(New York) – Egypt should use its increased security force presence in the Sinai Peninsula to free hundreds of migrants held for ransom and abused by human traffickers and other criminals. The authorities should detain, investigate, and prosecute the traffickers.
Human Rights Watch has documented the trafficking of the mostly sub-Saharan 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 Morsy 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 sub-Saharan 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 sub-Saharan 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 sub-Saharan 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 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.” 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.”
For more information about human trafficking and abuse of detainees in Sinai and the security situation there, please see the below text.
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
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 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 his arms because traffickers had hung him for hours by the arms.
One man whose cousin is being held by traffickers in Sinai told Human Rights Watch:
My cousin is 28 and has been held by Bedouin in Sinai since late July along with 15 others. I have been asked to pay US$25,000 to secure his release. They give my cousin the phone to call us, he tells us that the traffickers are torturing them, they are urinating on them, beating them, throwing hot water on them. The last time the trafficker said to us, “if I don’t get any money by Monday morning, we will start hurting these people.” It’s very traumatizing to hear this.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has interviewed hundreds of victims of trafficking in Israel. A representative told Human Rights Watch that in a sample of testimonies collected by UNHCR, for example:
All interviewees bore wounds, scars, and injuries attesting to the physical treatment and abuse. Testimonies described abuse including chaining, blindfolding, prolonged deprivation of sleep, continuous beatings, suspension until deformation of arms, electrocution, and droppings of melted rubber onto the skin. More recent testimonies also describe new forms of abuse, such as direct burning of the skin with a lighter on the neck, and throwing of boiled water. All interviewees bore wounds, scars, and injuries attesting to the physical treatment and abuse afforded….11 of the 15 women that were interviewed claimed they had been sexually assaulted. The abuse included insertion of objects, oral sex, and rape. A number of women and men described how women were also assaulted by Eritrean men held captive, who were forced to sexually abuse the women. Those who refused to participate in the act were punished severely by additional beatings. Additional men maintained they suspect the women in their respective groups were sexually assaulted, since they were taken outside in many occasions and later returned in tears.
One of the recent testimonies taken by UNHCR was from a former victim of trafficking, a woman held five months in captivity who had to pay US$40,000 for her release, told this organization:
“The rape began two months before the end. They took us one by one and raped us. During these two months they raped me twice a day, every day. They also made us do oral sex. They did it in the same room where we stayed, because everybody was blindfolded and could not see. They did not let us clean afterward. For five months I did not clean myself at all. I don’t know how they wanted to do it with us, we were so smelly and withlice. My fiancée does not know what happened to me.”
The organization Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, which has provided medical assistance to thousands of migrants at the open clinic it runs in Jaffa, has treated hundreds of people abused by traffickers in Sinai since victims began to present themselves in early 2010. Based on an analysis of around 700 of the 1,300 interviews it conducted with migrants who entered Israel from Sinai since October 2010, the physicians’ group reported that 59 percent of the interviewees said they had been subjected to serious abuses including “beating, whipping, burning/branding, electric shock, burying in the sand/soil, suspension by the limbs, exposure to sun, sexual abuse, threat of execution, shooting, [and] threats of organ removal.”
The Egyptian Government’s Position So Far
Egypt has a detailed and strong trafficking law, which provides strong protection from trafficking. Law 64 of 2010 On the Combat of Human Trafficking, which provides criminal penalties for all those involved in trafficking and sets out protection mechanisms for victims of trafficking, says article 23 in that, “Efforts shall be made to identify the victim, to classify him, to determine his identity, nationality, and age to ensure that he is far removed from his perpetrators,” and lists the rights of victims to safety, privacy, legal assistance, and protection of identity.
The National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking is attached to the Office of the Prime Minister and is responsible for coordinating government responses to combat trafficking. The National Council for Childhood and Motherhood has intervened in a number of trafficking cases involving foreign domestic workers, helping them get treatment at the National Bank Hospital.
