Africa/Middle East: Sinai Trafficking

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Africa/Middle East: Sinai Trafficking

AfricaFocus Bulletin
December 12, 2013 (131212)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"[I]t is estimated that 25,000--30,000 people [mostly Eritreans] were victims of Sinai trafficking between 2009 and 2013. This figure includes those that have died, disappeared, and survived and those currently being held in the Sinai. It is also estimated that the value of the ransoms paid -- the 'Sinai trafficking industry' -- is, conservatively, USD 600 million over the last five years." - The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond, December 2013

Deadly risks to migrants and abuses of migrants' rights are found around the world. Yet while deaths of migrants on the US-Mexican border and in the Mediterranean sometimes gain news coverage and have been widely studied, those on other migration pathways are most often invisible to all but those most directly affected. This is certainly true of the journeys from the Horn of Africa to Middle Eastern countries in the arc from Egypt to the Gulf.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains excerpts from a new report on one of the most harrowing journeys, of Eritreans who are trafficked for ransom through the Sinai Desert. The full report, with devastating personal stories, is available at

As is often the case, there is far more related material to be included than can possibly fit in one AfricaFocus Bulletin. Over the last month, over 100,000 Ethiopian migrants have been expelled from Saudi Arabia, as part of a government crackdown on foreign workers. Another AfricaFocus Bulletin released today, not sent out by email but available on the web at, contains several background reports on this escalation of abuses against migrants in that country, as well as on the legal situation in Gulf states preventing defense of their rights.

Such denials of migrants' rights, it is important to note, are symptoms of a system of global apartheid in which rights and privilege are explicitly linked to country of citizenship and in which systematic abuses of vulnerable people living outside their country of citizenship are pervasive. For those calling for the world today to emulate Nelson Mandela's commitment to fight injustice, this is among the most critical challenges of our time.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on migration and migrants' rights, visit


Nelson Mandela

Adding more words to the torrent of tributes to Madiba seems superfluous. But those which I have found most worth reading are those which go beyond tribute to an icon, instead highlighting points of history sanitized away to suit conventional wisdom or those calling for action to address today's gross injustices which match those of apartheid in their consequences if not in their clear visibility.

The single source I have found most helpful in posting such alternatives to conventional wisdom is the blog (be sure to look back at posts beginning December 5), which also includes a superb collection of "Songs for Mandela" . Space and time allow listing of only a handful of other commentaries not already featured by Africa is a Country, which have not received much coverage and which AfricaFocus readers would likely find of interest:, with personal commentaries from several younger activists; Zakes Mda, "Neither Sell-out nor Saint"; Democracy Now, "Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro, 1991"; and Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, "Mandela's Long Walk with African History,"

And, finally, this song, from Soweto Gospel Choir:

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond [Draft]

Brussels, 4 December 2013

Prof Dr Mirjam van Reisen, Meron Estefanos, Dr Conny Rijken

Wolf Legal Publishers, Oisterwijk

[Excerpts: full text in PDF available at / direct URL -]

Chapter 3. Introduction to the trafficking cycle: Sinai and beyond People as commodities

This book follows on from a previous research study, Human Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees between Life and Death (van Reisen et al. 2012), which describes a new phenomenon of trafficking of human beings in which people are sold (and sold on) as 'commodities' for financial gain. For the first study, interviews were conducted with hostages in the Sinai who were in contact with family members for the payment of ransom. The data emerging from these interviews were triangulated with interviews carried out with survivors of trafficking and people working with survivors in Tel Aviv, Israel. These interviews cover the period 2010 to the beginning of 2012. The hostages included men, women, children and babies, all of whom were subjected to torture. While the purpose of the first publication was to document this phenomenon and give a voice to the people trapped in the Sinai Desert, the purpose of this publication is to build on this by adding to our understanding of the phenomenon, contextualising and mapping the broader scope of the phenomenon, and identifying possible solutions.

