New Testimonies from the Sinai Torture Camps
In 2010, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants first identified asylum-seekers jailed in Saharonim prison who described enduring torture and being forced to work without pay in Sinai en route to Israel. The Sinai-based smugglers would torture the asylum-seekers to extract ransom from the refugees’ families and communities. Gradually, the torture camps expanded, the sums of the ransoms increased and the cruelty of tortured also escalated. According to our estimate and the estimate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), about 7,000 of the asylum-seekers who reached Israel, overwhelmingly Eritreans (about 20% of Eritrean asylum-seekers who entered Israel), survived these torture camps.
In late 2012, Israel completed the construction of the fence along the border with Egypt to prevent asylum-seekers from crossing the border. The erection of the fence and the cooperation with Egyptian security forces, which shoot at asylum-seekers who attempt to cross and jail those who fail to cross, have drastically reduced the number of asylum-seekers who’ve successfully crossed into Israel. In parallel to the construction of the fence, the smuggling route for migrants and refugees from Libya to Italy reopened. At the same time, around September 2014, a military operation by the Egyptian military against ISIS in Sinai resulted in the shutting down of the torture camps. Instead, similar torture camps began operating in Sudan and Libya, along the new smuggling route for migrants and refugees to Europe.
Over time, it appears that the phenomenon has disappeared, but new evidence that we discovered over the past year revealed that smugglers in Sinai continue to torture and enslave asylum seekers en route to Israel. New testimonies collected by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants indicate that smugglers in Sinai resumed torturing and enslaving asylum-seekers, on a limited scale, no later than the end of 2015. It is possible that smugglers resumed torturing asylum-seekers earlier but the victims were deported from Israel before Hotline representatives could interview them. The new testimonies show that the Bedouin smugglers starve the asylum-seekers, force them to perform hard labor, beat the captives and try to extract ransom from the captives in exchange for their release.
We are working to ensure that these survivors will be recognized by the State as victims of human trafficking. According to Israeli law, only a person who was employed by the smugglers for a prolonged period of time without pay is a victim of human trafficking and enslavement. Survivors of the torture camps who were “only” tortured but not forced to work by the kidnappers do not meet the criteria of the law. Survivors of the torture camps who are recognized as victims under Israeli law have the right for a year of recovery in the shelters for human trafficking victims and access to medical and welfare services for that one year. During 2015, 19 survivors (13 men and 6 women) who the Hotline submitted to the appropriate authorities have been recognized as victims of human trafficking by the state.