October 2012

Reports of Torture in the Sinai

Author: Kevin Appleby, Director of Migration Policy

The delegation has just concluded its visit to Cairo, Egypt and learned more details about the trafficking and torture of Eritrean refugees in the Sinai Peninsula.

Last year, USCCB conducted an assessment mission to East Africa.  At that point we traveled to Ethiopia and met with Eritrean refugees escaping poverty and forced military service in their home country. We found that because of limited opportunities in Ethiopia, many young people would continue on to Sudan, Egypt, and Israel.  They search for more viable livelihoods. However, during our time in Cairo, we have learned the grave reality of these treacherous journeys.

Many Eritrean refugees fleeing to Egypt through Sudan have been apprehended by Sudanese enforcement authorities while en route. The authorities then turn them over to the Rashaida tribal clan, who sell them to the Bedouin tribe in the Sinai. The kidnappers take them to "torture houses" in the Sinai where they are systematically raped and tortured.  The victims include women and children as young as 11 years old. The kidnappers demand as much as $33,500 from the victims’ families for their release. Families have been forced to sell all their belongings to the traffickers in order to secure the release of their relatives. However, by doing so, they leave themselves vulnerable to repeat extortion by the kidnapping rings when it is made known that they have the means to pay the heavy ransoms.

Those surviving this abuse have shared traumatic accounts including rape and other forms of sexual violence, the binding and beating of their hands and feet, being forced to stand straight for up to three days at a time, being burned by melting plastic on various parts of their bodies, and being locked away in unsanitary conditions without light and very little food or water. About 70 Eritrean refugees have escaped captivity in the Sinai and made it back to Cairo, but their lives are still at risk. Their traffickers continue to pursue them and some have been kidnapped more than once.

About 700 refugees are currently in detention in the Sinai.  Egyptian and Israeli authorities are well aware of the kidnapping rings and what they are doing, but the practice continues unabated.  The United States government should work with the Egyptian government to identify "torture houses" in the Sinai, rescue refugees in captivity, provide them with immediate protection, and consider them for expedited resettlement.  The United States should also encourage the Israeli government to uphold its responsibility as a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention and halt the practice of denying entry to refugees and deporting them back to dangerous situations.

It is unconscionable that these human rights violations continue, particularly when our nation has the power to stop it.  While we purport to lead the world in anti-trafficking efforts, we do not act to end it when necessary.