From Sawa to the Sinai Desert: The Eritrean Tragedy of Human Trafficking

Daniel R. Mekonnen* & Meron Estefanos**

I am one or two days away from death; they will shoot me dead, thus if you give birth to a son please name him after me.

An Eritrean victim of human trafficking from The Sinai Desert


Eritrea is a twenty-year old nation with a long history of war, political violence, instability, excessive levels of poverty and economic deprivation. At least since 1960s Eritrea has been one of the leading refugee producing countries in the world. After its independence in 1991 Eritrea has seen a major decline in the mass exodus of its population. The trend has completely changed in the aftermath of the 1998–2000 Eritrea-Ethiopia border conflict. The situation further deteriorated after the political crisis of September 2001, the worst political crisis in the post-independence history. We take these as major indicators of forced migration. And our paper analyses earlier and latest trends of human trafficking in Eritrea, dating back to mid-1990s up to November 2011. Earlier trends of human trafficking were relatively of a lower magnitude. In the last two years the trend of human trafficking has escalated exponentially exposing thousands of Eritrean victims to horrendous acts of abuses, such as illegal organ harvesting, by Bedouin human traffickers based in the Sinai Desert of Northeast Egypt. By providing the relevant background information on the Eritrean tragedy of human trafficking, the paper discusses key recommendations aimed at alleviating the suffering of thousands of Eritrean victims. Part of the analysis in our paper is based on a selected sample of more than 100 interviews conducted with victims of human trafficking, relatives of victims and traffickers between February and November 2011. Collected via open-ended narrative interviews, some of our data was gathered as late as in November 2011 from victims who were still held hostage in the Sinai Desert.

1.  Introduction
Human trafficking, often described as ‘modern day slavery,’ poses serious threats to global order and human security.1 It is a violation of numerous international law standards and human rights protocols and is often conducted by criminals and members of well-organized crime networks around the world. The practice is common in countries with chaotic law enforcement, a history of political instability, pervasive lack of jobs and economic opportunity, as well as a history forced migration. Eritrea is one such country. The push-pull factors that compel people into forced migration are pervasive in Eritrea (Amar 1992; Bariagaber 2006; Bailet 2007; Conrad 2005; Hirt 2010; Kibreab 2009; Hepner 2009). Trends of human trafficking in Eritrea have been reported as early as the 1990s. However, the challenge reached alarming levels only at the end of 2010, when a wide network of human traffickers operated by some Bedouin tribes in the Sinai Dessert has been identified by reporters and human rights activists working in support of Eritrean refugees. The reports reveal that the Sinai Desert in the border of Egypt and Israel has become a major spot of human trafficking in recent years. The incidents taking place in the Sinai Desert involve illegal organ harvesting, extortion, sexual exploitation, torture and other forms of abuses perpetrated against a diverse group of African immigrants by Bedouin human traffickers. A considerable number of the victims, perhaps the greatest majority, constitute Eritreans who are fleeing their country in an unprecedented and high level of exodus. As a result, Eritrea makes a pertinent case study of human trafficking.

The stories discussed in this paper reveal atrocious violations committed against Eritreans victims in the Sinai Desert. No other experience of human trafficking that has ever come to our knowledge is comparable to the story of Eritreans coming from the Sinai Desert. Therefore our paper gives considerable coverage to the plight of Eritrean victims of human trafficking in Sinai, in addition to discussing the history of human trafficking in Eritrea since the country’s independence in 1991. In our analysis, we try to establish a metaphoric link between Sawa and the Sinai Desert. Sawa is a village located in the western lowlands of Eritrea and it is the hub of the biggest military training camp in Eritrea. As such, it is the symbolic centre of the excessive level of militarisation in Eritrea, this excessive militarisation being the major cause of forced migration at this moment. Sawa is also the starting point for the horrendous human rights violations committed against Eritrean victims of forced military conscription, both in the Sawa Military Training Centre and in several units of the regular and reserve Eritrean army. On the other hand, the Sinai Desert, located in Northeast Egypt, is the place where the worst form of human trafficking is perpetrated against Eritreans. Understandably the two places, Sawa and the Sinai Desert, have symbolic importance in the Eritrean tragedy of human trafficking. Thus the prefix ‘From Sawa to the Sinai Desert’ in the title of our paper intends to capture this relationship by establishing a metaphoric link between the two symbolic places.

The section of out paper which discusses earlier trends of human trafficking in Eritrea is based on extant academic literature on the topic and secondary sources as published by rights groups and NGOs. The section of our paper dealing with victims of human trafficking in the Sinai Desert is based to a greater extent on a selected sample of interviews done with more than 100 victims of human trafficking in the Sinai Desert, conducted by one of the current authors (Meron Estefanos). The data was collected by open-ended narrative interviews. Interviewees included men and women, and several underage children, the youngest being an eleven-year old Eritrean boy. The interviews were conducted by phone between February and November 2011 with over 100 victims of human trafficking. Many of the interviewees are still held hostages by Bedouin traffickers in the Sinai Desert. Almost the entirety of the interviews is with Eritrean victims. The choice for Eritreans was motivated by three major factors. Firstly, according to our preliminary findings Eritreans constitute the majority of the victims held hostage by Bedouin traffickers in the Sinai Desert. Secondly, since most victims speak only their native language, Eritreans were chosen because of the common language factor (Tigrinya) the interviewer shares with a majority of the Eritrean victims. Thirdly, the interviewer is a journalist and a human rights activist who has been involved in the plight of Eritrean refugees for several years and this particular study is a continuation of previous research projects the interviewer has thus far conducted individually and in collaboration with a number of Eritrean and non-Eritrean activists.

The data collected by the interviews reveal dreadful stories of atrocities perpetrated against Eritreans by the Bedouin traffickers. It also shows the extent to which Eritreans are affected by human trafficking and how they are facing it. A very common pattern indentified by the interviews is that individuals are routinely tortured for extortion. Women are raped multiple times by traffickers. In several instances, the organs of victims, such as kidneys, are taken out by traffickers to be sold inside and outside Egypt. In the process the body of victims is left to decompose in the desert or be eaten by wild animals. Some are buried in an undignified manner in the middle of the desert. The narrations epitomise thousands of other untold stories of Eritrean and other African migrants held hostage in the Sinai Desert by Bedouin traffickers. Nonetheless, by no means do these narratives purport to be representative of all accounts of Eritrean and non-Eritrea refugees. They are meant only to reflect the general pattern of victimisation suffered by thousands of victims in the Sinai Desert in the hands of Bedouin traffickers.