The trafficking in the Sinai, here referred to as 'Sinai trafficking', which developed after 2008, is particularly brutal and is characterised by abduction, displacement, captivity, extortion, torture, sexual violence and humiliation, serial selling and killing. The 'trafficking' aspect of the phenomenon involves the taking of people against their will or by misleading them and holding them as hostages for ransom or further sale. It can start as smuggling and evolve into trafficking or it can start straight away as trafficking. The hostages are often held for some time in places en route to the Sinai and extorted for ransom.

In the Sinai, the hostages are held in various locations and are often moved (and sold on) to subsequent locations. Ransoms are extorted from relatives and friends of the hostages or other third parties. The trafficking and ransom collection is often part of a chain of sales and on sales in which value is added at each point. As the hostages progress through the chain, the amount of ransom demanded increases to cover the 'investment' made by the traffickers, often reaching levels that are beyond the capacity of the hostages' direct family to pay. In the case of Sinai trafficking, the ransoms are so high that entire villages in the country of origin need to be mobilised to collect payments. Relatives in the diaspora are also asked to contribute and the amounts of the ransoms asked are significant, even for those who live and work in Europe or the United States of America.

The torture undertaken as part of the Sinai trafficking is cruel and frequent and is used to force the hostages to initiate contact with relatives or friends to collect the ransom. Contact takes place using mobile phones. The torture is often applied while the telephone conversations are taking place to pressure contacts into paying the ransom. The torture is functional, but also gratuitous and sadistic. Sexual violence, rape and group rape -- humiliating acts of violence that undermine the dignity and self-esteem of the hostages and leave them with lifelong emotional and physical injuries -- are frequent. Especially women and young girls are targeted for sexual-based violence. These acts of violence contribute to the commoditisation of the hostages by denuding them of human qualities.

Those who are not able to collect the ransom are often killed. The killing of fellow hostages adds to the pressure on the remaining survivors. ... A large number of people have disappeared in the Sinai, perhaps released and died en route to their destination or killed. Even if the requested ransom is paid there is no guarantee that the hostages will be released and, if they are released, that they will reach safety in Egypt or Israel.


The Sinai trafficking affects vulnerable refugees from the Horn of Africa, many of whom originate from Eritrea. The trafficking trade is facilitated by the expansion of mobile phones, which are used to coordinate the trafficking and collect ransoms. Ransom payments are arranged by mobile phones through money transfer facilities such as Western Union and MoneyGram or through individual middlemen and company intermediaries. The illegal financial transactions involve Eritrean middlemen who collect the ransoms.

The ransoms being demanded by the hostage takers in the Sinai have rapidly increased since the phenomenon began in approximately 2009, from a few thousand US dollars to tens of thousands of US dollars. Initially, no differentiation in ransom was made in terms of the hostages' country of origin; however, as time went on, higher ransoms were demanded for particular groups, especially for those originating from Eritrea, as the hostage takers realised that some groups were more able to collect ransoms than others.

There is an assumption that the hostages went voluntarily to the Sinai, either en route to Israel or to other places, motivated by a search for work. However, the first research study found that this was not the case and that the vast majority of hostages interviewed had no intention of going to Israel. In the first study, the hostages held in the Sinai were categorised as either kidnapped (and subsequently sold or surrendered to Bedouins in the Sinai) or smuggled (initially voluntarily, but then sold or surrendered to Bedouins). The research concluded that the status of the hostages varied.

Many of the refugees held hostage in the Sinai were kidnapped while in a refugee camp or on their way to a family reunion in Sudan or Ethiopia. A significant proportion of refugees were kidnapped from within refugee camps or surrounding areas, especially in Sudan (from Shagarab refugee camp) or while working in Kessala (Sudan). A smaller number of interviewees were taken on their way to Khartoum (Sudan), from within Khartoum or from Cairo.

The traffickers include Bedouins, who organise the torture houses in the Sinai. Members of the Rashaida and of the Hidarib tribe are also involved in the abductions in Sudan and in Eritrea. Eritrean refugees are involved as assistants to the traffickers. The steps involved in the Sinai trafficking, as identified in the first study are typically as following:

Step 1: Initial payment made by the refugee to be smuggled out of their country of origin

Step 2: Payments made by the refugee to guides en route to destination (refugee camps at Mai Aini or Shagarab)

Step 3: Abduction; payment demanded from refugee to reach a safe place (pretext)

Step 4: Sold on is repeated several times, each time increasing the payment demanded.

Step 5: Release or death

There is a predominance of Eritreans among the victims of Sinai trafficking, which was explained in the first research study as due to:

  • the large Eritrean diaspora (with finances at their disposal) and their tightly-knit family and community structure, which increases the chances of collecting ransoms demanded;
  • the relatively large number of Eritrean refugees and lack of alternatives for Eritrean refugees;
  • the relative destitution of Eritrean migrants and inclusion of Eritrean migrants in the trafficking network; and
  • the involvement of (some) Eritrean authorities and military officials in the trafficking and their links with a criminal organisation.

In the first research study, the observation was made that the start of trafficking in the Sinai coincided with the signing of the Italy-Libya Agreement and that this agreement may have compounded the rapid emergence of the crisis. Through this agreement, Italy arranged a de facto push back of refugees to Libya in a bid to reduce the number of incoming refugees. The agreement especially affects Eritreans as, due to Eritrea's colonial relations with Italy and Italy's proximity to the Libyan and Tunisian coast, many Eritreans try to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

In Libya, Eritrean refugees face persecution, detention and even deportation back to Eritrea. The refugees are likely to face prosecution and detention in Eritrea if they return as they would be accused of having left the country illegally (Eritrea does not allow its citizens to leave legally). The tragic events in early October 2013 in which several hundred migrants died while trying to cross the Mediterranean sea to reach Europe at Lampedusa, Italy illustrates the disastrous consequences of people taking such risks to reach Europe.


Chapter 8. Conclusions: The Sinai trafficking cycle

In this study we have looked at what happens to people who are captured, extorted and tortured in the Sinai. Treated as commodities, sold and resold -- these people are trafficked. The vocabulary of 'warehouses' and 'auctions' and the negotiation of the 'price' of the hostages is reminiscent of the age of slavery, when the value of people was determined by their market price.

In the Sinai, hostages are extorted for phenomenally high ransoms, which are collected from their families and communities at home and in the diaspora. As such traffickers create an even broader web of illegality and trafficking relations. Serial selling and successive extortion against ransom is common practice. Hostages are brutally and 'functionally' tortured to support the extortion, and sadistically, with a level of cruelty that is beyond words and comprehension. The physical injuries from this torture -- which includes burning, beating, hanging, dripping melted plastic, electrocution, mutilation, rape, and cutting off of hands and limbs -- can be so grave that they impact seriously and lastingly (and fatally) on the victim's future health. Their injuries incapacitate the survivors physically and mentally for the rest of their lives.


The Sinai survivors are in need of deep physical and mental support. They are often severely depressed, mentally disturbed and suicidal. However, the attempt of the world to close their eyes to the uncomfortable reality of the Sinai (and more broadly of refugees) has resulted in the almost absolute negation of the needs of these survivors.

Egypt's legal framework, Law 64 on Trafficking in Persons and the National Action Plan, provides (in theory) an adequate basis for a policy focused on the prevention, protection and prosecution of trafficking in human beings. However, implementation on all three of these aspects is gravely lacking. While the leaders of the Sinai trafficking rings seem to enjoy impunity, Sinai survivors are detained or deported from most countries they reach as part of a policy of push backs. The 'extortion' is continued as Sinai survivors are told that they need to collect the money for their fare to be repatriated to their home country -- the very place they tried to escape from. The survivors receive little or no legal support or legal representation and have no real access to asylum procedures. ...

Those who manage to cross into Israel face a set of severe measures designed to deny them from seeking asylum and they find themselves detained or deported. The fence constructed in 2012 along the Egypt-Israel border creates a physical barrier to the Sinai survivors entering Israel, even when they have managed to cross the Egyptian fence and are technically on Israeli soil. Regular and violent push backs to Egyptian soil pose a further obstacle to them reaching safety and (sometimes urgently needed) medical help. Collaboration between the military of Israel and Egypt prevent the Sinai survivors from seeking protection; exhausted and unarmed survivors are shot at (and killed or injured) by the military and suffer other forms of violence at the hands of the military. Sinai survivors are also deceived by the military, who tell them they are being brought to Israel, while in reality they are being transported to a detention centre back in the Sinai. The AntiInfiltration Law in Israel has the explicit, publicly-stated political intention to push back African migrants (especially Eritreans and Sudanese), framed and implemented with the appearance of legality. In contravention of the ruling of the Supreme Court, the Government of Israel is continuing with the effective imprisonment of asylum seekers in so-called 'open' facilities that are located in the desert and fully fenced.

The interviews conducted with Sinai survivors in detention camps in Israel revealed that the proposed repatriation is only voluntary to the extent that the alternatives offered are utterly inhumane. Sinai survivors should receive a genuine opportunity to state their case for asylum in Israel, as provided under the law. As refugees, victims of trafficking and victims of torture, with unsafe countries of origin and (as trafficking victims) unsafe last countries of residence, they have multiple grounds for applying for asylum. The current standard refusal based on a formulation collectively used for all applicants denies Sinai survivors the right to introduce their case for asylum.

In Libya, the Sinai survivors undergo detention, forced labour, torture and rape. They are also extorted for their travel fare for deportation back to their country of origin and for assistance to escape from the detention camps. They have no access to legal counsel or to a court. They have no opportunity to apply for asylum.

From Libya there are Sinai survivors who cross over to Europe. In this book we have followed Berhan, who is now 17 years of age and was tortured and extorted in the Sinai at the age of 16. He was on the boat that sank on 3 October 2013 near the coast of Lampedusa. Investigators established that some of the survivors of this tragedy had been detained, tortured and extorted in Libya. ... The practice of push back operations at the European borders seems to be at the detriment of a balanced policy between security and safety and raises questions about the intention of the policy of Frontex and European Member States: is it directed at the protection of asylum seekers or is it in reality just a push back operation to ensure that the boats of the refugees do not reach European shores?

The increased understanding reached of the circumstances of torture, rape and extortion suffered by these migrants (refugees and Sinai survivors) in North African countries challenges the justification of the externalisation of the EU's migration policy. Surely collaboration in the area of migration will have to respect the basic principle of non-refoulement to countries of origin or countries of last destination as provided under the international legal framework. This is not just a legal, but also a moral, imperative. The phenomenon identified in this study of the Sinai trafficking cycle is a real test of the EU's commitment to uphold its international obligations to combat trafficking in persons and to uphold human rights in the broader context of its migration policy. In order to deal with these challenges, the Member States of the European Union have only one option: to cooperate more with each other to identify joint standards and come up with common solutions to the issue of migration from North Africa. The EU Member States must provide the EU institutions with a mandate to develop and implement a realistic, fair and rights-based migration policy.

The passengers that crossed the Mediterranean Sea on the boat that sank at Lampedusa on 3 October 2013 were almost all Eritreans. The vast majority of the hostages in the Sinai are also Eritreans, and those who are not are often told to say that they are Eritreans. Why is this so?

The vulnerability of Eritreans to trafficking is the result of the deeply repressive military government in Eritrea and the involvement of the government's military Border Surveillance Unit in the repression, exploitation, smuggling and trafficking of Eritrean citizens. This study presents various cases of trafficking that start inside Eritrea and involve the Eritrean military in the activities related to the trafficking.

In the analysis of the organisation of abduction, it appears that there is a close collaboration between Eritrean traffickers and Sudanese security, military and police officials. Officials in Egypt are also part of the organisation that works with the trafficking leaders and provides impunity to those involved in the trafficking.


Based on the interviews conducted for this research and the various reports and figures available in other sources, it is estimated that 25,000--30,000 people were victims of Sinai trafficking between 2009 and 2013. This figure includes those that have died, disappeared, and survived and those currently being held in the Sinai. It is also estimated that the value of the ransoms paid -- the 'Sinai trafficking industry' -- is, conservatively, USD 600 million over the last five years. The value of the entire Sinai trafficking cycle (including fees paid after release from the Sinai to be deported back to their own country, fees paid to help them escape from detention centres, or fees paid for them to be taken to Cairo, Israel or Europe) could be much higher.

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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