To escape terrible circumstances in their home countries, many African migrants head to Israel in pursuit of a better life. Their journey often involves an illegal passage through Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, where they are then pursued by Egyptian and Israeli police forces. Their fate lies in the hands of their smugglers, who they pay in return for access to the Sinai. The smugglers use this opportunity to torture them, exploit their vulnerability and demand more money as a condition for ceasing their violent acts. Lit cigarettes and hot-iron bars turn the Sinai peninsula into a torture chamber.
When he left his neighborhood 70 kilometers from the Eritrean capital of Asmara, Tasva Majabi, 33, was unaware that he would later lose the ability to move his legs after three months of torture. He sustained puncture wounds from sharp metal tools and boiling plastic was poured on him by the human trafficking gang. The torture was meant to terrorize Majabi’s family into forcing them to pay thousands of US dollars in return for his journey to Israel. However, Majabi believed that he would eventually enjoy a blissful life and that the end result would be worth the physical pain, hunger and imprisonment that he experienced in the Sinai.
When Majabi spoke about his experience, he used a few Arabic words that he had learned inside the illegal migrant detention centers in Sinai: “I left my country for Sudan on a journey that lasted three weeks. We spent some time swimming toward the Egyptian border. After that, our Eritrean agent sold us to other agents from the Al-Rashaydah tribe that is near the Egyptian-Sudanese border. As we entered the border area in Rafah city, we became victims of human trafficking gangs. They shackled our feet with metal chains and started torturing us by burning our bodies with boiling plastic. This was done to force our families to send large sums of money. My family responded and paid more than $25,000 in total.”
He continued: “What got us in this situation is the fact that we were being sold from one smuggler to the other and our families were transferring money to each one of them. This vicious cycle continued until we were at the verge of death due to hunger and torture. At the time when we were being tortured and blackmailed, a group of 15 migrants were able to escape from one of the smuggler’s warehouses. We helped each other until we reached the house of Sheikh Muhammad al-Munai, who called a doctor and took care of the expenses. He provided us with shelter until we were able to leave the country and head back to Eritrea.”
When we entered the house of Sheikh Al-Munai, we found a large number of migrants who were taking refuge after having escaped from the smugglers. A short girl in her twenties called Almaz was present at the sheikh’s house. Her skinny figure and appearance reflected the hardships that she had to endure to reach Munai’s house. The girl covered her hair with what was left of her head scarf after the smugglers burned it to scare her family in Eritrea into transferring large amounts of money to save her life and allow her to cross into Israel.
The girl said: “They poured gasoline on my hair and set it on fire. They also poured boiling plastic on my back; I felt like I was going to die. They also used other methods to force the families of female migrants to send them money, mainly by raping them. Before I escaped the warehouse, when we were sleeping, the smugglers tried to wake up one of the Eritrean migrants before realizing that he was dead. They covered him with a bed sheet, threw him inside the car as if he was a bag of trash and then got rid of his body in the desert.”
Amid the ongoing torture, the “detained infiltrators” were allowed to make unlimited international phone calls. This service was not granted out of goodwill, to which Almaz said: “They allowed the migrants to call anyone they wanted; whether a relative or a friend, as long as it guaranteed more money for the gang. I called my father’s friends in Eritrea, who were able to send $17,000 to save me. They had to sell the family’s house, while my dad had to borrow money from his friends and family in order to free me and allow me to escape to Israel. However, the smugglers stalled before releasing me or sending me to Israel. Instead they demanded more money. They were torturing me as they were on the phone with my father, which forced him to send them an additional $7,000 dollars. They received a total of $24,000, but even that did not make them stop. They continued to torture me until I was able to escape and find refuge in the house of the sheikh.”
The house of Sheikh Muhammad al-Munai was turned into a shelter for migrants who wanted to illegally enter Israel after they were tortured by human traffickers. One of the Eritrean victims called Samsoum, 30, said: “They tortured me in all sorts of ways. They punctured my foot using hot iron rods and subjected us to psychological torture to force those who are financially capable into providing them with more money. They covered one of the infiltrators with a blanket and set him on fire, to force the others to send them money. Because of this brutal torture, seven out of the 60 migrants died.”