In 2010, however, when Human Rights Watch brought the case of a group of 105 detained Eritrean asylum seekers and migrants to the attention of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the officials’ response was to deny the credibility of the information. Credible sources later told Human Rights Watch that the ministry had sent the information to the Interior Ministry, which responded that it was aware of the problem, but did not have the capability to intervene with Sinai-based criminal groups. In 2012, a community source told Human Rights Watch, he told a police officer in Sinai of the location where he believed traffickers were holding a group of migrants, but that the police officer said: “There is no way we can do anything about it. That area is known for being under the control of well-armed groups – the police can’t enter.”
Detention of Asylum Seekers in Sinai and Denial of UNHCR Access
Credible sources in Cairo confirmed to Human Rights Watch that hundreds of African nationals are detained in police stations in Sinai. The vast majority are Eritreans, many of whom are likely to have strong asylum claims.
The Egyptian government has consistently denied UNHCR access to refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants intercepted and detained in Sinai, despite the fact that a large proportion of them are Eritreans and therefore have strong grounds for seeking asylum. Egyptian officials have asserted that they are economic migrants and that Egypt therefore has no obligation to give UNHCR access to them. The officials have also ignored the horrific abuses committed against asylum seekers and migrants in Sinai.
This position is inconsistent with Egypt’s obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which requires Egypt to allow asylum seekers to apply for asylum.
Eritrea, ruled by an extremely repressive government, requires all citizens under 50 to serve in the military indefinitely. Anyone of draft age leaving the country without permission is branded a deserter, risking five years in prison, often in inhumane conditions, as well as forced labor and torture. UNHCR considers that, in practice, the punishment for desertion or evasion is so severe and disproportionate that it constitutes persecution.
Under Egypt’s 1954 memorandum of understanding with the UN refugee agency, the agency is supposed to carry out all refugee status determination in Egypt. This means Egyptian officials are obliged to give UNHCR access to all detained asylum seekers to identify those who want to claim their right to seek asylum from persecution.
Human Rights Watch said that by blocking UNHCR from visiting detention centers holding potential asylum seekers, the Egyptian government was not only disregarding its own agreement with UNHCR but denying would-be asylum seekers the right to seek asylum.
Egyptian police stations are not designed for long-term administrative detention and have no budget for food and health care for large groups of detainees for any period of time. Credible sources in Cairo confirm that some migrants end up spending over a year in police stations in conditions that fall well below minimum detention conditions required by human rights law.
Lethal shootings of migrants on the Egyptian border with Israel has also continued, although the numbers reported so far in 2012 is lower than in recent years. In its 2008 report, “Sinai Perils,” Human Rights Watch documented that in the vast majority of such cases, smugglers had already withdrawn when border guards opened fire. Refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants who had tried to cross into Israel repeatedly described incidents in which smugglers, in return for payments, led migrants at night to within walking distance of the border, pointed out the way, then withdrew. When the guards open fire, the smugglers are already far away, those interviewed by Human Rights Watch said. Even if the guards are genuinely trying to catch the traffickers, that would not in itself justify lethal force, which should only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life, Human Rights Watch said.
The Security Situation in Sinai
Egypt’s Sinai peninsula is a military zone. The number of Egyptian security forces in Sinai is regulated under the terms of a treaty with Israel.
Since Mubarak’s fall, the peninsula has become increasingly lawless, according to consistent media reports. In August 2011, across-border raid by armed groups from Sinai killed six Israeli civilians. On July 23, 2012, smugglers in Sinai shot and injured two Egyptian border police officers who tried to stop them from taking migrants into Israel. Unknown attackers have blown up a pipeline that exports gas from Egypt to Israel and Jordan 15 times since January 2011. Armed groups have also launched several rocket attacks into Israel from Sinai.
According to Israeli government figures, as of March, 58,000 sub-Saharan nationals had entered Israel from Sinai, the majority since 2007, 56 percent of them Eritrean and 26 percent Sudanese. In June, Human Rights Watch called on the Israeli parliament to repeal or amend a newly revised law that punishes asylum seekers for irregularly crossing into Israel.
Both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, ratified by Egypt, require the Egyptian authorities to respect and fulfill the right of all to security, meaning the authorities need to take all reasonable measures to prevent the most serious crimes.