EEPA: Human Trafficking in the Sinai – Refugees Between Life and Death
Human Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees between Life and Death
By Mirjam van Reisen, Meron Estefanos and Conny Rijken
Tilburg University/EEPA, Brussels, 26 September 2012
This report describes the horrific situation of trafficking of refugees in the Sinai desert, a crisis that
started in 2009. The refugees include men, women, children and accompanying infants fleeing from
already desperate circumstances in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan. An estimated 95% of the refugees
held hostage in the Sinai (also referred to as hostages) are Eritreans. Smuggled across borders by
middlemen, or kidnapped from refugee camps in Ethiopia and the Sudan as well as their
surrounding areas, and then captured or sold, the refugees are held hostage close to the Israeli
border in inhumane conditions and tortured for ransoms up to USD 50,000. A large number of the
refugees have died, either while being held hostage or after their release – often even after their
ransom has been paid. A large number of refugees simply ‘disappear’, killed while being held or shot
by the Egyptian military guarding the border with Israel after release.
The aim of this report is to give the Sinai refugees a voice. Through the interviews we can hear their
stories, and connect with them. It is hoped that this document will raise awareness among the
broader public of the desperate plight of these people as a step towards stopping this crime. A
second aim of the report is to contextualise these practices within the international legal framework,
and, in this way, highlight the obligations of states and international organisations, including the EU,
to take action against these practices.
This report examines the processes involved in the trafficking of the refugees (i.e., how the refugees
are recruited, how they are transported to the Sinai including their routes, and the conditions under
which they are being held) and the international legal framework applicable to these practices (i.e.,
whether or not these practices can be considered ‘trafficking in persons’, ‘torture’ or other).
The empirical evidence for this research consists primarily of recorded interviews with the refugees
conducted mainly by Meron Estefanos (radio presenter for Radio Erena, which broadcasts from
Sweden to Eritrea). A number of interviews were also conducted by others with resource persons
and with former traffickers and accomplices of traffickers.
A total of 123 interviews are included in this research, from which 363 persons have been identified
as being held hostage in the Sinai. Checks were made to identify duplication in the interviews (same
person interviewed or referred to at different times), where possible. These include 5 children under
10 and 16 children between 10 and 18. Of these, 104 interviews were carried out with refugees, and
primarily while they were held as hostages. This gives the interviews a particular characteristic. The
interviews were translated into English where necessary, then analysed and categorised into a
database to quantify information and identify patterns. To the extent possible, the findings were
crosschecked with other empirical datasets, in particular, interviews carried out by Physicians for
Human Rights, Israel with former hostages (which is based on a total of 1,300 interviews). However,
due to limited access to the region, lack of funding and security reasons, not all information was
During their journey to the Sinai, the position of those captured varies; they might start as a
smuggled person, a migrant or a refugee, but end up as a hostage, victim of trafficking and/or victim
of torture. In this report, we refer to this group of people as ‘refugees’, which is defined in Article 1 a
(2) of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 as a person who,
“for fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular
social group or political opinion”, is not in his country of nationality and is unable to return there.
Although we have not investigated whether or not each individual being held in the Sinai falls within
this definition, it is clear from the interviews that many of them, especially those of Eritrean origin,
feel that they cannot return home safely.
Based on the interviews, the refugees being held hostage in the Sinai can be categorised as either:
kidnapped (and subsequently sold or surrendered to Bedouins)
smuggled (initially voluntarily, but then sold or surrendered to Bedouins)
Many of the refugees who are being held hostage in the Sinai were on their way to refugee camps or
to a family reunion somewhere in Sudan or Ethiopia. The vast majority claim that their original
destination was not Israel. A significant proportion report being kidnapped from inside a refugee
camp, especially from Shagarab in Sudan or Mai Aini in Ethiopia. A number of refugees reported
being kidnapped from the Eritrea-Sudan border. Some of them were taken by force while working in
the area surrounding the refugee camp in Kessala, Sudan. A smaller number reported being
kidnapped from Khartoum in Sudan, or on the way to Khartoum, and some from Cairo in Egypt.
The organisation of the kidnapping involves members of the Rashaida tribe in Sudan and Eritrea, as
well as many Eritreans. The refugees are transported to the Sinai by car and then handed over to
members of the Bedouin tribes, residing in the Sinai.
In many instances the refugees are exchanged (sold) several times, and often after their ransom has
been paid. The trafficking generally consists of a combination of the following steps:
Initial payment made by the refugee to be smuggled out of their country of origin
Payments made by the refugee to guides en route to destination (refugee camps at Mai Aini or Shagarab)
Abduction; payment demanded from refugee to reach a safe place (pretext)
Sold on; payment demanded from refugee for the sale
Sold on; payment demanded from refugee for the sale
Ransom for release of refugee
Sold on; payment demanded from refugee for the sale
Ransom for release of refugee
Release or death
Ransoms are being paid despite the excessive amounts demanded. Relatives sell their possessions,
including houses and land, to come up with the ransom. Relatives in the diaspora in the West are
specifically targeted. It is reported that the ransom is collected through a network of illegal financial
transactions and transfers involving Eritrean middlemen. Transfers are usually made through
Western Union and MoneyGram.
The large number of hostages originating from Eritrea is explained by a number of factors:
the large Eritrean diaspora (with finances at their disposal) and their tightly-knit family/community structure, which makes ransoms easy to collect; the large number of Eritrean refugees and lack of alternatives for Eritrean refugees;
the destitution of Eritrean migrants, and inclusion of Eritrean migrants in the trafficking
network; and the involvement of (some) Eritrean authorities and military officials in the trafficking and their
links with a criminal organisation.
In the Sinai, the refugees held hostage live in the houses of the Bedouin families in dehumanising
and humiliating conditions. The spaces are very small, often without light. The hostages are exposed
to extreme heat from the sun and freezing cold temperatures at night. They are chained together
without toilets or washing facilities and dehydrated, starved and deprived of sleep. They are subject
to threats of death and organ harvesting, including through the death or killing of other hostages.
The hostages are without recourse to medical assistance. Those who attempt to escape are severely
As reported in the interviews torture is carried out routinely and includes severe beating,
electrocution, water-drowning, burning, hanging, hanging by hair, and amputation of limbs – and is
often a combination of these. Children, even the smallest babies, are reported to have been beaten.
Women are subjected to cruel rape or gang rape on a daily basis, in view of the other hostages.
Women are also tortured in the company of their children, and children are tortured in the company
of their mothers. Women are tortured while pregnant – and their pregnancies are often the result of
the rapes they suffer. If they find themselves pregnant, women hostages are told that the ransom
will double once their baby is born. Many hostages succumb to the torture. This torture can be
functional as it takes place to extort the ransom from relatives, but it can also be gratuitous.
Human trafficking in the Sinai involves the commoditisation of people in which profit seems to be
the only consideration. It is characterised by an extreme and excessive level of violence. The threat
of organ harvesting and death is part of the pattern of torture regularly described in the interviews.
The bodies of the dead are not buried, but thrown and left to rot in view of the hostages.
The hopelessness of the situation of the hostages often leads to a wish to die. Despite this, the
report testifies to some courageous and generous acts by the hostages (and accomplices of the
traffickers). Examples include (attempts to) escape, the collection of ransom for the weakest
hostages and children, and care for those close to death.
Based on the definition in the trafficking protocol to the UN Convention on Transnational Organised
Crime, it is widely recognised that ‘trafficking in persons’ consists of three elements: (i) the
recruitment (including transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons) (ii) by means of
threat or use of force (also including other forms of coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of
power or position, etc.) (iii) for the purpose of exploitation. Although difficult to prove, exploitation
as a motive is sufficient, while the coercive element of the definition relates primarily to the force
used in recruitment. The relationship between smuggling and trafficking can be complicated,
something that starts as a case of smuggling can turn into a case of trafficking in persons, or what
appears to be a situation of smuggling can actually be a case of trafficking if the person is mislead as
to the intentions of the smuggler and is not aware of his/her aim to exploit.
Trafficking in persons for the removal of organs must be distinguished from the trafficking/trade in
organs itself, which is also illegal if regulations are not followed, and which can follow a case of
trafficking in persons for the removal of organs, but does not always. Looking at the medical care
required for the transplantation of organs, and the fact that this has to take place within a very short
time after removal of the organ, a sophisticated infrastructure (removal, preservation, transport and
transplantation) is required for this form of trafficking in persons. Although reports indicates that
the forced removal of organs takes place in the Sinai, further information and research is required to
determine whether or not, and to what extent, trafficking in persons for the removal of organs is
taking place in the Sinai.