We note that at the time of the interviews all of the interviewees were hostages in the Sinai Desert. Understandably this may have the risk of over-exaggerating one’s own plight on the part of the interviewees with the motive of soliciting instant freedom from the hostage situation. Whilst this may be seen as a shortcoming, it is rectified by supplementary data collected from former victims who are now freed and live in freedom in third countries, mainly in Israel. The later information is gathered from interviews conducted with former victims by other organisations based in Israel, such as Physicians for Human Rights - Israel, Hotline for Migrant Workers – Israel, and Cable News Network (CNN). We also supplement our analysis by information gathered from international publicists, human rights advocacy groups and other media outlets, such as a local Egyptian TV chancel and newspaper. The latter is perhaps the first TV channel which has brought the plight of the victims to the attention of the international community in a wider broadcast. Our personal observations over extended period of time on the plight of Eritrean refugees and the overall human rights crisis in Eritrea are also a good source of information for analysis. As noted before, in this paper we use only a few samples of the over 100 interviews conducted with Eritrean victims of human trafficking. Clearly the stories we present here are a tip of an iceberg. The rest of the interviews will make a material for an ongoing broader research project on the plight of Eritrean victims of human trafficking.

The objective of our paper is two-fold. Firstly, it provides background information on the tragic trend of human trafficking in Eritrea. The aim is to provide the basis for effective campaign and advocacy. In this context, the article explores efforts taken or not taken by the Eritrean government, international actors and NGOs to address the challenge of human trafficking in the country. The other objective is to adopt key recommendations for future improvement. In so doing, the article draws on some insightful lessons from international best practices. The paper is organised as follows. In the second part we discuss the push-pull factors of human trafficking in Eritrea. In the third part, we discuss earlier trends of human trafficking in Eritrea as well as latest trends related to the ordeal of Eritreans in the Sinai Desert. In the fourth part, we discuss the Eritrean legal framework with regard to the prevention and persecution of human trafficking. In this same section we also discuss the role of non-state actors in countering human trafficking. In the fifth part, we analyse the steps that ought to be adopted by the Eritrean government in line with international best practices in combating human trafficking. In the final part, we summarise our main findings and key recommendations.

2.  The push-pull factors of human trafficking
Throughout its history, Eritrea has been a major refugee-producing country. Anti-Slavery International captures the following reasons as the main push-pull factors that compel Eritreans to flee their country: political persecution, compulsory military service, the need to earn a viable income to support families and the growing demand for labour in some regions (Anti-Slavery International 2006). These factors need to be examined in the context of the broader political crisis in Eritrea and the resulting mass exodus of its population, which is also elaborately discussed by a number of authors cited at the introductory part.

With a population of about four million people, Eritrea is one of the smallest countries in the world and the second youngest country in Africa. It gained de facto independence from Ethiopia in 1991 and was formally recognised by the international community in 1993. In the initial years of independence, the country has enjoyed a relatively peaceful transition. During this time there was a major decline in the mass exodus of its population. Between 1998 and 2000, the country sustained a devastating loss in a border conflict with Ethiopia that claimed more than 100 thousand lives from both sides. The border conflict was officially resolved by a number of international agreements and binding judgements given between 2000 and 2009. However, there is a tense stalemate between the two countries. To this date, the government manipulates the stalemate to justify severe restrictions on fundamental rights, including the suspension of the 1997 Constitution for more than thirteen years. In September 2001, the country saw the worst political crisis of the post-independence era which was a result of a political disagreement between the state president and a group of senior government officials who became to be known as the group of fifteen (G-15). Starting from the 1998–2000 border conflict with Ethiopia and following the political crisis of September 2001 the country has been ruled by undeclared state of emergency with adverse consequences to human rights and development objectives of the nation.

This period has seen a new trend of mass exodus of the Eritrean population during which time the country has become one of the most militarised states in the world. It also has alarming record of human rights violations and exceedingly high levels of poverty and economic deprivation, which are the most important factors for forced migration and human trafficking.

Given this sad reality, the designation of the Eritrean population by Kibreab as a society severely inflicted by a ‘powerful obsession to migrate’ should come as no surprise (Kibreab 2007, 99). Likewise Hepner also argues that militarisation, political repression, lack of educational and employment opportunities have reduced Eritrean citizenship to a status of ‘bare life,’ thereby necessitating a mass exodus of the population in the last decade (Hepner 2009, 116, 121). This is further epitomised by the metaphoric observation of Meyers who travelled to Eritrea in mid-2010 and observed that Prison Break2 was the television series most Eritreans wanted to watch (Meyers 2010). Beneath this penetrating metaphor is the tragedy of Eritrea becoming an open giant prison where every member of the population considers herself/himself a prisoner and relatives outside of the country are deemed rescuers. As a result of these sad developments, Eritrea has become synonymous with the ‘North of Korea of Africa’ and its leader is often described as the ‘Stalin of Asmara’ (Meyers 2010; Jeune Afrique 2010). In 2008, for example, Eritrea was the second highest refugee-producing country in the world in absolute numbers (UNHCR 2009, 16). Given Eritrea’s small population of around four million people, the figures are exceedingly high.

Several other authors have written extensively on the alarming level of human rights violations in Eritrea (Tronvoll 2009; Ogbazghi 2011; Mekonnen 2011; Mekonnen and Van Reisen 2011). A study, authored by one of the current authors in 2009, concludes there are sufficient factual and legal grounds to establish that crimes against humanity are being perpetrated in Eritrea with impunity (Mekonnen 2009). Credible and well documented reports on the alarming levels of human rights violations in Eritrea are also available from the periodic reports of independent media and human rights groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Committee to Protect Journalist, Reporters Without Boarders and others. Citing Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Watch, for example, states that there are currently about 40, 000 victims of detention without trial and enforced disappearance in Eritrea (Human Rights Watch 2009, 19). Based on the accounts of Eritrean refugees and exiled civil society organisations, Tronvoll suggests that estimates of political prisoners vary between 10, 000 and 30, 000 (Tronvoll 2009, 76). Space limitations may not allow analysing all such reports in greater detail in such a short paper. However, we would like to elaborate on one of the major causes of gross human rights violations in Eritrea, which is also a major factor for forced migration. This is excessive level of militarisation.

As noted before, in the aftermath of the 1998–2000 border conflict with Ethiopia, Eritrea has remained one of the most militarised states in the world. According to the Bertelsmann Stiftung/Foundation, Eritrea has an estimated army personnel of 600 000. This figure translates into a minimum of fifteen percent of the total population (estimated roughly at around four million), a figure which is exceedingly high given Eritrea’s miniature economic and population size. The percentage could be higher than this if the number of Eritreans not residing in the country is subtracted from it, which then gives about twenty-four per cent of the population inside the country. According to the International Crisis Group (ICG), the maximum limit of military mobilisation is normally believed to be ten per cent of the total population of a given country. If the figure goes beyond this limit, a society ceases to function normally (ICG 2010, 13). This is what is exactly happening in Eritrea, creating an exceedingly difficult situation for citizens to realise their personal aspirations in life even if they are not personally affected by abhorrent human rights violations, such as torture and imprisonment. Hirt calls this ‘social anomie,’ a state of large scale disturbed order and societal disintegration as a result of the inability of a large proportion of the society to realize one’s personal aspirations (Hirt 2010, 131–132, 163). O’Kaine and Hepner on their part describe the Eritrean conundrum as a ‘biopolitical experience of being reduced to “bare life.”’ In this context ‘biopolitics’ is defined as a state-led deployment of disciplinary technologies on individuals and population groups which ultimately renders citizenship to ‘bare life’ by producing pernicious perversions of governance and power (O’Kane & Hepner 2009, xxxiii–xxxiv; Hepner 2009, 121). Accordingly, Eritrea has now become one of ‘the hardest and worst dictatorships anywhere’ and ‘a hell on Earth’ (Prunier 2010). From a long list of credible sources that can be cited to support our claim on the alarming level of political repression, economic meltdown and excessive militarism in Eritrea, the metaphoric observation of Meyers, which compares the mass exodus of Eritreans with the American television series, Prison Break, stands out as a most eloquent of recent accounts (Meyers 2010).

Global indicators measuring economic progress and development indicate that Eritrea ranks at the bottom of the list of countries in the world. One example is the 2010 Global Hunger Index, which ranks Eritrea, together with Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as three major African countries with alarming levels of hunger. Disillusioned by such a disheartening situation of ‘social anomie’ and reduction of citizenship to ‘bare life’, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled the country in the last decade -- in an unprecedented scale since the country’s independence in 1991. Indeed, Eritrea has become a most important case study in showcasing how a combination of excessive militarism, authoritarianism and social anomie, can lead to a speedy fragmentation of societal fabrics and state apparatus. This can possibly lead to a failed state, unless the sad state of affairs is halted immediately. Cognizant of such a possibility, ICG warns that at present the future of Eritrea as a viable state looks bleak (ICG 2010), ii). The political situation in Eritrea is replete with all the relevant factors that prompt alarming levels of individual and collective victimisation, which are a major cause of mass exodus. The following section analyses the trend of human trafficking in Eritrea since the early years of Eritrea’s independence.

3.  Trends of human trafficking
Until recently human trafficking has not been a major challenge in Eritrea. As a result there has never been hard and fast numbers about the victims of human trafficking and the topic remained, like most other human rights issues, an under-researched area. However, with some latest developments that are taking place in the Sinai Desert, human trafficking in the Eritrean context has become one of the most topical issues for activists and researchers. It is evident that the Eritrean government is not making any significant effort to address the challenge of human trafficking. In fact, as will be seen later government officials are implicated of complicity in the ongoing illicit practice of human trafficking which has victimised thousands of Eritreans in recently years.

The Eritrean government does not comply with established international minimum standards, such as those provided by the UN Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking (UNGIFT 2009) and the annual Trafficking in Persons Report of the US Department of State. The government does not even acknowledge human trafficking as an emerging national challenge. For instance, a member of the Eritrean delegation to the Thirty-Fourth Session of the CEDAW Committee stated that trafficking of women is not a problem in Eritrea except concerns arising from Eritrean women who travel to the Middle East.3 However, this runs contrary to the findings of Anti-Slavery International which say that there seem to be no efforts by the Eritrean authorities to address trafficking in persons. In particular, Anti-Slavery International laments that:

It proved rather complicated to gain information on Eritrea. Despite the research findings and outcomes of the interviews in several countries (Lebanon, Ethiopia, Yemen), which indicated that Eritrean women are migrating for work abroad and can find themselves in a situation of forced labour, the Trafficking Programme Officer was unable to identify an organisation with experience in human rights and an interest in trafficking, information-sharing and collaboration (Anti-Slavery International 2006).

With no comprehensive research done in this area, there is no in-depth systematic record or a coordinated response to earlier trends of human trafficking in Eritrea. However, there are some reports of human trafficking chronicled by some independent sources and activists which classify Eritrea as one of the origin points for human trafficking, one of which is the report by Anti-Slavery International (2006). In 2007 and 2008 Trafficking in Persons Reports Eritrea is also mentioned as a source country for victims of human trafficking but only in the context of reports of other countries. Eritrea was for the first time tired only by the 2009 Trafficking in Persons Report. In the following sub-section we discuss earlier trends of human trafficking in Eritrea.

3.1.  Earlier trends of human trafficking
Some of the earliest trends of human trafficking in Eritrea, involving women as victims, date back to the mid-1990s when many female ex-tegadelti (ex-freedom fighters) begun to migrate to the Middle East as domestic workers. This particular trend of migration was an outcome of one of the most adverse government policies in post-independence Eritrea, which is the hasty demobilisation programme of thousands of ex-freedom fighters in mid-1990s. This had serious repercussions on the well being and human rights of the demobilised ex-freedom fighters, particular on female ex-combatants (Mekonnen & Van Reisen 2011). Left without effective supporting mechanisms, many have resorted to socially unacceptable forms of self-employment such as commercial sex work. Others have been forced to travel to some Middle East countries as domestic workers where they suffered maltreatment and abuse.

In the 2007 Trafficking in Persons Report (pp. 65, 253, 262) Eritrea is mentioned for the first time in the report as one of the countries of origin from which men and women travel willingly to Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Yemen to work as labourers and domestic servants. Some of them subsequently face conditions of involuntary servitude such as excessive work hours without pay, unlawful withholding of passports, restrictions on movement, non-payment of wages, and physical or sexual abuse. In the case of the UEA, the report particularly states that women from Eritrea (and other countries) are trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation. Some of them ‘were reportedly recruited to work as secretaries or hotel workers by third country recruiters, but were coerced into prostitution or domestic servitude.’

Semi-official accounts of the Eritrean government indicate that migration of Eritrean women, mostly ex-freedom fighters, to some Middle East countries was facilitated via the Labour Office, a government organ responsible for labour relations. According to a letter authored by a former Director General of the Labour Office, the facilitation was done in full knowledge of the fact that the migrants were often to be subjected to conditions of coercive labour and to debt bondage as they were required to pay off recruitment costs exorbitantly in excess of what they can afford, should they desire to return to Eritrea. The letter clearly states that women migrants had to expect tough working conditions such as restrictions on movement and excessive work hours. This, it was indicated in the letter, was acceptable as long as it complements government efforts aimed at reducing unemployment levels in the country (Berhane 2008). In another report compiled by the US Department of Justice Eritrea is also mentioned as one of the countries of origin for individuals trafficked to the US. In particular, the report narrates the following notable incident of human trafficking involving an Eritrean victim in the US:

For instance, in a case during Fiscal Year 2003, the Complaint Line received a call relaying allegations that an Eritrean domestic worker had been held captive in the home of suspected traffickers for approximately twelve years. Within three weeks, Civil Rights Division prosecutors, with Federal Bureau of Investigation and non-governmental organization partners, conducted an operation to secure the victim’s liberation. While the criminal investigation proceeds as of this writing, the victim is receiving TVPA victim services and has been reunited with family members (US Department of Justice 2004, 40).

Children are also some of the earliest victims of human trafficking in Eritrea. The aftermath of the 1998–000 border conflict has increased the number of children and destitute living on the streets. In recent years, a growing number of HIV/AIDS victims have also been noticed in the country with serious repercussions on the increase of number of orphaned children. For the year 2000, the ILO estimated that there were 183, 000 economically active children in Eritrea. Children between the ages of ten and fourteen represent 38.4% of the total figure from which 90, 000 were girls (Global March Against Child Labour 2004; International Labour Office 1997). Child prostitution is another emerging challenge in Eritrea. A data on commercial sex workers in the country collected in 1999 by the Eritrean Ministry of Labour and Human Welfare revealed that 5% of commercial sex workers surveyed were children between the ages of 14–17 years. It was reported that a ‘majority of the children entered the trade at an early age, with most of them starting off as street children and bar maids’ (Global March Against Child Labour 2004; ECPAT International 2007). In addition, the more than four thousand members of the UN peacekeeping forces who were stationed in the common border between Eritrea and Ethiopia were accused of purchasing sex from vulnerable Eritrean children and women (Reilly 2003). Children are also abused in the Eritrean army in the form of child soldiers, this practice dating back to the era of liberation struggle.

One earlier case study of child trafficking in Eritrea bears extraordinary characteristics. It involves an alleged participation of the Eritrean government in the trafficking of child jockeys to the Gulf States (Awate Team 2007). Conventionally, human trafficking is referred to as an ‘illicit market’ that pits governments against agile, stateless and resourceful networks of criminal syndicates empowered by globalisation (Naím 2003). In the Eritrean child jockeys scandal, however, the government had reportedly played the role of a trafficker, making the Eritrean experience typically unique from many other cases. According to the allegations, Eritrean government officials have organised the trafficking of child jockeys from the surrounding areas of Tessenei in western Eritrea via Sudanese rebel groups operating in Eritrea under deceptive Eritrean diplomatic passports (Awate Team 2007). As will be seen in the next sub-section, this has some remarkable similarities with latest developments of human trafficking that are taking place as late as in 2011, which involve the complicity of Eritrean government officials.

3.2.  The ordeal of Eritreans in the Sinai Desert
In the aftermath of the 1998–2000 border conflict with Ethiopia militarisation has been the most single important cause of forced migration in Eritrea. It is also a major cause of the human rights crisis in the country. The current excessive level of militarisation started in the form of a seemingly popular national military service programme (NMSP) promulgated in 1991 by the First National Service Proclamation, Proclamation No. 11/1991. Kibreab notes that in recent years the NMSP and its concomitant, the Warsai-Yikealo Development Campaign, have degenerated to a level of forced labour, a practice which is prohibited by the jus cogens (peremptory) norm of international law (Kibreab 2009, 4, 49). As a result, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have been fleeing the country in the last decade. Many have been conscripted in the Eritrean army for more than a decade without a formal salary and pay. In addition to this, conscripts suffer from unbearable treatment and abuse, including routine torture and other forms of human rights violations. The NMSP is equally applicable to male and female adults. Female conscripts are more vulnerable to abuses such as sexual exploitation, which is very common in the Eritrean army.

Frustrated by such grossly abusive practices of the NMSP, hundreds of thousands have fled to neighbouring countries in an unprecedented numbers. In their escape, they face grave violations, such as torture, extortion, sexual exploitation and death, as discussed in the following paragraphs. Ethiopia and Sudan are the first destination countries of Eritreans who are fleeing the country in an unprecedented mass exodus. Many of the escapees continue their flight to North America and Europe via different routes. For many years Libya was a major migration route to Europe. In recent years the Libyan route was blocked as a result of a bilateral agreement between Italy and Libya, prompting many Eritrean refugees to take an alternate route visa Egypt to Israel. This has resulted in an increased number of Eritrean refugees in Israel. Citing UNHCR sources, Weldehaimanot notes that by the end of 2009, there were 11, 852 Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel (Weldehaimanot 2011). The Egypt-Israel route has become a notorious spot of human trafficking in which context horrendous violations are committed against Eritreans. The violations are well documented by a number of Eritrean human rights activists as well as advocacy groups in Egypt, Israel, Italy and other parts of the world. A legal opinion prepared by the Eritrean Law Society also discusses the violations with a view to proposing possible legal remedies under international law.

In many cases the journey of Eritreans from Ethiopia and Sudan to Egypt begins in the form of a smuggling arrangement agreed between smugglers and the smuggled people (Weldhaimanot 2011). As can be seen from numerous reports and interviews of victims, the journey takes a different shape when the refugees arrive in the Sinai Desert. At this spot refugees are asked to pay more money than was initially agreed when they made the deal with the smugglers at the initial point of departure. The situation develops to hostage-taking and kidnapping. However, as reported by some interviewees there are also victims who have been hijacked by human traffickers before they reach the Sinai Desert. Such victims are hijacked from refugee camps in Sudan or Ethiopia. For example, two of the four underage Eritrean victims, aged between 11 and 14 years of age, interviewed by Estefanos earlier this year, were hijacked by traffickers from Sudan. The two underage children say they were kidnapped from the river that flows alongside the UNHCR Refugee Camp in Sudan, where refugees normally wash their clothes. Another interviewee, a 13-year old victim, told Estefanos that he was kidnapped from Eritrean territory near the town of Geluj. Many others are kidnapped from the agricultural fields in the vicinity of the UNCHR Refugee Camp in Sudan. On the other hand, a number of other victims interviewed by Estefanos tell that they were hijacked from the Mai Ayni Refugee Camp in Ethiopia under mysterious circumstances and brought by traffickers to Sudan and finally to the Sinai Desert. Another victim in the Sinai Desert, who has heart and kidney complications, told Estefanos that he was kidnapped on his way from Eritrea to the UNHCR Refugee Camp in Sudan and he asserted that he had no intention of migrating to Israel but he ended up becoming a hostage in the Sinai Desert (Estefanos 2011a; Estefanos 2011b).

According to an Egyptian human rights activist, Hamdy Al-Azazy, who was interviewed by CCN, ‘victims are chained and kept in camps in the open with no bathrooms and little water and food.’ Furthermore, ‘refugees are forced into slave labour, often working marijuana fields that flourish all over Northern Sinai.’ Al-Azazy adds that, ‘The women and men are kept in open areas. These Bedouins don’t have any morals or conscience. One girl told me that three Bedouins had raped 14 girls in one night (CNN 2011a). Some of the information given by Hamdy Al-Azazy is also corroborated by some of the interviews Estefanos conducted with more than 100 victims. One Eritrean woman who made it safely to Israel has told CNN that she was raped almost daily on a journey that took several months to get to Tel Aviv. The woman says, ‘Every night, they took me separately, and they did whatever they wanted to my body’ (CNN 2011a). Stories like this are replete in the more than 100 interviews conducted by Estefanos between February and November 2011.

Once in the Sinai Desert victims are also compelled to pay exorbitant prices to secure their release or smuggling to Israel. In recent months traffickers have asked victims to pay anything between US$ 20 000 and US$ 30 000. In order to ensure payment of the ransom, traffickers force victims to speak to their relatives and friends over satellite mobile-phones under the influence of torture and severe beating. In several instances victims speak to their relatives and friends while being beaten and abused by the traffickers. Many have paid the required random after hearing the groaning appeal of their loved ones. As such the cynical technique of the traffickers has effectively worked in several instances. Those who are unable to pay the ransom face a number of horrendous violations such as torture, electrocution, rape and other forms of violations. Some have suffered removal of organs to settle the ransom. As revealed by the Egyptian daily newspaper Youm7 the traffickers are equipped with sophisticated techniques of organ harvesting which implies that they have the support of medical personnel involved in this illicit activity. Once organs are extracted from victims they are injected with anaesthesia and preserved in a refrigerator to help prolong their viability. According to Youm7, evidence in this regard was collected from a car crash which involved the death of a doctor (possibly also a trafficker) who was travelling with mini refrigerators containing human organs (Saleh 2011).

In several instances victims are also killed to terrorise others. The following story, told to Estefanos by an interviewee named Biniam [last name unknown], is a typical example in this regard:

Well, they are continually threatening us. Whatever the case may be, we have told the hostage takers that we have no update, we have not made any developments in terms of the request for ransom that they have made. We were told we were given enough time, three days and now they think we are stalling with getting them the money. So they killed him before our eyes … They murdered him with a gun before my eyes (Interview of February 2011).

Physicians for Human Rights - Israel is one of several NGOs involved in the medical treatment of refugees who arrive in Israel via the Sinai Desert. In October 2010 the organisation conducted a survey of refugee patients who arrived in the country recently. The study reveals that 77% among 167 patients surveyed in the study were physically assaulted. Thirty-eight per cent of women reported sexual abuse. Between November 2010 and March 2011 the organisation facilitated 165 abortions. Half of these medical terminations of pregnancy were requested by women who had been sexually abused in the Sinai Desert (Weldehaimanot 2011). As late as November 2011, some Eritrean women still held hostage in Sinai and interviewed by Estefanos, tell that they have been raped multiple times by traffickers. In relation to the suffering Eritreans endure in the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea, Mekonnen has previously noted that the ordeal is comparable only with paranormal stories told by best seller novels or by Hollywood blockbuster adventure movies (Mekonnen 2011). With regard to the experience of Eritreans in Sinai this might look an understatement. The following paragraphs illustrate the situation.

The tragedy faced by Eritreans and other African refugees received broader international coverage after a special investigative report was broadcasted by the Egyptian TV Chanel 25 in October 2011. The investigative report materialised after a notorious trafficker was chased out of town by the locals who found out about his illicit activities. Mohammad Rashid, the sheikh of the Altyaha tribe told the daily Youm7 newspaper that after the trafficker was chased out the locals from his tribe found a mass grave filled with torn bodies and skeletons underneath 500 meters from the house of the trafficker. Some documents proving the transfer of money from Israel into the account of the suspect were also found.  This is in addition to 80 captives who were found in a secret cave 40 kilometres away from Nakhl town and 155 from Arish (Saleh 2011).

The Egyptian TV programme showed the mass grave of African refugees mentioned above. One scene was characteristically figurative. It showed a decomposed body of an African refugee, some part of his organs were apparently taken out by traffickers. This is clear from the decomposed body which displays a huge deformity in the part surrounding the abdomen. In the vicinity of the mass grave the television programme discovered some identity documents depicting Eritrean and Sudanese names. In the surrounding area there were poignant inscriptions written on the wall, apparently by the victims. Surprisingly the inscriptions were in Tigrinya, one of the nine vernacular languages in Eritrea and one of the two de facto official languages of the Eritrean government. The inscriptions include the names of Eritrean individuals and towns written in Tigrinya. Three desperate Tigrinya quotes written on the wall have particularly broken the hearts of many Eritreans who followed the TV broadcast online, including on Facebook forums. One inscription reads: ‘In God we Trust.’ Another one reads: ‘For those who have no body, there is the Almighty.’ The third one, depicted in the following still picture, extracted from the original video clip of the TV broadcast, reads: ‘This shall too pass.’

Still photo taken from a video clip showing the Tigrinya script, ‘This shall too pass’ [ezi win yhalif] as depicted in the Egyptian TV Chanel 25 broadcast (courtesy of: the Egyptian TV and

The broadcast of the Egyptian TV was heart-breaking and in many ways it sent a wakeup call to all Eritreans, including to ardent supporters of the Eritrean government who are known for their obstinate denial of the unfolding tragedy of Eritreans in the Sinai Desert. In few weeks’ time the report by the Egyptian TV was supplemented by another coverage broadcasted by the Freedom Project at CNN. The report, Death in the Desert, depicts in detail the ordeal of what it describes as mostly Eritrean, Ethiopian and Sudanese refugees (CNN 2011a). The report of organ harvesting initially reported by the Egyptian TV was corroborated by the CNN programme. In a follow report, CNN notes that more than 600 refugees were released after the initial CNN report was aired. The report hinted that the traffickers released the hostages for fear of reprisal by Egyptian authorities after the broadcast of the CNN report (CNN 2011b). Undoubtedly the international media coverage given by the Egyptian TV and CNN has helped a lot in raising awareness about the plight of Eritrean victims of human trafficking in Sinai. However, Estefanos has conducted a new set of interviews with victims still held hostage in Sinai after the two reports by CNN and the previous report by the Egyptian TV. Moreover, in response to the CNN report on the freedom more than 600 refugees, a group of human rights organisations have also published the following press release:

Claims that a large number of refugees have been released from Sinai camps following media reports represents only a partial picture of the current situation on the ground. Human rights organizations worldwide have come together to publish up-to-date information in their possession which shows that the smuggling networks are still up and running and that hundreds of refugee hostages are being tortured by human traffickers in the Sinai (Joint Press Release 2011).

Clearly the matter requires a lasting solution. And this can be achieved by a set of actions ranging from the deployment of robust security and law enforcement personnel in those places where human trafficking is taking place, to prosecution of those individuals who are suspected of involvement in this illicit and abhorrent activity of human trafficking. Given the current political crisis in Egypt, this kind of measure is unlikely to be taken by the Egyptian authorities. This concern is also aired by CNN which says ‘Egypt’s government and armed forces seem powerless to stop the Bedouin smugglers’ (CNN 2011a). According to the same source, at least some leaders of the Sawarka and the Tarabine Bedouin tribes have now acknowledged the existence of a network of human trafficking which involves bonded labour, torture and rape of women. They believe these crimes are committed only by some rouge elements of the tribes. Nonetheless, they also indicate that harsh measures against these rouge elements may stock tribal fighting. The situation is complicated. It therefore requires intervention by regional and international organisations such as the Arab League, the African Union, the European Union, the United Nations and others, possibly also the International Criminal Court.

On the other hand, those who are involved in the actual business of human trafficking seem to have a differing view. This view is apparent from the opinion of one trafficker interviewed by Estefanos in June 2011. He says as long as the refugee outflow is not blocked from its major sources in the refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan, the traffickers in the Sinai Desert will hardly desist from their illicit practice which has now become a good source of income for many. The person also insinuates that if Habeshas, a term commonly referring to Eritreans and Ethiopians, are sold to the Bedouins by other Habeshas, the Bedouins may not be expected to show mercy to strangers who are betrayed by their own brethren. In this sense, he was saying that in the first place these victims are lured and smuggled by their own people from the main refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan and eventually they are sold to the Bedouin tribes who abuse them in different forms. Seen from this perspective, his claim that the problem has to be solved first at its main source before it could be solved in Sinai somehow appeals to reason. The interviewee, who said he had regretted his involvement in the inhumane business of people trafficking, has also told Estefanos that he will no longer continue this illicit practice. A similar story was told to Estefanos by an Eritrean resident of Egypt who has been previously involved in the illicit business of human trafficking.

Whilst most of the horrendous atrocities are perpetrated by the Bedouin tribes in the Sinai Desert, some sources indicate the involvement on non-Bedouin elements in the human trafficking scheme. Eritreans belonging to the ethnic group of Rashaida, who share a number of similarities with the Bedouin tribes of the Sinai Desert, are the main Eritrean elements involved in smuggling and trafficking of Eritreans from Eritrea through Sudan to Egypt (Estefanos 2011a). Some of them are also suspected of involvement in human trafficking which takes the form of ‘sale’ of the victims to the Bedouin tribes in Sinai. For example, in one interview given to Estefanos a victim narrates that the traffickers told the hostages that the latter were bought from other traffickers at the cost of US$ 18 000 per person and in order to secure freedom each hostage was told to pay US$ 20 000; otherwise hostage were told their organs will be sold to settle the ransom (Estefanos 2011a). A similar story is narrated by the Egyptian human rights activist, Hamdy Al-Azazy, in an interview with CCN (CNN 2011b).

In addition to Rashaia Eritreans, victims and relatives of victims interviewed by Estefanos also mention some Tigrinya-speaking Eritreans who are believed to be involved in kidnapping victims from refugee camps in Sudan. In this regard, there is one particular person whose identity has been revealed to the Sudanese authorities but no measures have been taken thus far against this individual. This indicates that some Eritreans are as deeply involved in this criminal activity as the Bedouin tribes in the Sinai Desert (Estefanos 2011b). Interestingly a report published in July 2011 by a UN group of experts implicates Eritrean government officials in the involvement of human trafficking inside and outside Eritrea. The report in particular states:

The well-documented exodus of young Eritreans to escape poverty or obligatory ‘national service’ represents yet another opportunity for corruption and illicit revenue. People smuggling is so pervasive that it could not be possible without the complicity of government and party officials, especially military officers working in the western border zone, which is headed by General Teklai Kifle ‘Manjus.’ Multiple sources have described to the Monitoring Group how Eritrean officials collaborate with ethnic Rashaida smugglers to move their human cargo through the Sudan into Egypt and beyond (Eritrea-Somalia Monitoring Group Report 2011, 109–110).

Other Eritrean individuals mentioned by the report as being involved in human trafficking are Colonel Tewelde Habte Negash and Hanibal Kahsay. These individuals were reportedly involved in a lucrative human trafficking network run by the Eritrean Embassy in Kenya. The report of the UN experts also indicates that Eritrean embassies in Egypt and Kenya are used as conduit for payment of money resulting from human trafficking. Senior government and party officials linked to General Kifle’s command are said to be gaining profits from the practice of human trafficking. Furthermore, the UN Monitoring Group has identified a Swiss bank account into which the proceeds of human trafficking have been deposited. The report says the Swiss authorities have been informed about this, including about the personal and contact details of the Swiss-based coordinator of this trafficking ring and details of the coordinator’s Egypt-based associates (Eritrea-Somalia Monitoring Group Report 2011, 109–110, 386). Similarly, other interviews conducted by Estefanos also indicate that in several instances money-collecting for Sinai hostages is being conducted in the midst of Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. In one of her interviews Estefanos has also corroborated the existence of a Swiss-based bank account to which proceeds of human trafficking have been transferred.

4.  The Eritrean legal framework and the role of non-state actors
The 1997 Eritrean Constitution, which has never been implemented since its ‘ratification,’ provides the right not to be held in slavery or not to be required to perform forced labour unauthorized by law (Article 16(3)). In theory, these constitutional guarantees can be seen as solid foundations for the protection of people from forced labour the illicit practice of human trafficking. However, the constitution remains unimplemented, making Eritrea the only country in Africa, perhaps also in the world, a state without a constitution.

The Transitional Penal Code of Eritrea criminalises trafficking in women, infants and young persons which is done for whatsoever purposes (Articles 605-6070. In the case of trafficking for prostitution, the law imposes the punishment of rigorous imprisonment not exceeding five years and a fine not exceeding ten thousand Eritrean Nakfas. Under aggravated circumstances, the penalty can extend up to ten years imprisonment and a fine not exceeding 20, 000 Eritrean Nakfa. The crime of trafficking can be aggravated, among other things, where the trafficker has made it into a profession. Other aggravating circumstances include the use of fraud, violence, intimidation, or coercion, and cases in which the victim has been driven into suicide by shame, distress, or despair (Article 606). The punishments proscribed by the Penal Code are not sufficiently stringent. Furthermore, Eritrea has a poor record of law enforcement mechanisms. With a totally emasculated existence, the Eritrean judiciary is one of the weakest judicial institutions in the world, particularly with regard to the enforcement of fundamental rights.4 The weakness of the justice system is confirmed by several sources, such as semi-judicial organs of the African Union and the United Nations.

In Eritrea, senior government officials, including the state president, have been going scot-free after committing reprehensive abuses, especially after the 2001 drastic political crisis. Impunity has become the hallmark of the Eritrean justice system. As a result, the whole Eritrean society has lost confidence in the justice system in that no one dares to formally file a formal complaint dealing with human rights abuses in the institutions of justice. This is by no means helpful to any plans aimed at combating current and future trends of human trafficking in Eritrea. With no ongoing efforts on the part of the government to detect cases of human trafficking, the weak record of prosecution of human trafficking will continue as a major cause for concern. To advance anti-trafficking efforts, the government is expected to improve the investigative capacity of the police and enhance judicial understanding of human trafficking and to allow for more convictions of traffickers. Most of all, the emancipation of democratic institutions such as independent judicial branch and the facilitation of a peaceful political transition to democratic governance are crucially important.

In addition to the Eritrean legal framework, it is also important to assess the role of non-state actors in alleviating the Eritrean tragedy of human trafficking.5 By non-state actors we mean national and international NGOs as well regional, international and intergovernmental organisations such as the AU, the EU and the UN. A misguided policy of self-reliance, what Wrong describes as one of the obscure ‘national fixations’ of Eritrean government, is costing Eritrea a lot in terms missed opportunities in multilateral cooperation and capacity building as well as development, rehabilitation and reconstruction programmes (Wrong 2005, 382, 391, 392-393). In spite of the indispensable role of NGOs and international actors in combating human trafficking, the Eritrean government is known for its stricter regulations regarding the operation and functioning of local and international NGOs as well as international partners within the country. In this regard, Anti-Slavery International concludes that no organization ‘with experience in human rights and an interest in trafficking, information-sharing and collaboration exists in Eritrea (Anti-Slavery International 2006).

Since 1997, as a result of a harsh anti-NGO policy, several international civil society organisations have been expelled from Eritrea, leaving a huge gap in different areas of expertise (Human Rights Watch 2007). The few, still operating in the country, are only involved in basic humanitarian aid and emergency assistance programmes such as de-mining, the reintegration of IDPs and so forth. The only ‘NGOs’ interacting in ‘human rights issues’ are organisations such as the National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS) and the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW). These two organisations are the youth and the women’s leagues (arms) of the ruling party, whose leaders are single-handedly appointed by the same party. They are typical examples of GONGOs (government-operated non-governmental organisations). In contemporary civil society discourse, GONGOs are set up or maintained by undemocratic governments as ‘NGOs’ to disguise foreign aid and pay lip service to civil society participation (Naím 2007).

There are also some apparent shortcomings on the part of international actors. One of the leading international actors in the global fight against human trafficking is the US government. By its annual report on human trafficking and international assistance programmes, the US government is playing a prominent role in combating human trafficking. Notably, the annual Trafficking in Persons Report evaluates countries deemed to have a significant problem of trafficking, in terms of their effectiveness in preventing trafficking, prosecuting traffickers and protecting victims. The report gives an account of virtually all countries of the word and especially those countries which are making little of progress in terms of combating human trafficking. In spite of Eritrea’s poor record in this regard, the Trafficking in Persons Report began ranking the practice of the Eritrean government only 2009. In the 2008 report, for example, Eritrea is mentioned only four times throughout the report (at pp. 65, 165, 253 and 262) and this is done in the context of human trafficking challenges in other countries. As a country which does not comply with minimum standards and international best practices and as a result is not making any significant efforts in combating human trafficking, Eritrea should have been ranked in Tier III of the Trafficking in Persons Report at an earlier time. This was done only in 2009. In the 2011 report Eritrea continues to be ranked in Tier III and the report cites, among other things, the practice of forced labour as a major challenge in Eritrea.

Related to this issue is Eritrea’s commitment in terms of ratification of international human rights treaties. The ratification of the Trafficking Protocol is generally regarded as one of the global indicators on whether the issue of human trafficking has received the required attention by a given country. In this regard, Eritrea’s commitment is dismal. Eritrea is yet to sign the most important international instrument for combating human trafficking. It is only then that the issue can receive the required institutional priority in Eritrea. Even in terms of ratification of other international treaties and fulfilment of obligations emanating thereof Eritrea does not have a promising record (Mekonnen 2009, 84–86).

5.  International best practices in combatting human trafficking6

In the following paragraphs we discuss some of the most important measures that ought to be implemented by the Eritrean government and the governments of neighbouring countries. By its nature, the crime of human trafficking is underground and often under-acknowledged. In addition, the current politico-legal crisis in Eritrea contributes to an inability to determine the precise number of people who are victimized by traffickers each year. In the first place, the Eritrean government is yet to adopt a comprehensive and transparent national policy on human trafficking. The issue must be adequately integrated or mainstreamed in Eritrea, either at policy or programmatic level. The Eritrean government must also give due consideration to globally accepted tools and international best practices on combating human trafficking which include the following core components.

5.1.  Prevention
Human trafficking can be fought by building support to raise awareness, strengthening prevention, reducing demand, and supporting and protecting victims and improving law enforcement mechanisms. The prevention of human trafficking involves campaign and awareness programmes targeting potential victims of trafficking. Addressing the causes of vulnerability is one of the most practical tools to combat human trafficking. Naturally, awareness programmes should be intensified among illiterate women and conscripts of the NMSP who are most vulnerable to being trafficked. In this regard, the role of seminars and training courses as well as dissemination of relevant information in an easily accessible manner are generally regarded as most important components of prevention. The implementation of such policy, particularly in the most populous refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan, should be taken as a priority. The provision of access to education and employment opportunities should also make intrinsic elements of any prevention plan. In the case of orphaned and abandoned children, governments of host countries and other actors are expected to provide shelters and schooling so as to keep children away from traffickers (UNGIFT 2009).

5.2.  Protection
A successful protection plan in any anti trafficking initiative is characterised by the creation of task forces designed to address cases of abuse and exploitation against victims. With its Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), the US is one of the leading countries with a comprehensive-protective anti trafficking national strategy. It offers insightful lessons to future anti trafficking strategies around the globe. By enhancing pre-existing criminal penalties in other related laws, the TVPA particularly affords a variety of new protections to trafficking victims and makes available certain benefits and services to victims of severe forms of trafficking. Before and after being trafficked victims are always vulnerable. This unique position of vulnerability entitles them to guaranteed protection. In this regard, Eritrea is also expected to fulfil the basic protection safeguards required by the Trafficking Protocol. The protocol specifically calls upon nations to address protection of the human rights of victims and to provide measures for the physical, psychological, and social recovery of victims of trafficking (Article 6(3) of the Trafficking Protocol). The identity and privacy of victims should always be protected and victims should receive appropriate social services, counselling, medical and material assistance, and employment training and opportunities to facilitate transition and reintegration ( 2009).

The provision of adequate protection to victims of human trafficking encourages them to come forward and testify against traffickers thereby generating reliable information to crack down on trafficking organizations and implement effective prosecution plans. The protection needs of victims, which are always linked with rehabilitation and reintegration programmes, cannot be adequately fulfilled by governments alone. In this regard, the collaboration of international NGOs and the adoption of a multi stakeholder approach (via multicultural cooperation) are significantly important ( 2009). In light of this it is advisable for the Eritrean government to lift all stringent limitations imposed on international NGOs so as to allow them to play their respective role in alleviating the tragedy of human trafficking in the country.

5.3.  Prosecution
One of the most effective strategies in combating human trafficking is the adoption of a robust criminal justice system with appropriate crimes and adequate sanctions (Cullen 2006, 590). Apart from developing programmes aimed at prevention and protection, the Eritrean government should consider reforming the existing criminal law or enacting distinct legislation that provides stringent measures for human trafficking. Judgements and court orders must be implemented within a system that is quick and respects and safeguards the rights of the victims to privacy, dignity, and safety. The government should expand special training for officials and law enforcement agencies to identify and investigate potential trafficking situations ( 2009).

