-policed canal or at checkpoints manning the only vehicle bridge crossing the canal, in traffickers’ houses, at checkpoints in Sinai’s towns, and close to the border with Israel.

An Eritrean trafficking victim recovers in Cairo in May 2013 from skin transplantation surgery to treat a severe ankle infection caused by the chains traffickers used to shackle her in Sinai. Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 trafficking victims about 29 incidents involving Sudanese and Egyptian security force collusion with traffickers who then tortured their victims. © 2013 Moises Saman/Magnum

In December 2013, Human Rights Watch spoke with an Eritrean activist who has spoken since 2010 by phone with hundreds of Eritreans held in Sinai, as well as with their relatives abroad who have been subjected to extortion. She told Human Rights Watch that after a lull in new reports of Eritreans being taken to Sinai in September and October 2013—which coincided with an increase in Egyptian military activity in Sinai against suspected Islamist armed groups—the calls started again in November and December 2013 from victims kidnapped and taken to Sinai in November.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of these abuses since 2010—documented in dozens of NGO reports and in extensive media coverage—Egyptian authorities have to the knowledge of Human Rights Watch taken no steps to end them. Senior officials in Sinai and Cairo either deny the abuses happen, or say Egypt’s public prosecutor is powerless to investigate such crimes without receiving names and locations of traffickers. In 2012 and 2013, Sudanese authorities prosecuted 14 cases involving traffickers in eastern Sudan. Egypt has prosecuted no officials for colluding with traffickers of Eritreans, while Sudan has prosecuted only four, in 2012 and 2013.

To make matters worse, Eritreans described how in 2011 and 2012 Egyptian border patrols continued their policy of shooting at escaped or released trafficking victims as they approach the 240-kilometer-long and five-meter-high steel fence that Israel almost completed in early 2013 along its border with Egypt. Egyptian border police killed at least 85 sub-Saharan nationals near the fence between July 2007 and September 2010.

When Egyptian border police intercept Eritreans, they transfer some to military or civilian prosecutors in Sinai’s main northern town of Arish, who order them to be detained in police stations in the city and elsewhere in North Sinai. They take others directly to the police stations. Eritreans are detained there for many months and are not allowed to challenge their detention. In breach of Egypt’s 60-year agreement with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNHCR is not allowed to visit the detainees, making it impossible for them to lodge refugee claims.

Egyptian authorities also deny trafficking victims their rights under Egypt’s Law on Combatting Human Trafficking to assistance, protection, and immunity from prosecution. Instead, they charge them with immigration offenses, deny them access to medical care, which means some torture victims die, and detain the survivors for months in inhumane and degrading conditions in Sinai’s police stations.

An Eritrean trafficking victim sleeps at a safe house in Cairo, Egypt on May 2, 2013. Some trafficking victims who escape from or are released by their captors in Sinai find their way to Bedouin community leaders who help them travel to Cairo where various NGOs help them. © 2013 Moises Saman/Magnum

According to Human Rights Watch interviews and the UN, the authorities only release them after the detainees purchase an air ticket to Ethiopia, under an arrangement between Egypt and Ethiopia, which allows Eritreans to fly from Cairo to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Egyptian authorities in effect hold the trafficking victims hostage a second time, subjecting them to indefinite and arbitrary detention until their relatives can produce the money for the air ticket which secures their release and removal from Egypt.

Many of those sent back to Ethiopia come full circle, confined once again to the same closed refugee camps near Eritrea from where they made their way to Sudan and onwards to Sinai. As with Eritrean refugees in Sudan, most Eritrean refugees living in the camps in the Afar and Tigray regions of Ethiopia are not permitted to leave the camps to find work and live in poor conditions with limited opportunities to lead productive lives.

With no access to work in Khartoum and other Sudanese cities and facing widespread racism and destitution in Cairo and other Egyptian cities, Eritrean refugees’ options for building dignified and self-sufficient lives are shrinking. Anecdotal reports in 2013 suggest that since Israel effectively sealed its border with Sinai, new smuggling and trafficking routes from Ethiopia and Sudan have opened up to the west, taking increasing numbers of Eritreans on a treacherous journey across the Sahara desert to Libya, from where they hope to reach European countries, often on unseaworthy vessels.

In October 2013, UNHCR reported that some of the survivors of a boat tragedy in which 357 Eritreans drowned off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa on October 3, 2013, had previously registered as refugees in the eastern Sudanese and Ethiopian camps.

To end the horrific abuses committed against Eritreans in eastern Sudan and Egypt, both governments should launch a concerted law enforcement effort to identify and prosecute traffickers as well as Sudanese and Egyptian officials colluding with them. The Sudanese authorities should specifically investigate senior police officials responsible for collusion with traffickers in the town of Kassala and in the surrounding area, including the use of police stations to hand over Eritreans to traffickers.

As the Egyptian government bolsters its military presence and strengthens its law-enforcement capacity in North Sinai as part of counter-insurgency campaign there, it should include in law-enforcement operations the rescue of detained trafficking victims from captivity and the arrest and prosecution of the traffickers.

Egypt’s public prosecutor should launch an investigation into suspected trafficker locations in and around the town of Arish in north eastern Sinai, where the vast majority of traffickers are reported to be based, as well as at points of entry into Sinai and at the southern border with Sudan. Prosecutors should also investigate how traffickers have managed to bypass police and military checkpoints and how and why police and military authorities have allowed them to do so.

In line with Egypt’s anti-trafficking Law, Egyptian authorities should also immediately allow all trafficking victims no longer held by traffickers in Sinai to travel to Cairo, receive medical attention, and register with UNHCR if they are seeking international protection.

International donors to Egypt, including the United States, the European Union and its member states, as well as Norway, should press Sudan and Egypt to end security force collusion with traffickers in eastern Sudan and Egypt, and should urge Egypt to ensure that Egyptian military and police include shutting down trafficking networks among their law enforcement priorities in North Sinai.