Many refugees, mostly from Eritrea, are being kidnapped and held hostage by criminal networks working in the largely lawless Sinai Peninsula.
Since around 2006, the Sinai Peninsula in eastern Egypt, bordering Israel, has been the site of what the UN has referred to as one of the most unreported humanitarian crises in the world. Criminal gangs operate through complex networks with impunity, and the region has been seen several cases of serious human rights violations, torture and human trafficking.
Operating in a largely lawless wilderness, gangs take refugees who are fleeing northwards towards Egypt and Israel hostage and demand ransoms for their release. The hostages are often tortured and some are killed. Meanwhile, many accuse the Egyptian and Israeli governments of not doing enough to combat the problem and of contravening their legal obligations towards refugees.
Escaping the Horn
Most of the victims of human trafficking and kidnapping in the region are from Eritrea. Thousands reportedly escape the repressive regime of Isaias Afewerki each year, some ending up in Ethiopia but more tending to find themselves in refugee camps in eastern Sudan. Eastern Sudan's Shagarab camp, for example, reportedly houses nearly 30,000 refugees.
But the likes of Shagarab are often unsafe and some refugees do not stick around for long. Many put their lives in the hands of people-smugglers promising safe passage to Israel or Egypt, but instead are kidnapped and held hostage.
Those believed to be responsible for most of these kidnappings are groups of Rashaida tribesmen, mostly located in Eritrea and north-eastern Sudan. However, these gangs are usually assisted by intermediaries inside camps, and allegedly even the Sudanese military, especially those at border checkpoints. Later on, criminal elements within the Bedouin community 'buy' hostages from the Rashaida, transporting them to Sinai and subjecting them to torture, forced marriage, rape or bonded labour.
Many former victims have recounted horrific tales of being held for months and repeatedly raped, of having plastic melted over their back and legs, and of being electrocuted and burned. Many have died at the hands of their tormentors.
The precarious peninsula
Sinai's lawlessness is a largely a result of its turbulent past. The peninsula was under Israeli occupation from 1967 until 1982, when the Israeli government returned it to Egypt as part of the Camp David Peace Accords. However, under the agreement, only a limited contingent of the Egyptian army is permitted in the region, despite Egypt's implorations for permission to deploy armoured equipment to secure the area.
Though international aid and investment has been sent into Sinai since Egyptian-Israeli peace, the Bedouin have continued to feel marginalised. The relationship between the Egyptian government and the Bedouin is one of mutual distrust. Egypt has repeatedly accused the Bedouin of collaborating with Israel prior to Sinai's return in 1982. Meanwhile, the Bedouin complain that Egypt's security services treat them disproportionately harshly, incarcerating hundreds of their kinsmen without trial. Additionally, Bedouin villages have little in the way of infrastructure, healthcare or schools compared with the rest of the country. And while the Sinai's Red Sea coast is dotted with high-end hotels, the Bedouin community complains that tourist cash does little to improve their lives.
In 2012, some Bedouin took advantage of the power vacuum in the wake of the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak to kidnap tourists, using them as bargaining chips for the release of their incarcerated kinsmen. With the country's economy in free-fall, and beach tourism a key source of foreign currency, the government worked tirelessly to secure the release of each batch of kidnapped tourists as quickly as possible, demonstrating Egypt's capacity to react effectively when it wishes to. Furthermore, in August 2012, Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, ordered security forces to "impose full control" over Sinai following an attack on a security post on the Israeli border which left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead.
However, similar efforts to protect or free enslaved Eritreans in the region have failed to materialise. And some have accused Morsi of having done no better than Mubarak, who failed to even acknowledge that the human trafficking problem existed.
Of course, not all the Bedouin in the Sinai are involved with human trafficking. Many have demanded the Egyptian government act to protect migrants' human rights. Sheikh Mohammad Ali Hassan Awad who lives near the Israeli border, for example, has said he has helped some of the trafficked people who had escaped. The sheikh, who has been working to prevent the trafficking in migrants for several years, commented: "We don't meet with [traffickers], sit with them, or buy from them...they feel isolated from their own people."
Egypt and Israel's treatment
On paper, Egypt has explicit laws to deal with human trafficking, but according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), as yet "there have been no known prosecutions of traffickers and other criminals responsible for abuses against African migrants and asylum seekers in Sinai".
In fact, Egypt has previously deported asylum seekers back to Eritrea, against protestations from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Trafficked Eritreans have also been the victims of unprovoked arrests and disappearances, while many have been detained and denied access to the UNHCR. Eritrean asylum seekers also remain particularly vulnerable to organ theft.
Egypt's actions violate both Egyptian and international laws on human trafficking, under which officials are obliged to give the UNHCR access to all detained asylum seekers. Furthermore, lethal shootings of migrants on the Egyptian border with Israel have also persisted. Refugees who had tried to cross into Israel repeatedly describe incidents in which smugglers, in return for payment, led migrants at night to within walking distance of the border, pointed out the way, then withdrew. By the time border guards open fire, the smugglers are long gone. Egypt told members of the UN Security Council that - though there is a shoot-to-kill policy in place - the killing of Eritrean refugees by security forces in Sinai is not deliberate.
Some local human rights groups have also called on their government to ensure the asylum seekers are protected in line with the constitution. "Our government must have clear plans for dealing with migrants who try to cross the border from here to other countries", said Ahmed Badawi, chairman of NGO the Egyptian Organisation for the Rights of Refugees. "Egypt has signed many agreements in this regard and it must abide by the terms of these agreements." In December, 13 Egyptian human rights groups issued a further statement calling on the government to act.
Even for those migrants that make it as far as Israel, many obstacles lie ahead. Israel has largely reacted with hostility to the arrival of refugees. Xenophobia is widespread and asylum-seekers are referred to as 'infiltrators'. Detention centres have been approved by the Israeli cabinet and a new Anti-Infiltration Law threatens asylum seekers with deportation - the alternative being up to three years imprisonment without trial.
In May 2012, a group of over 1,000 Israelis attending a 'protest rally' organised by right-wing Israeli Knesset members attacked a number of African refugees, beating them, vandalising their shops and breaking the windows of their taxis.
Given the apparent reluctance of Egypt and Israel to resolve the problems of human trafficking in Sinai, action from the international community could prove necessary. Firstly, Western powers could use their leverage on Israel and Egypt to push them to abide by their international legal obligations. Secondly, the entirety of the international community could share the burden of resettling migrants in third countries, relieving Israel of some of the burden. Thirdly, these countries have also considerable influence on Ethiopia, whose refusal to accept the international verdict on Eritrean independence is among the causes of these patterns of crime.
Media exposure could also be a useful tool. The impact of media coverage has already proven beneficial for many Eritreans. In 2011, for example, 600 African refugees who had been held captive in the Sinai while trying to make their way to Israel were released shortly after CNN International aired the documentary 'Death in the Desert'. It seems states often need to be shamed into doing the right thing.
Yohannes Woldemariam is an academic and writer. He grew up in Ethiopia but now lives in the United States, teaching International Relations and Comparative Politics at Fort Lewis College in Colorado. He is also adjunct graduate faculty in Comparative Public Policy at the University of Colorado in Denver.