Egyptian activists are calling on the government to take action to save African asylum-seekers from what they call the "systematic torture" they are being subjected to by their Bedouin captors in the Sinai peninsula who demand thousands of dollars in ransom.
"The government says it does not have information [on this]," said Magda Botrous, a violence and physical safety specialist at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a local NGO. "But the problem is that the government doesn't try to get the information," she told IRIN.
According to some estimates, hundreds of African asylum-seekers cross into Israel every month from Egypt, getting help from what some rights advocates describe as "international human trafficking rings" which start in the Horn of Africa and end at the Egypt-Israel border.
Rights groups say around 200 of these asylum-seekers - mostly from Eritrea - are held in the Sinai desert and face torture and rape, with their captors demanding money before they are allowed into Israel.
The Egyptian foreign minister, however, on 12 December dismissed such reports as "mere claims" and even accused the organizations which issue them of attempting to tarnish Egypt's image.
"Whoever has information about the presence of African refugees in captivity in the Sinai has to prove it," Ahmed Abul Gheit said. "They have to give us the names of the refugees and the places where they are kept," he told local media.
Botrous and her colleagues insist the reports about the refugees in the Sinai are true. She says men are forced to work without food, and women are forced into prostitution.
"It is unbecoming of Egypt to fall silent while something like this happens," she said. "The government can't really understand that it has a moral and a legal responsibility to rescue these people."
Botrous's organization was among 13 local rights groups to issue a statement on 29 December, calling on the government to intervene. The organizations say the African hostages are beaten, burned, and lashed with electric cables, while the captors communicate with their relatives to pressure them to pay ransom.
"Women are separated from the men and repeatedly gang raped by their captors," they said in their statement.
In a 13 December update, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-Israel) said clinic staff began noticing a growing trend over the past few months of women, recently freed from detention, seeking abortions.
“In conversations with our doctors, many women confessed to being raped prior to entering Israel. Of a total of 165 abortions facilitated by the clinic between January and November 2010, PHR-Israel suspects half were requested by women who were sexually assaulted in the Sinai,” the update said.
During the same period, 1,303 women were referred for gynaecological treatment, a large percentage as a result of the trauma endured in Sinai, according to PHR-Israel.
In a video published on YouTube, Y.M Anna, an Eritrean asylum-seeker, describes the torture he underwent on his way to Israel at the hands of Bedouin smugglers.
“We were beaten brutally, whipped on the face and on sensitive body parts; we were chained, four persons on each side. One of the common methods [by the captors] to get more money is to call family members in Sudan and Eritrea and let them hear the painful cries of their relatives and ask for more money. Some US$4,000-8,000 is the price paid to smugglers to reach Israel,” Anna said.
“I was very depressed. I did not know what to do. I could not pay $4,000, so I stayed in the desert for a month and a half. It was very hard,” he said.
The 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report of the US Department of State describes Egypt as a source, transit, and destination country for women and children who are subjected to people-trafficking.
The government approved new legislation in May 2010 criminalizing people trafficking for labour and sexual exploitation.
"We only want to save these innocent people who suffer horrifying conditions in the detention camps in Sinai," said Hossam Bahgat, a local rights activist.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said in November there were 39,461 refugees and asylum-seekers in Egypt. It said the majority of the refugees were Sudanese, followed by Iraqis, Somalis, Ethiopians, and Eritreans.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions