Sarame* had looked forward to leaving Eritrea with her husband and living a better life in Israel, until they found themselves kidnapped for money by local Bedouins in Egypt’s Sinai desert.
"They threatened to kill me and my husband if we did not pay," she said. "They did not beat me, but other people were told to take off their clothes and were beaten. At the end, they separated the women from the men; they came in the night and took two girls. When the girls came back they were crying. The others did not ask what happened to them because they knew they had been raped."
Sarame, who spoke to IRIN in the Israeli city of Jaffa, is just one of the hundreds of asylum-seekers trafficked by international gangs every month from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East, mainly through Sudan, ostensibly in search of better opportunities. However, say human rights groups, many of them end up in captivity. Bedouin tribes in Sinai, which borders Israel, often hold them until their relatives pay a ransom.
"Over the past year, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel's Open Clinic has treated thousands of victims of torture who have entered Israel after surviving captivity and torture in the Sinai desert," said Shahar Shoham, director of the organization's refugees and status-less persons department. "Out of 284 interviewed, 59 percent report being held captive in chains; 52 percent reported that they were subjected to serious violence, including punching, slapping, kicking and whipping.
"We salute our colleagues in Egypt working to protect and defend the rights of refugees and call on Egyptian authorities immediately to put an end to the horrific acts we have documented, to free the captives, and provide full protection to the victims.
Like Sarame, another captive, Nasih, left Eritrea after a friend said there was a good job in Sudan. "Seven people were taken, but the employer took us to a house in Kassala [northeastern Sudan], where we found two girls chained," he said in Jaffa. "He [the employer] kept us in the house for one month, before he brought the seven to Sinai. It took 10 days to enter Sinai. Here, they beat us severely.”
After three days, he escaped but was caught again by the traffickers. "They beat me until my body was swollen," he told IRIN. "Then they told me to beat the others. An old man told me to beat the others because I had no choice. I was crying while doing this, so did the persons that I was beating. Then I was forced to build a house with the other men. The men were working while chained.
"We escaped from the smugglers again. I was weak and had swollen legs. The others ran, but they caught me again. I did not call my mother because she is very poor and I have no family abroad to ask for money to pay the ransom. They tied me for many months, and made me do dirty jobs. For 12 days I did not eat. I stayed 10 months with them, working like a slave. I lost sense of the days and months. Eventually, they sent me to Israel after friends I met in the Sinai paid US$3,000 for my release."
Another victim was Samuel, who also now lives in Jaffa. "After we arrived in Sudan from Eritrea, we waited for 21 days but the traffickers did not come," he said. "During this time, five in the group died of thirst. I don't dream of them but the words 'give us water, give us water' keep playing in my head. We drank our urine to survive. After the traffickers came, I was moved between five different groups [of smugglers]. I was held in a camp for 20 days, chained. I witnessed others die. I was beaten, denied food and water and tortured by exposure to the hot sun."
Like the other three, Fethawi went through a traumatic experience. "I saw four people die of thirst, after they were left without water for four days in the desert. They cried for water and for their mothers and there was none to give to them. I was really traumatized by this experience, and never thought I would get out alive. I could not speak due to thirst; it was a terrible experience and I suffered from nightmares long after."
Some of the survivors of this ordeal, now calling themselves the Sinai Group, regularly meet in Neve Sha'anan in Israel to pray both for those who died and for those still in captivity. "Some of the members come every month, some don’t, but it is good if they come and talk together," Sarame said, adding that not all traffickers treated their captives badly.
"There are more than 15 groups in the Sinai," she said. "Some of them treat the refugees well, give them food, advise them. There are three or four that are bad."
Forms of torture
According to Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, the forms of torture used include burial in the sand, electric shocks, hanging by the hands and legs, branding with hot metal, as well as rape and sexual abuse. "Forty-four percent of respondents stated that they witnessed violence and/or fatalities of other asylum-seekers," Shoham said. "Most mention being deprived of food or water during their period of captivity in Sinai."
In Egypt, local human rights groups have called on their government to ensure the asylum-seekers are protected in line with May 2010 legislation which criminalizes people-trafficking for labour and sexual exploitation.
“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 Organization 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 statement calling on their government to intervene. The victims, they said, were being beaten, burned, and lashed with electric cables, while the captors communicated with their relatives to pressure them to pay ransom.
"Women are separated from the men and repeatedly gang raped by their captors," the statement said.
These groups say they have continued to get reports about the inhuman treatment the migrants receive at the hands of their Bedouin captors. A group of 200 Eritreans, they say for example, has been detained for months now in inhuman conditions in Sinai.
The Bedouin have traditionally occupied the Sinai peninsula, a triangle-shaped region wedged between the Suez Canal to the west and the Israeli-Egyptian border to the northeast. The Bedouin, a historically nomadic people, complain of government neglect and discrimination. As a largely demilitarized zone under the terms of the 1979 Camp David peace agreement, Sinai is only lightly policed by the Egyptian authorities.
Egypt, according to the 2010 US State Department Trafficking in Persons Report, is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children who are subjected to trafficking in persons, specifically for forced labour and forced prostitution.
The report says Ethiopians, Eritreans, Sudanese, Indonesians, Filipinos, and possibly Sri Lankans migrate willingly to Egypt where they are sometimes subjected to forced domestic work.
A November 2010 report by the UN Refugee Agency said 39,461 refugees and asylum-seekers were registered in Egypt. Most of these, it noted, were Sudanese, followed by Iraqis, Somalis, Ethiopians, and Eritreans.
According to Human Rights Watch, a network smuggling sub-Saharan migrants through Egypt to Israel has been operating in the Sinai region since at least 2007. In addition to smugglers who guide people across borders unlawfully for money but who do not otherwise exploit and abuse them, there are also human traffickers operating in Sinai who abuse the migrants under their control and hold them for ransom.
The smugglers normally ask for $2,500-$3,000 for the trip to Israel border. But upon arrival in Sinai, the migrants often find themselves in the hands of traffickers who demand additional money - ranging from $500-$10,000. The traffickers threaten to kill or otherwise harm the migrants - in several cases, to remove and sell their kidneys for a large illegal market in Egypt - if they do not pay.
“Egyptian authorities frequently say they are cracking down on organized crime in the Sinai," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW warned, in December. "But the government is slow to react when human traffickers are holding hundreds of migrants for ransom."
* Aliases have been used