Stop the Sinai smugglers

A shift in Sinai security strategy must include cracking down on torture camps.

September 22, 2011 00:08
2 minute read.
An Egyptian soldier on the Israeli border in Sinai

An Egyptian soldier on the Israeli border in Sinai 311 (R). (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)


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Two thousand Egyptian troops are currently fighting to take back the northern Sinai desert, which Bedouin networks have ruled with impunity since the Camp David Accords demilitarized the territory in 1979. As Egypt’s post-Mubarak government flexes its sovereign muscles, Israel hopes the troops will disrupt illegal drug and weapons trade to Gaza and end attacks on a gas pipeline that links the two countries.

All of this geopolitical strategizing – and its corresponding news coverage – has ignored an essential aspect of Sinai lawlessness that must be addressed: human trafficking. The current military presence combined with the wealth of information about smuggling represent an opportunity for both Egypt and Israel to further cripple Sinai anarchy while gaining a huge humanitarian victory in the process.

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Over the past several years, African migrants fleeing oppression in Eritrea and genocide in Sudan have made their way to Israel via the Sinai desert. Previous destinations for asylum seekers, such as Libya, are no longer as viable. With demand for smuggling to Israel on the rise, criminal rings of smugglers working in Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and Israel have crafted an intricate system of extortion.

Hundreds of victims report being held hostage in torture camps where they experienced months of harsh physical abuse and repeated sexual assault. Testimonies to human rights groups in both Cairo and Tel Aviv tell of systematic rape, burning, prodding, hanging, starvation, deprivation of water and other extreme methods. Many were tortured as smugglers called friends and relatives in the hopes that their loved ones’ screams would expedite the transfer of thousands of dollars to the traffickers via a welldeveloped illicit network.

Over 35,000 African asylum seekers have made the journey through the Sinai to Israel. An average of 650 people are crossing the border each month, many of whom were subjected to torture and rape for large ransoms paid to Beduin traffickers. This amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars in hard currency that leaders of criminal smuggling rings can use to further their activities – which include smuggling of weapons, drugs, commodities and people. It is important to note that most Beduin are not involved in the smuggling trade and are just struggling to survive in a territory dominated by mafiastyle rule. However, Israel and Egypt must not underestimate the role this lucrative and growing trade in persons plays in Sinai’s prospering black market economy.

International, Egyptian and Israeli human rights organizations have interviewed hundreds of victims, compiling and passing on to the relevant authorities the names, phone numbers and locations of many smugglers. Bolstered Egyptian military forces should use this opportunity to arrest human traffickers and liberate the torture camps. An end to this aspect of Sinai lawlessness would be a significant blow to the smuggler economy and would save hundreds of lives along the way.

The writer is a researcher at the Feinstein International Center, Tufts University.

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