Based on the human rights legal framework, the obligations of States in relation to trafficking in
persons is framed in the 3-P paradigm: The prosecution (including the prohibition) of trafficking in
persons, the protection of its victims and the prevention of this crime. For states to live up to their
international obligations to combat trafficking in persons they need to take action on all three levels.
States that have signed the Geneva Convention can expel a refugee from their territory only on
proven grounds of national security or public order, and only after due process of law. However,
according to the principle of non-refoulement (or ‘push-back’) contained in the United Nations
Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, in no situation can a refugee be sent to a
territory where his “life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality,
membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. In brief, the principle of nonrefoulement
makes it illegal to forcefully return a person to a country where he or she faces
Another convention that is relevant in this context is the Convention Governing Specific Aspects of
Refugee Problems in Africa, which was adopted by the Organization of African Unity (later the
African Union) in Addis Ababa in 1969 and entered into force in 1974. This Convention is meant to
supplement the Geneva Convention. Article 1 of the Convention reiterates the definition of refugee
as defined in the Geneva Convention. This Convention confirms the principle of non-refoulement
and establishes the obligation of states that ratify it to receive and welcome refugees who are
unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin for the abovementioned reasons, to provide
them with travel documents and to cooperate with the United Nations High Commissioner for
This framework is relevant not only to preventing the human trafficking and torture that is taking
place in the Sinai, but it also provides a framework of support for refugees after they are released. At
present, the refugees who are released and the few that are able to escape face many challenges. If
they reach Cairo they are put in detention centres and prisons to await deportation. Given that
Eritrean refugees who are returned to Eritrea face imprisonment without trial, a few aid workers
have tried to change the deportation destination to Ethiopia. Since the anti-infiltration legislation in
Israel, the refugees are no longer admitted into Israel. A number of ex-hostages, including pregnant
women and children, describe spending weeks in the hot desert between the fences of the Egyptian
and Israeli border. They are given minimal food and water. Those who reach Israel are immediately
taken into detention centres to await deportation.
It has been argued that the practice of refoulement from Italy to Libya may be aggravating the
situation in the Sinai. The coincidence between the commencement of refoulement in 2009 under
the Italy-Libya Agreement, the decreasing number of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea, and
the beginning of the Sinai human trafficking crisis indicate that the push-backs by Italy may be
compounding the human trafficking crisis in the Sinai.
The push-backs of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea have resulted in several court
cases. A case that originated in an application (no. 27765/09) against the Italian Republic lodged with
the European Court on Human Rights under Article 34 of the Convention for the Protection of
Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms by 11 Somali nationals and 13 Eritrean nationals resulted
in a judgement by the Court pronounced on 23 February 2012 (known as the ‘Hirsi Sentence’). The
Court observed that, “according to the UNHCR and Human Rights Watch, individuals forcibly
repatriated to Eritrea face being tortured and detained in inhuman conditions merely for having left
the country irregularly”. The Court further considered that “all the information in its possession
showed prima facie that the situation in Somalia and Eritrea posed and continues to pose
widespread serious problems of insecurity”.
The judgment held that the Italian authorities did not properly register the persons involved and the
procedure lacked adequate analysis of their personal situation, thereby violating Article 4 of
Protocol no 4 to the Convention which prohibits the collective expulsion of aliens. Moreover, the
Court held that by intercepting vessels on the high seas and subsequently returning the intercepted
migrants to Libya, Italy violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR),
encompassing the principle of ‘non-refoulement’. The Court held that, with this operation, Italy
extradited people who “risked being subjected to ill treatment in the requesting country”.
In response to the humanitarian crisis emerging from the Libya-Italy Agreement, on 20 May 2009,
António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, urged the European
Commission to convene a gathering bringing together Italy, Malta, Libya, the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees and others to create a joint response to irregular migration across the
Mediterranean Sea. The High Commissioner referred to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights,
which is in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees the right to seek
asylum from persecution, while the customary international law principle of non-refoulement
precludes sending people back to situations in which their lives and freedom would be jeopardised.
In response to the crisis in the Sinai, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has also
asked for additional resources to increase the security for refugees in the refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan.