Sinai, before sacred, now a threat

Sinai is essentially known by its religious reference: the “Moses Mountain” in the south of Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, an important pilgrimage site both for Christians, Jews and the Islamic. Nonetheless, in the last months some news pointed to another reality, far less sacred and still quite unknown: a Sinai of kidnappings, affecting migrants’ – namely Eritreans’ – lives.

Sinai is part of those hardly defined “transit contexts”. It is located immediately before Israel, if we put ourselves in the position of a migrant coming from inland Africa. And Israel is one of the preferred destinations for the habesha migrants, among others. For its location, this peninsula is quite isolated from the official control, which is far more intense in Egypt’s mainland. In operation there is a human trafficking network beginning in refugee camps in Sudan and Eritrea up to Sinai.

The Israeli NGO Physicians for Human Rights, which offers medical care to asylum seekers and other unofficial workers, has been interviewing hundreds of people who state they have been kidnapped and tortured in the Sinai, informing of at least other 350 people presently caught. The smugglers ask for up to 30 500€ (after being paid around 3000€ by each migrant to ideally allow the passage to Israel) for the release of each of the kidnapped migrants, who are forced to contact families in the home countries as well as in diaspora (mainly in Israel and the USA). Those who are not paid in time are no longer found. In the meanwhile, the reported injuries include burning with hot plastic or iron, electric shocks, rape and penetration by objects, alongside the selling of organs if the extorted cash is not considered enough.

This evidence points to the existence of torture camps in Sinai, being even reinforced by the reference of mass graves of hundreds of people. Apparently, the only “freedom” of people in these camps is to pick up the telephone and call friends and families until the needed money is gathered. Some conversations are being recorded and shared online, and a particular one, by an 8-year-old Eritrean girl (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H85tB8VEIhk), is shocking the web.

The Egyptian authorities are not conducting any action in this matter and claim to have no information on trafficking or torture in the Sinai. Israel considers inappropriate to comment on an Egyptian internal issue; some migrants refer to have informed the Israeli police about these situations and having no consequent protection upon it. In the meanwhile, torture continues alongside the kidnappings, and the extortions create consequent financial hardships.

Israel keeps on proposing “voluntary departure” to Eritrean (among other) immigrants, disregarding their needed protection as asylum seekers. Some cases emerge in which, begging not to go back to Eritrea, these migrants are sent to Uganda or Egypt with no prior consent with these countries, and therefore continue their illegal path, feeding the same trafficking network.

“Ruthless kidnapping rings reach from desert sands to U.S. cities”, Joel Millman at The Wall Street Journal, 01-03-2013

“Egyptian authorities look the other way as Bedouin kidnap refugees”, Phoebe Greenwood at The Guardian, 14-02-2012

“Israel quietly sends migrants to Sudan”, Daniel Estrin at Associated Prees, 26-02-2013

“Attorney General orders a halt to Israel’s deportation of Eritrean migrants”, Talila Nesher at Haaretz, 05-03-2013

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