Shift in Sinai security strategy must include crackdown on torture camps

Two thousand Egyptian troops are currently fighting to take back the northern Sinai desert. 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 corresponding news coverage – has ignored an essential aspect of Sinai lawlessness that must be addressed: human trafficking. The 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.

Over the last 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 for escape. 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 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 well-developed illicit network.

Over 35,000 African asylum seekers have made the journey through Sinai to Israel. An average of 650 people cross the border each month, many of whom are subjected to torture and rape for large ransoms paid to Bedouin 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 weapons, drugs, commodities, and people. It is important to note that most Bedouins are not involved in the smuggling trade and are just struggling to survive in a territory dominated by mafia-style rule. However, Israel and Egypt must not underestimate the role this lucrative and growing trade in people plays in Sinai’s prospering black market economy.

International and local 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.

Rebecca Furst-Nichols is a researcher at the Feinstein International Center, Tufts University

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