It was in the Sinai desert that the nation of Israel received God’s law. Consequently we tend to think of the Sinai as a place of law-giving. Today, however, under Egyptian control, the Sinai (particularly the north-east) is absolutely lawless — a place of law-breaking. Not only has al-Qaeda established a presence, but Bedouin criminal gangs and human traffickers operate with impunity.
The Egyptian government knows that the clusters of concrete buildings dotting the Sinai desert are being used as torture chambers by human traffickers. The traffickers relay their victims’ agony to family members or diaspora groups via mobile phone to facilitate payment of ransom. Even when ransom is paid it is not uncommon to find that victims are subsequently sold on to other traffickers who repeat the process. Failure to pay will result in death by torture, including through the extraction of sale able organs. New York Times (NYT) estimates that some 7,000 refugees have been abused this way in the past four years and that 4,000 of them may have died.
The victims, mostly Eritrean (99 per cent), Somali and Sudanese refugees, include many Christians who have fled persecution in their homelands. Most of the victims have been kidnapped from the Shagarab refugee camps in eastern Sudan, home to tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees, and then transferred to the Sinai where they are sold to criminals. Eritrean opposition groups are demanding that Sudan improve security at the camps.
Chairman of the Ethiopia-based Eritrean Democratic Alliance (EDA), Tewelde Gebresilase, says human trafficking is carried out by a highly organised network that stretches from Eritrea to the refugee camps in Sudan and to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. It is a highly lucrative business, not only for the Bedouin, but for the Eritrean, Sudanese and Egyptian officials who are involved either directly or indirectly through taking bribes. According to intelligence sources, it is a major form of revenue for the corrupt and wicked regime ruling Eritrea.
On 1 April Amnesty International (AI) released a report entitled ‘EGYPT/SUDAN: refugees and asylum seekers face brutal treatment, kidnapping for ransom, and human trafficking’. (Index: AFR 04/001/2013). AI is appealing that Egypt and Sudan should ‘make urgent and concerted efforts to stop asylum-seekers and refugees being kidnapped from camps in Sudan, forcibly transported to Egypt, and being severely abused in the Sinai desert’. Reporting on a typical case, AI writes, ‘On 22 January 2013, two Eritrean women living in the Shagarab camps set out to go to church, but did not arrive at their destination. Camp residents believe they were kidnapped.’
Recently five Eritreans escaped from their captors during a fierce night storm. Whilst two perished en route, three made it to safety. Mhretab (27) is frail and heavily scarred. ‘We had barely anything to eat or drink,’ he explains. ‘And we weren’t allowed to sleep. If we did, they burned us. They scorched the skin on our arms or backs with burning plastic, or they burned us directly with lighters. They hung us from our feet and hit us. If we cried, they called our families and we had to beg them over the phone to pay for us.’ By selling everything they owned and taking up a collection at church, Mhretab’s family raised the ransom. But instead of releasing Mhretab, his kidnappers sold him on to other human traffickers. Lemlem (15) is totally traumatized. Wearing only a sweater, she asks the home owner if there is any underwear she can put on.
In another case, Ahlam (8) saw her ‘parents’ brutalized and other hostages murdered. On 12 March her captors put her on the phone to Swedish-Eritrean radio journalist Meron Estefanos. After recalling the horrors she had witnessed, Ahlam confirmed that the traffickers were threatening to take her from her ‘parents’ and sell her on to another gang. Fortunately for this family, they were released alive in late March after payment of ransom. Ahlam’s uncle Adem, who had posed as Ahlam’s father so he could stay with the women of the family to afford them some protection, has been hospitalised with serious torture injuries. Ahlam’s father negotiated their release from Canada while claiming to be ‘a distant relative in Saudi Arabia’. Ms Estefanos told NYT last year that Eritrean relatives sell land and possessions to raise ransoms. ‘They borrow money from people, go from church to church,’ she said.
This evil thrives because nobody is prepared to act against it. Egyptian President Morsi would say it is not in his interests to pick a fight with criminals who are hurting only non-Arabs and mostly non-Muslims anyway, posing no threat to him personally or politically. The Arab-supremacist, Islamist President Bashir in Khartoum, Sudan, would say the same. As for the Eritrean regime at the source of the problem, it is certainly not in its interests to see its refugees protected or its human trafficking revenues cut off.