Sinai Becomes Prison for African Migrants
By SARAH LYNCH
Published: October 31, 2012
AL-MEHDIA, EGYPT — Frisgy Gamienbay, a 21-year-old Eritrean, was emaciated when Egyptian Bedouins discovered him late one September evening in the Sinai Desert near the Egyptian-Israeli border. A few weeks later, he died in an Egyptian hospital near the Rafah border crossing into Gaza.
When he was found he had not eaten for three weeks and had been tortured, said a man named Abou Hamad, who cared for Mr. Gamienbay at his house in the area in the days before he died.
The Egyptian government began military operations in August to root out extremists and get Sinai under control. But despite an increased security presence, criminal gangs in Sinai continue to take migrants and asylum seekers hostage en route to Israel. They are held for ransom and often tortured.
“This is one of the most serious human rights concerns in Egypt and it’s not being addressed,” said Nicholas Piachaud, North Africa campaigner for Amnesty International. “It’s a tragedy which has unfolded across many different countries and is playing out on an international scale but being ignored by the international community.”
Sub-Saharan migrants, refugees and asylum seekers began moving northward, aiming to enter Israel, around 2006, said Shahar Shoham, who directs the migrants department at Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, which provides medical treatment for them.
At first they were mostly Sudanese, who paid as much $2,000 to be taken to Israel, said Abou Mahoud, a Sinai Bedouin who said he used to smuggle them.
But since 2008 they have mostly come from Eritrea, said Ms. Shoham and other experts. It is these Eritreans who have become the main targets of extortion and trafficking.
Meron Estefanos, a human rights activist and radio presenter in Sweden for Radio Erena, which broadcasts in Eritrea and via satellite around the world, said that in some cases criminals lured young Eritreans seeking asylum in Ethiopia into crossing Sinai instead, with a promise of better lives in Israel. They then kidnap them, she said.
Over the past 20 months, human rights workers in Egypt, Israel and Europe have documented a disturbing new trend.
Hostages in Sinai say they never intended to go to Israel but were kidnapped in Sudan or Ethiopia on their way to refugee camps and sold to Sinai criminals to be held for ransom.
“We are actually talking about a few hundred in Israel that didn’t plan to come here,” Ms. Shoham said.
The kidnappers are members of the Rashaida tribe in Eritrea and Sudan, or other Eritreans, according to a September report by Europe External Policy Advisers, a research group in Brussels, and Tilburg University, in the Netherlands. The report was based on 104 interviews with hostages, conducted primarily by telephone while they were being held.
Many said they had been kidnapped from refugee camps, including the Shagarab camp, in Sudan, and Mai Aini, in Ethiopia.
A human rights worker in Cairo, who asked not to be named to protect his organization’s ability to work in Egypt, said that of 70 former hostages he had worked with over the past year, all claimed that they had been held and tortured in Sinai. About half said Sudanese police or border guards had assisted in the original kidnappings.
An estimated 20 percent to 30 percent of the mostly sub-Saharan migrants who have passed through Sinai since 2009 have been tortured, according to Ms. Shoham. The Israeli doctors’ group estimates that half the women have been sexually abused.
About 7,000 people in total may have been tortured in Sinai and 4,000 may have died as a result of the trafficking in humans from 2009 through late October, according to data from various aid and human rights organizations collected in Israel, Europe and the United States. Ms. Estefanos, the human rights activist, said about 1,000 were being held in Sinai and all were being mistreated.
A 24-year-old Eritrean woman told the Israeli doctors’ organization that her kidnappers had “put diesel on my head” and set her hair on fire. She said she had been held for more than seven months, hung upside down, beaten and given electric shocks before $25,000 had been paid by relatives to various traffickers to win her release.
Lying on a blanket on the floor of Mr. Hamad’s home in the desert in late September, Mr. Gamienbay displayed scars from melted plastic that had been dripped onto his body. Too weak to speak clearly, he relied on Mr. Hamad to tell his story.
Kidnapping victims sometimes wait months to be ransomed. Ms. Estefanos said relatives in Eritrea had sold land and possessions to pay extravagant amounts for their relatives — sometimes as much as $50,000.
“They would borrow money from people, go from church to church,” she said. “Some people are out on the street begging people to contribute.”
She began broadcasting her phone conversations with Sinai hostages, reached on their abductors’ mobile phones, in January 2011 to tell Eritreans at home and in the Eritrean diaspora about what was happening in Sinai and the region. She also helps to collect funds for ransom.
In one case, a group of Norwegians collected money to win the release of eight Eritreans in April after publicity about the kidnapping of an Eritrean whose brother lived in Norway.
“People are saying that until the Norwegian government does something to stop this, we will continue to pay,” Ms. Estefanos said. “They had concerts, dinners, auctions where people can donate anything they own. Some people are donating their paintings. A fisherman donated 500 kilos of salmon.”
But even after a ransom is secured, victims may be resold, human rights activists say, and the ransom process can begin again.
And even if they escape, or are set free, former hostages find themselves on their own, wandering in Sinai close to Egypt’s fraught border with Israel, where “they’re essentially in a sort of no man’s land,” said Mr. Piachaud, the Amnesty International North Africa campaigner.
If they approach the fence at the Egyptian-Israeli border, they risk being shot by Egyptian border guards or refused entry into Israel. If they make it into Israel, they face indefinite detention because of an anti-infiltration law that punishes asylum seekers for “irregularly” entering the country. If found by Egyptian security forces they face detention by the Egyptian government as illegal migrants.
No comment was immediately available from the Egyptian authorities on the issues of migrant trafficking and hostage holding in the Sinai region.
Sheik Mohammad Ali Hassan Awad, who lives near the Israeli border, said he had helped some of the trafficked Africans who had escaped. The sheik, who has been working to prevent the trafficking in migrants for several years, said he had given them food, water and shelter at his Sinai home.
He also said that there were no more than 20 Sinai traffickers and that the trade in humans had declined 80 percent over the past year, possibly because of his efforts to persuade locals to shun the criminals.
“We don’t meet with them, sit with them, or buy from them,” he said. “They feel isolated from their own people.”
Even so, the bodies of three Eritreans were found Sept. 24 in the northern Sinai Desert, not an unusual fate for those held in torture cells.