Prosecution of human traffickers is not an easy endeavour. The crime of human trafficking is highly clandestine. As a result, the great majority of human trafficking cases go unreported and culprits remain at large. Members of international criminal organizations involved in human trafficking are highly mobile and difficult to prosecute. Because of the lucrative nature of the business, members of the local law enforcement agencies, diplomats and others may collaborate with criminal syndicates, making prosecution more complicated. This is evident from the report of UN Monitoring Group (2011) discussed in the previous section of this paper which implicates Eritrean Embassies in Egypt and Kenya in the involvement of human trafficking. Victims of human trafficking, the most reliable informants on human trafficking, are most of the time traumatised and not willing to testify against traffickers. This means that the prosecution of traffickers requires the collaboration of different actors, ranging from national to international stakeholders as well as law enforcement agencies. In terms of technical assistance, capacity building and training among law enforcers, prosecutors, and service providers, the Eritrean government should seek international assistance from relevant international actors such as the Centre for International Crime Prevention and the United Nations Inter-regional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Trafficking (UN GIFT), Interpol, regional and international partners as well as donors. As mentioned earlier, with its TVPA and enormous financial and technical resources, the US government is one of the leading countries and could be one of the most important stakeholders in this issue. This is also true with regard to the EU and other developed nations ( 2009).
In a 2007 regional anti trafficking conference in East Africa, UNODC reiterated that alliances are needed to take actions and enforce anti trafficking laws in the region. The conference, which was the first of its kind in the East Africa region, also reiterated the need for greater coordination, cooperation and awareness in the same region. As an east African country, Eritrea is expected to fully cooperate with such regional initiatives. Eritrea was one of the countries which sent police chiefs, immigration officials and aid workers to the East African regional conference. Whilst this is can be seen as a commendable effort, the authenticity of the government’s commitment in this regard has been proven unreliable, as discussed in the previous sections of this paper. The government is yet to adopt a bold, lasting and solution-orientated national strategy on human trafficking.

5.4.  Reintegration
The reintegration component focuses on counselling and support services such as shelters, educational and vocational training, job placement, and financial assistance for victims of trafficking, especially those involved in prostitution and other harmful activities. Reintegration is an insurmountable challenge to victims of trafficking, especially in countries such as Eritrea, where such victims are regarded by the government as ‘criminals’ or ‘illegal immigrants.’ This was evident, for example, by the response of the Eritrean Ambassador to Egypt to the problem of human trafficking in the Sinai Desert. In response to the crisis, the Ambassador says Eritrean victims of human trafficking are in the first place ‘fugitives’ who have left their country of origin illegally and as such they have abdicated their right to protection from abuse (Estefanos 2011b). It is widely reported that refugees and asylum seekers who have recently repatriated to Eritrea by third countries have been ill-treated by the Eritrean government upon return to Eritrea, because for the simple fact of fleeing the country and crossing the national boarders ‘illegally’ the government labels them ‘traitors.’ Accordingly returnees are subjected to a number of harsh measures such as torture, indefinite detention and extra-judicial execution (Amnesty International 2006). Although there are no reported cases of abuse against repatriated victims of human trafficking, the tendency of the Eritrean government towards deported asylum seekers and refuges justifies fears that victims of human trafficking can also face the same treatment for some of them may have left the country in manners described by the government as ‘illegal.’ In such cases, the reintegration of Eritrean victims of human trafficking to their communities of origin is extremely difficult. Therefore, destination countries should consider residency permission on humanitarian grounds for trafficking victims who cannot return to Eritrea. Such victims may fulfil the requirement needed to be recognised as refugees (Anti-Slavery International 2006).

6.  Conclusion
Thought its history Eritrea has been one of the leading refugee producing countries in the world.  This trend has been halted briefly after the country’s independence in 1991. However, Eritrea saw a devastating border conflict with Ethiopia between 1998 and 2000. In September 2001 Eritrea also experienced the severest political crisis of its brief post-independence history. In the last one and half decade the country has become increasingly militarised. Eritrea’s record of human rights violations is comparable with only few instances in the world and virtually no other country in Africa. With very poor economic progress and development indicators, Eritrea is typically characterized by all the major push-pull factors that compel people into forced migration. There is a high level of propensity to migrate to countries generally regarded as wealthy or places where there is economic opportunity. In this context, the tragedy of human trafficking in unfolding in Eritrea with alarming scales.  As such, Eritrea has become a pertinent case of human trafficking in Africa.

In this study we have examined the history of human trafficking in Eritrea which starts from the mid-1990s. In recent years the challenge has reached critical levels.  As depicted by some samples of interviews conducted with more than 100 victims, relatives of victims and human traffickers, the atrocities suffered by Eritrean victims of human trafficking in the Sinai Desert are exceptionally unbearable. The situation requires immediate reversal of the main sources of vulnerability, such as poverty, underdevelopment, political repression and excessive militarisation in Eritrea. Our paper has discussed a number of recommendations that should be adopted by the Eritrean government and others in order to alleviate the suffering of Eritrean victims in the Sinai Desert.  One of the most important elements in this regard is democratisation of the current repressive governance structure in Eritrea. This is a principal precondition to tackle the challenge of human trafficking in Eritrea. As a result, we strongly recommend for the implementation of a peaceful political transition and the installment of a government of national unity which shall lead the transition to democracy.  Once a government of national unity is established, an inter-agency anti-trafficking task force should be constituted as a matter of priority. Meanwhile there are a number of other crucially important measures that should be considered by other actors.

Our research findings reveal that the situation in the Sinai Desert is too complicated for the problem to be resolved solely by Egyptian authorities.  Clearly the matter requires international cooperation in terms of deployment of robust security and law enforcement personnel in those places where human trafficking is taking place, and prosecution of individuals who are suspected of involvement in the illicit business of organ harvesting and human trafficking. The prosecution of individuals who are already implicated by the report of the UN Monitoring Group and those mentioned in several interviews of victims is a very important step in this regard. Given the current political crisis in Egypt, these measures are unlikely to be taken solely by the Egyptian authorities without the support of the international community and regional actors such as the AU and the EU.  Intervention by the UN and the International Criminal Court may also be deemed necessary.  On the other hand, efforts must also be put in place to provide for efficient victim protection services, such as rescuing those who are currently under hostage situation and rehabilitating and reintegration of those who have been freed previously.

 Draft discussion paper.
* At the time of writing, the author was a Bank of Ireland Human Rights Fellow at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, National University of Ireland, Galway; email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..
** Journalist and human rights activist; Secretary General of the International Commission for Eritrean Refuges, currently based in Sweden; email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


1. For a legal definition of human trafficking, see Article 3(a) of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children (hereinafter ‘Trafficking Protocol’).
2. This is a prominent American serial drama television on the story of a man who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death wrongly, and the effort of a brother to help the prisoner escape prison.
3. Explanation given by the Eritrean delegation to questions asked by the Thirty-Fourth Session of the CEDAW Committee, 16 January to 3 February 2006.
4. As a former Eritrean provincial court judge, the personal experience of one the current authors (Daniel Mekonnen) is illustrative of the dire situation of judicial independence in Eritrea.
5. The following paragraphs reply on previous arguments developed by Mekonnen (2007) with regard to the abolition of female genital cutting in Eritrea.
6. This section heavily draws on the following sources: UNGIFT (2009) and (2009).


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