Hell at the doors of Europe: Trafficking in the Sinai Activestills
Trafficking in The Sinai

“In Sinai, I saw hell” relates Yonas Habte, a 32-year-old Eritrean Pentecostal Christian who was trapped by traffickers in the explosive region of Sinai, between Israel and Egypt. Yonas’ testimony brings to light what appears to be the most undocumented humanitarian crisis at the doors of Europe. A publication by three academics, Van Reisen, Estefanos and Rijken, “Human Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees Between Life and Death in September 2012 has hopefully also contributed to draw greater attention to this disaster. According to the report, the Sinai Peninsula has been synonym with trafficking, human suffering and death for Eritreans since 2009.  

A story of refugees

The horrific stories of the victims often begins in Eastern Sudan, especially in the Shagarab Camps, where approximately 1,600 Eritreans are incoming every month in order to seek refuge and escape a one-party state, long army conscriptions and a poor human rights record. Indeed, the UNHCR duly notes that “‘The human rights situation in Eritrea has seriously deteriorated…with regard to the treatment of opposition political groups and movements, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, arbitrary detention…and the treatment of draft evaders. There is an absence of civil society, political opposition or independent media”.

Some of them, hoping for a brighter future, decided to pay their way out to Europe or Israel, but never made it to the destination of their dreams. The number of refugees trying to flee to Israel has though drastically decreased, as Israel began to systematically deport Eritrean and Sudanese refugees since July 2013. Others were kidnapped inside the camp or even on their way to the camps, at the Eritrean/Sudanese border. The refugees are then transported to the Sinai by car. The Rashaida tribe, of Arab descent, is usually mentioned as being particularly involved with the transport.

The following of the story is captured by a report of Amnesty International, “Refugees and Asylum-Seekers Face Brutal Treatment, Kidnapping for Ransom, and Human Trafficking ”. Many of them are “sold” to Bedouin tribes, sometimes several times as they pass from hands to hands.

To believe Susanna Birgersson, a columnist at the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter, those Bedouin tribes have come up with a very “lucrative business”. “The business concept is based on demanding the Africans to call to their relatives in the midst of torture and convey traffickers’ demands of ransom” (In Swedish: here).

Lamlam, 17, told the BBC what happened to her after being handed over to the kidnappers: “The kidnappers would make me lie on my back and then they would get me to ring my family to ask them to pay the ransom they wanted.  As soon as one of my parents answered the phone, the men would melt flaming plastic over my back and inner thighs and I would scream and scream in pain”.

Van Reisen, Estefanos and Rijken, after having interviewed 123 refugees in the same situation, concluded that “torture is carried out routinely and includes severe beating, electrocution, water-drowning, burning, hanging, hanging by hair, and amputation of limbs – and is often a combination of these. Children, even the smallest babies, are reported to have been beaten. Women are subjected to cruel rape or gang rape on a daily basis, in view of the other hostages. Women are also tortured in the company of their children, and children are tortured in the company of their mothers. Women are tortured while pregnant – and their pregnancies are often the result of the rapes they suffer. If they find themselves pregnant, women hostages are told that the ransom will double once their baby is born”.

According to the German magazine Der Spiegel, ransoms are generally as high as €23,000 per prisoner, forcing the refugees’ family to sell lands, animals, properties or to take on loans. Some of the refugees are “lucky” enough to get released, and often seek refuge in Cairo. Some are not. Instead of being released, they might as well end up being passed on from kidnappers to other human traffickers. With again, demands for ransoms. Human Rights Watch, in a comment circulated in 2010 stated that “Some migrants said that once their relatives paid the additional money, the traffickers handed them over to other traffickers who asked for more money”.

And it might also be the end of the journey for many of them who could not afford the ransom, an amount extremely high for those fleeing out poverty. An Israeli NGO, Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) informed The Guardian that “We have heard of mass graves of hundreds of people”.

A story for the EU

The Sinai disaster has already spread out to the European Union. In Sweden, a Sweden-based journalist, Meron Estefanos was asked to pay 33,000 USD in exchange of her friend’s life, being held in the Sinai (In Swedish:here). As she did not manage to collect the money in time, she later received a text message telling her “Forget about it, use the money for the funeral. Good bye”. The trial was held in June 2013 and the conclusions are still to come. 

The EU Parliament, on the 15th of March 2012 has reacted to this horrendous situation by adopting a resolution, urging the Egyptian authorities to guarantee security in the Sinai.

The European Union has a particular responsibility for stopping the horror in the Sinai, as many Eritrean families and individuals with an Eritrean background are currently living in EU member states.

The EU could do many things to alleviate the situation. It could commence a program to support Eritrean refugees in Sudan. It could be involved in post-trauma reinsertion programs of the victims in Egypt and Israel. However, what the EU actually does remains unfortunately to be seen. 


Edited By: Lisa Enocsson

Photo Credits: Activestills via Flickr