They are hung from trees by metal chains attached to their arms and provided with plastic bags to collect their urine to drink when they are thirsty. They are gang raped, tortured with electricity and held prisoner in desert camps. When they escape they are shot, either by their Beduin captors or by Egyptian police. These savage and disturbing details, published piecemeal over the years, are just a part of the picture of what is being done in Egypt’s Sinai desert to African migrants.
The story probably begins with the end of the Ethiopia-Eritrea War in 2000, the beginning of the Darfur genocide in 2003 and the end of the war in South Sudan in 2005, each of which in its own way created numerous refugees. In December 2005, Egypt began cracking down on African migrants, in one infamous incident many (between 10 and 60) were massacred by police attempting to clear a park of their encampments.
This helped provide incentive to travel further afield, with Europe a tough destination, they trickled into Sinai and thence to Israel. Eritreans, who now make up the majority of refugees (10,000+), have been arriving in Israel since 2007. In that year it was reported that 48 African refugees deported to Egypt by Israel had been abused and then disappeared. One migrant claimed Egyptians imprisoned him and “poured boiling water on his body.”
At the time Egypt was busy trying to get rid of the refugees, sending them back to Sudan if possible. Criticism about the “disappearances” was raised by activists in 2007 mostly to complain that Israel should stop its “hot return” policy of immediately returning refugees to Egypt. One report alleged that 139 refugees had disappeared.
What the disappearances highlight is the increasing brutalization meted out to Africans in Sinai beginning in 2007.
Between July 2007 and October 2008, the media reported that 33 Africans were shot in Sinai while trying to cross the border into Israel. By March of 2010 more than sixty had been killed. The man charged with implementing the policy is General Muhammad Shousha, governor of north Sinai. For him it is quite clear; “of course it’s not a mistake that we shoot them, it’s necessary to shoot them. To deal with an infiltrator, he has to be fired at.” The migrants reported that the Egyptian border guards shot at women and children and that if they were captured alive they were then subjected to beatings and insults; “you are a Jew” and “you are the enemy of the Arabs and of Islam.”
They also claimed that the Egyptians wanted to know who trafficked them.
Suspicion of the Africans is part of a larger story. Some Egyptians argue that the smuggling is bad because it strengthens Israel; one Sinai resident claims “we are helping Israel. These migrants will go, take away Arabs’ jobs, work in agriculture and construction and it will all contribute to Israel’s plans.”
The privately owned, independent Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Youm has done some intrepid reporting on other horrors experienced by the migrants while in Sinai. An Ethiopian named Youssef related that he had gone to Khartoum in Sudan to work in a hotel and was approached by a Sudanese man who promised him a job in Egypt. He boarded a truck with others from Sudan and Eritrea and was transported in five days to Sinai. There he discovered the lure of a job was a scam and instead he was imprisoned by his Beduin smugglers. They demanded $3,000 and told him they would then take him to the Israeli border. Another man named Ali, also from Ethiopia, experienced a similar bait-and-switch.
He was beaten daily and told to phone family and raise money for his release.
In January the Israeli police arrested an Ethiopian and two Eritrean migrants for involvement in extortion and human smuggling. The three men had been hired by Beduin in Sinai to contact families of imprisoned Africans in Israel and extort money for the release of their family members being held in Sinai.
When arrested the men had $100,000, evidently collected to be sent on to Sinai for the release of African refugees. The stories coming out of Sinai are horrifying.
Migrants speak of desert camps run by the Rashida Beduin tribe. They are watched over by armed guards and tortured by being scalded with heated metal bars.
Modern day slavery exists. One woman, Wizar Tasapai from Eritrea, was tied up and kept in a fuel tank and told her kidneys would be sold if her family in Israel didn’t pay $2,800. The Beduin told her cousin “the girl is in a bad condition.
She is beaten and raped.” Her family paid the ransom to an Eritrean at the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv and he transferred it to Beduin. The woman eventually made it to Israel. Rape seems to be a typical brutality carried out by the Beduin smugglers against African women. An Eritrean woman reported to the Israeli authorities in February 2010 that she had been raped by eight Beduin men in Sinai.
A July 2010 report noted that women were often separated from the men and that they were all held in prisons underground.
In the same month the bodies of 10 African migrants were found mutilated in Sinai.
According to the Beduin of northern Sinai, the Egyptian security forces arrest them on smuggling charges.
But a recent incident seems to contradict those claims. On August 14th it was reported that 300 Africans were being held prisoner at a Beduin camp. One of them managed to steal a weapon and free several others. In an ensuing gun battle six Eritreans were killed. Egyptian police fanned out from al-Mahdeyya village, south of Rafah and shot two fleeing Eritreans and arrested 17 others.
There was no report that the Egyptians tried in any way to free those migrants being held captive. The Egyptian police seem primarily interested in killing or expelling the migrants.
Today Sinai has become a human prison, a place of death, gang rape and murder. While initially many of the Africans were refugees it seems now that, as with the sex slave trade in Eastern European women that was a staple of the 1990s in Sinai, the slave trade in Africans in Sinai has become a business – one where victims are recruited and then transported to Israel only as a way to get rid of the human cargo.
Israel has decent relations with Egypt’s security forces in Sinai. It is time to send the message that only a massive and coordinated crackdown on the Beduin smugglers will stop the flow of illegal immigrants, help Egypt’s image and end the hell that Sinai has become.
The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.