Mahati, 27 — who comes from the same area in Eriterea as Samsoum — said: “We traveled across thousands of kilometers in search for a better life in Israel. We wanted to work to provide for our families, which is why we had to endure the torture. They shackled our feet with metal chains to prevent us from escaping and as we got to the border area with Israel, they locked us up in warehouses and subjected us to all forms of physical and psychological torture. Every day, each of us only received a piece of bread and a slice of cheese.”
There had to be a strong belief that they would eventually attain a better life in order for them to have endured the torture. In this regard, Samsoum says: “I endured these circumstances after I heard the story of one of my colleagues. His name is Itay Matir, 34, and he was able to enter Israel in 2011. He found a job there that supported him and his family in Eritrea. This is despite the restrictions imposed by the Israeli government, which has deported over 30,000 African immigrants who entered Israel illegally. Racist demonstrations there are calling for the deportation of all Africans who are in Israel. However, I am still hopeful about finding a job that would compensate me for the money I had to pay to the smugglers.”
The other side of the story comes from one of the smugglers, a member of one of the trafficking gangs. He agreed to testify on two conditions: first that he would deliver a short statement without going into details about the border-smuggling operations, for, according to him, this is his source of income. The second condition is that he would be allowed to speak under the pseudonym Abu Firas.
Abu Firas said: “Acts of torture are uncommon, and are not adopted by all gangs that smuggle Africans into Israel. Most gangs smuggle them in directly into Israel as soon as they reach the border area. This is after a journey that usually lasts around 15 days, if no incident interrupts the flow of the journey. The number of gangs working in the smuggling business is around 50; however, this is not a conclusive figure.” He added: “Each gang handles different amount of immigrants. I personally handle 100 immigrants per week.”
Regarding the smuggling operations, Abu Firas said: “After we manage to pay large sums of bribes, we smuggle the migrants from the Egyptian-Sudanese border to Al-Salam Bridge and Martyr Ahmad Hamdi Tunnel in Suez. We then take the Africans to one of the warehouses, provide them with food, and ask them to transfer additional sums of money to compensate for the money that we had already spent toward paying bribes in order to facilitate their arrival to the border region. I do not deny that some smugglers torture African migrants in order to get more money.”
Amid such tragic circumstances, a light emerges at the end of the tunnel. Sheikh Muhammad al-Munai is not an old man as his title indicates. Munai is actually a young man in his 30s who turned his house into a shelter for the migrants who escaped from their tormenting conditions. The sheikh provides them with food and medical aid at his own expense before handing them over to the UN High Commission for Refugees. They then prepare themselves to be deported back to their home country.
Munai is against the ongoing smuggling operations and explains the circumstances that the African migrants have to endure: “The illegal African immigrants are subjected to awful circumstances that I cannot even begin to describe. No one can justify the acts of torture to which they are subjected. In previous months, we were able to save and deport a number of them [back to their home countries] through the UNHCR. I hope that the government finds a way to prevent such operations from their outset. For our part, we continue to employ all that we have to fight this phenomenon at the local level, even though we are certain that we cannot prevent it without the cooperation of the government.”
Munai was surprised by how simple it was to smuggle people into the country, even with the knowledge of the authorities. He said: “We are preparing to hold a number of meetings with dignitaries in the northern Sinai in an effort to halt this phenomenon. The smuggling operations have grown to a much wider scale and they have tainted the reputation of the Bedouins, and of the Sinai area.” He added that they would continue to confront the Bedouins involved in these inhumane crimes.
Munai’s brother accused the government agencies of not making enough of an effort to put an end to this phenomenon. In response to this accusation and the ongoing local efforts to which Sheikh Munai referred to, Major General Abd al-Wahab Mabrouk, governor of northern Sinai, released a statement: “Combing operations take place throughout the entrances of northern Sinai in order to prevent human trafficking. However, despite these measures, large numbers of illegal migrants and smugglers continue to arrive at the border. Some of them are arrested at checkpoints or while attempting to infiltrate into the border area. The security forces confront the infiltration by firing at the African migrants; as a result some illegal migrants sustain injuries. After we arrest them we contact the relevant embassies to extradite them to their country.”
