By Jonathan Moremi
Human Rights Watch Tuesday released a disturbing report about the ongoing human trafficking and torture in eastern Sudan and Egypt, urging authorities of both countries to finally take effective steps to stop the atrocities. The 79-page report “’I Wanted to Lie Down and Die’: Trafficking and Torture of Eritreans in Sudan and Egypt” documents how for years Egyptian traffickers have tortured Eritreans for ransom in the Sinai Peninsula, including through rape, burning and mutilation. It also documents torture by traffickers in eastern Sudan and 29 incidents in which victims told Human Rights Watch that Sudanese and Egyptian security officers facilitated trafficker abuses rather than arresting them and rescuing their victims. Human Rights Watch speaks of thousands of Eritreans who have been kidnapped and subjected to unbearable violence in the Sinai Peninsula, and the organisation has received new reports as recently as November 2013 and January 2014.
“Egyptian officials have for years denied the horrific abuse of refugees going on under their noses in Sinai,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher for Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Both Egypt and Sudan need to put an end to torture and extortion of Eritreans on their territory, and to prosecute traffickers and any security officials colluding with them.”
For the report Human Rights Watch interviewed 37 Eritrean victims and drew on hundreds of interviews conducted by nongovernmental organisations in and outside of Egypt as well as on statements by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) relating to its interviews of hundreds more.
The victims have given harrowing accounts of the torture inflicted by Egyptian traffickers to extort up to $40,000 from their relatives. All of the witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they saw or experienced abuse by the traffickers, including rapes of both women and men; electric shocks; burning victims’ genitalia and other body parts with hot irons, boiling water, molten plastic, rubber, and cigarettes; beating them with metal rods or sticks; hanging victims from ceilings; threatening them with death; and depriving them of sleep for long periods. Seventeen of the victims said they saw others die of the torture. Their relatives, who heard the victims scream through mobile phones, collected and wired vast sums of money to the traffickers to try and secure the release.
Collusion by authorities with traffickers
The report documents how both Sudanese and Egyptian officials have worked together with the traffickers. In some cases Sudanese police close to Kassala, Africa’s oldest refugee camps, arbitrarily detained Eritrean refugees and handed them over to traffickers who then in turn took them up north to Egypt. Some of the victims were as young as 16.
Victims reported that they had seen how Egyptian security officers had colluded with traffickers at checkpoints between the Sudanese border and Egypt’s Suez Canal, at the heavily policed canal or at checkpoints on the only vehicle bridge crossing the canal, at checkpoints in Sinai’s towns and close to the Israeli border as well as in traffickers’ houses, where members of the Egyptian military visited and saw trafficking victims without intervening or where Egyptian military personnel intercepted escaped trafficking victims and returned them to traffickers. Human Rights Watch interviewed Eritreans about 19 incidents that involved police and military collusion with traffickers. Eleven of the incidents involved the military and eight involved the police.
A 32-year-old Sudanese man told Human Rights Watch: “At the Suez Canal, the driver told us to get off the bus and we were told to wait in a house, about 150 metres away from the edge of the water. Just after dark, Egyptian police – in blue uniforms – arrived and a little while after a boat arrived. The smugglers put 25 of us in the boat, while the police stood about 50 metres away watching. We crossed the canal. On the other side there were three soldiers, wearing beige dotted uniforms and with small handguns, standing next to some men who looked like Bedouin. While the soldiers watched, the Bedouin loaded us into the back of two civilian pickups and told us to lie down and covered us with plastic.”
After release, victims are held by Egyptian police in harsh conditions
The report goes on to document how victims who have survived the weeks and even months of torture at the hands of traffickers, after coming free when the ransom is paid do not regain their freedom but suffer more horrific abuse, now at the hands of the Egyptian police who transfer them to military prosecutors and then detain them for months or even over a year in what Human Rights Watch describes as “inhuman and degrading conditions” in Sinai’s police stations. Despite torture marks clearly visible, they are routinely denied access to medical care.
“The Egyptian authorities deny trafficking victims their rights under Egypt’s 2010 Law on Combating Human Trafficking, which says they should receive assistance, protection, and immunity from prosecution”, the reports says. Instead, the authorities charge them with immigration offences, and deny them access to urgently needed medical care as well as to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, which considers refugee claims in Egypt. As the report points out, Egyptian authorities have repeatedly claimed that all Eritreans intercepted in Sinai are illegal migrants, not refugees, “ignoring the fact that since mid-2011 most Sinai trafficking victims have been taken from Sudan to Egypt against their will.”
A witness, who frequently visits detained victims of trafficking in Sinai’s police stations told Human Rights Watch that the police often do not take them to hospital despite the extreme injuries they have suffered or that in hospital doctors do not sufficiently care for them or refuse treatment: “When I identify someone who is particularly badly injured I ask the police to take them to hospital,” the witness told the researchers. “Sometimes they agree and sometimes they say no. And when I speak to doctors in the Arish hospital, some of them ask me why they should treat migrants who are trying to get to Israel where they will be turned into fighters and then attack Egypt.”
Detained victims of trafficking abuse in the Sinai have spent up to 18 months in Egyptian jails under the harshest conditions. 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,” the report states.
No attempt by Egypt to stop the crimes
Human Rights Watch says that the Egyptian authorities are not undertaking efforts to stop the human trafficking in the Sinai Peninsula despite widespread knowledge of the ongoing crimes. In November 2012, the organisation spoke with the secretary general of the North Sinai Governorate, Major General Jaber al-Arabi, responsible for local government affairs, who denied the idea that traffickers or kidnappers are torturing people in Sinai. “I haven’t heard or read any such reports anywhere. The police have never mentioned anything to me about trafficker abuses in Sinai,” the Major General said. “There are no refugees in Sinai and there is no one torturing anyone in Egypt, so don’t spread rumors. People enter Egypt and Sinai illegally and we arrest them, prosecute them in the military courts.” Naela Gabr, the chairperson of Egypt’s anti-trafficking committee established under Egypt’s anti-trafficking legislation, acknowledged that authorities had taken no action to date to address trafficker abuses in Sinai. When he sent newspaper clippings regarding trafficking and torture to the Ministry of Interior asking for investigations, he was told the information was false. “The public prosecutor said that migrant deaths in Sinai are caused by dehydration in the desert.”
Members of Sinai’s local communities, however, have confirmed to Human Rights Watch that the authorities are well aware of the ongoing crimes. Five Bedouin leaders interviewed by the researchers confirmed that it was “common knowledge who the traffickers are” and authorities, “including police and the military, clearly know about the trafficking and abuses, because Sinai has many government informants who know who is buying, selling, and torturing trafficking victims”. One Bedouin man said he knew of four locations around his village and had given the names and locations to the police in Arish. He said the police told him they could not leave Arish to investigate crimes committed outside the city and that he should instead speak to the General Intelligence Services. When he approached them, he was told they had “other priorities.”
A 17 year old trafficker, who Human Rights Watch could interview near the town of Arish, spoke freely of how he bought Eritreans from other Bedouins near his village “for about $10,000 each”, some already badly injured by previous torture. He said he kept the hostages in a small hut 20 kilometres away from where he lived and paid two men to stand guard. In order for the relatives to pay him he would torture them. He admitted that three hostages had died under his torture but said that he had “bought about 100” so far and had made well in excess of $200,000 profit. With regard to having to fear Egyptian forces intervening, he said: “The government doesn’t care so I don’t mind talking to you. The police won’t do anything to stop us because they know that if they come to our villages we will shoot.”
Since June 2013, the Egyptian authorities have intensified security operations in Sinai in response to almost weekly assassinations and attacks on police and military officers by Sinai-based groups. However, according to Human Rights Watch, no effort could be seen to stop the horrific, often even deadly human trafficking in the region. Swedish-Eritrean journalist Meron Estefanos, who has been a contact for hundreds of trafficking victims in the Sinai, said during the presentation of the report in Berlin, Germany, that traffickers seemed to have moved their hostages further to the south. The hostages who call her now to ask for help say they are being held in big tents and can see nothing but mountainous terrain around them.
The bodily and mental harm that is inflicted on the victims of human trafficking stays on long after the ordeal. Memories of the horrors lived through and witnessed as suffered by others keep coming back. Many saw people die because of torture and wished themselves dead so not to have to endure the nightmare any longer. As one victim confided in Human Rights Watch: “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.”
No prosecution to date of officials colluding with traffickers
Despite the widespread knowledge of the trafficking in Sinai and the severity of the abuses, Human Rights Watch says, senior Egyptian officials have repeatedly denied that the trafficking is taking place. The few who acknowledge possible abuses say there is not enough evidence to investigate and senior diplomats in Cairo told Human Rights Watch that the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of the Interior refused to discuss with them the question of abuses in Sinai. To date Egypt has not prosecuted any officials for collusion with Sinai traffickers, while Sudan has prosecuted only four. Given the nature of the abuses traffickers commit, officials colluding with traffickers and the authorities’ failure to prosecute them breach Sudan and Egypt’s obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture, Human Rights Watch said. Egypt, in addition, is in breach of its national and international anti-trafficking obligations.
The report urges the UNHCR to call publicly on Egypt to allow the organisation access to all detained victims of human trafficking in the Sinai. It continues to appeal to the League of Arab State and the African Union to demand of Egypt to give trafficking victims the assistance and protection to which they are entitled under Egypt’s Law on Combatting Human Trafficking, including immunity from prosecution for immigration offences, and allowing them to register as asylum seekers with UNHCR. Donor governments are encouraged to press Egypt and Sudan to investigate and prosecute traffickers responsible for the abuses and to hold accountable security officials who facilitate these abuses.
In a strongly worded eight-point recommendations catalogue to the Government of Egypt, Human Rights Watch demands that any military and law-enforcement operations in the Sinai include rescuing trafficking victims and arresting and prosecuting the traffickers, that victims must be protected and assisted, not prosecuted and not detained in police stations and not shot when found near the Israeli border.
“Egypt and Sudan are giving allegedly corrupt security officials a free pass to work with traffickers,” Simpson said. “The time has long passed for Egypt and Sudan to stop burying their heads in the sand and take meaningful action to end these appalling abuses.”