Regarding the migrants that are killed by the security forces, Mabrouk said: “Illegal migrants are either killed by the security forces or by the smuggling gangs. The latter usually buries the bodies in the desert. After we find the bodies of the migrants, we hand them over to the relevant embassies; however, we bury unidentified bodies in [cemeteries in] Al-Arish, Rafah and Al-Shaykh Zuwayd.”
Mabrouk added: “The security forces usually deal with the official authorities, i.e. the embassies. The foreign ministry is the body responsible for dealing with human rights organizations.” He refuted reports of organ trafficking gangs that harvest the organs of the illegal migrants after they are killed. In this regards, Mabrouk said: “Organ trafficking operations cannot take place in the desert, because that would require well-equipped operation rooms with complex medical technologies that can perform complex medical analyses.”
On the other hand, Major General Salih al-Masri, security director of northern Sinai, refused to comment on, or even refute, these claims. However, a different security official in the directorate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, affirmed that the security services know exactly where the illegal migrants were being held and that they have a list of their names. He added that the security services choose to turn a blind eye to this issue and instead focus on maintaining security in the Sinai. The official said that the authorities are not concerned with solving the issue of illegal African immigration.”
In 2010, the US State Department issued a report on human trafficking that stated that Egypt is “a source, transit and destination country for women and children who are subjected to trafficking in persons, specifically forced labor and forced prostitution.” After this report, Egypt’s legislative authority enacted anti-trafficking law 64/2010 that incriminates human trafficking.
The second article of law 64/2010 states: “Persons shall be guilty of the crime of trafficking of humans if they sell, offer for sale, buy, promise to provide, exploit, transport, transfer, harbor or receive any human being whether inside the country or at its national border by the means of threat, violence or use of force, or other forms of abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purposes of exploitation. Exploitation shall include at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation of children including pornography, forced labor, forced labor or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”
Punishment for this crime: “Anyone involved in human trafficking will be sentenced to life in prison and will be forced to pay a fine between 100,000 Egyptian pounds and 500,000 Egyptian pounds,” if the defendant had formed, organized, or led a criminal human trafficking gang or was a member of this gang or “threatened to kill, harm, subject the persons to psychological or physical torture, or if the person committing such acts was in possession of a gun.”
Human Rights Watch issued a report that detailed the operations that target illegal migrants at the Israeli-Egyptian border. The report stated that the migrants were subjected to deadly force. In a report issued in 2008, the organization stated that the number of illegal migrants that enter Israel is around 100 per day. The total number of migrants that entered Israel between 2006 and 2008 is around 13,000, according to the report.
The report included a number of recommendations for the Egyptian and Israeli governments and the UNHCR. It called upon Egypt “to order its military not to use lethal force against the migrants, except in the case of a proportional and necessary response to a threat to life, to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into the killing of 33 Sudanese and other African migrants, and stop referring the cases of illegal migrants to military courts.” As for the Israeli government, the report urged it to “stop forced repatriation of migrants to Egypt after crossing the Sinai border, until Tel Aviv forms a system that ensures that the border-crossers can apply for asylum.” The UNHCR urged Egypt to “stop ignoring the applications of people from Darfur seeking asylum and start processing their requests.”
Regarding the issue of illegal African immigration, Heba Morayef, a Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “There are two types of violations regarding this issue. The direct violations involve the Egyptian border security forces opening fire and killing the migrants. While the indirect violations include the arrest campaign carried out by the security forces that target the migrants and prevents the UNHCR from visiting the detainees at the police stations. This is in addition to the acts of torture by the human trafficking gangs to get more money, which is a matter that necessitates the government to intervene in order to protect the victims.”
Morayef added: “The Egyptian-Israeli border is considered the worse in the world. The security forces have been killing any migrant that passes across the border instead of detaining him and enforcing the laws. On the US-Mexican border, which is hundreds of kilometers long, an illegal immigrant is killed once a year. Meanwhile, in Egypt, 50 migrants are killed every year. This is in addition to those who were wounded by the security forces. This only happens in Egypt. Furthermore, the Egyptian authorities do not allow visits to the detainees, including by members of the UNHCR or human rights organizations that support migrants... What is taking place in Sinai is very odd. Some African migrants have been in police custody for a year. One of the stations witnessed the death of a child due to the lack of proper health care. In 2007, the UNHCR filed a request to visit the detainees but are still waiting on a response.”