The Sudanese and Egyptian security services have helped traffickers kidnap and transfer Eritrean asylum seekers from eastern Sudan to Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, where they are held for ransom and tortured, a new report alleges.
According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released on Tuesday, security officials in Egypt and Sudan turned a blind eye to allow convoys of kidnapped Eritrean asylum seekers reach Sinai between 2009-2012.
In some cases outlined in the report, police and military officers have even delivered groups of migrants directly to the traffickers.
"Some police in eastern Sudan are so emboldened by their impunity, they hand refugees over to traffickers in police stations. In Egypt, some soldiers and police have given these criminals a free pass to cross the heavily-policed Suez canal and even return escaped trafficking victims to their captors in Sinai," Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher and advocate at HRW, told Al Jazeera.
Both Egypt and Sudan have violated their commitments under the Convention Against Torture by failing to prosecute the traffickers and the officials helping them, the report, titled "'I Wanted to Lie Down and Die:’ Trafficking and Torture of Eritreans in Sudan and Egypt", alleged.
"The time has long passed for authorities in both countries to arrest and prosecute traffickers for these terrible crimes and to have zero tolerance for security officials colluding with them," Simpson added.
Badr Abdel Atty, spokesman for the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, denied the allegations.
He told Al Jazeera that Egypt has beefed up security along its borders and in Sinai since June 2013, to crack down on all forms of illegal activity, including the smuggling of weapons and narcotics, and human trafficking.
"It’s impossible to imagine security people who are defending our national security against smuggling… to tolerate that. The clear cut instruction is zero tolerance with those smugglers, and according to the actual statistics, since the 13th of June until now, there is, as I mentioned, a drastic decrease in trafficking," Abdel Atty said.
"I can assure you officially there is zero tolerance for this tragic and dangerous phenomenon."
|A Sudanese refugee displays signs of torture after being held by traffickers in Sinai [AP]
But the torture of African migrants in Egypt’s Sinai has been widely documented, as thousands have travelled through Egypt in an effort to get to Israel, or to European cities, since 2006.
"I saw people die in my cell," Birikti, an Eritrean woman who was held for ransom by traffickers in the Sinai, told Al Jazeera in December. "The only thought in my mind was 'Please, kill me too.'"
According to a recent report presented to the European Parliament, between 25,000-30,000 people were victims of trafficking in the Sinai between 2009-2013.
In that time, the industry generated $622m in profit for the traffickers, with ransom demands ranging from $1,000 - when the widespread kidnappings began - to more than $40,000 per person today.
An estimated 300,000 Eritreans have fled their country since 2004, escaping widespread human rights violations, including torture, forced labour, disappearances, forced military conscription, arbitrary arrest and detention, and restrictions on freedom of expression.
By the end of 2012, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, reported that 285,142 Eritreans had been given refugee or other status worldwide. Nearly 84 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers were recognised as refugees, while six percent were given other status.
Once they leave Eritrea, the asylum seekers often end up in refugee camps in eastern Sudan. Facing movement restrictions and poor conditions in the camps, and with limited work opportunities, many decide to pay smugglers to take them out of the country.
"What makes it complicated is that it’s the Eritreans themselves who are asking, seeking, the help of smugglers because they’re desperate to leave [Sudan]," Fatoumata Lejeune-Kaba, a UNHCR spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.
She explained, however, that the number of kidnappings in Sudan had decreased from 314 documented cases in January-October 2012, to 63 cases in that same period in 2013.
The significant drop is a result of Sudanese government efforts to prosecute traffickers, and better equipment now used by Sudanese security forces, she said.
"Even if the numbers are going down, it’s still a huge problem because [of] the fact that it’s lucrative for those trafficking... They sell them from tribe to tribe, and as they go, the amount of money they are traded for becomes more important," Lejeune-Kaba said.
Collusion with traffickers
The HRW report documented 19 incidents between 2009 and 2012 where Egyptian police and military officers helped the traffickers in different locations throughout Egypt: the Nile river, the Suez Canal, checkpoints in the Sinai, traffickers’ houses, and at the Israeli border.
Hidden under a plastic tarp in the back of a pick-up truck with dozens of other migrants, a 20-year-old Eritrean told HRW that he passed through three Egyptian police checkpoints while in the hands of the traffickers.
"[The police] never looked under the plastic. Each time, they searched all the other cars but not ours. They just let us pass," he said.
An Egyptian trafficker told HRW in November 2012 that police accepted bribes to allow traffickers to bring African migrants across a bridge and tunnel, 10km north of Suez, and into the Sinai.
Sometimes they make it difficult to cross at the bridge and tunnel, but they still take bribes and let us cross.
"Until December 2011, all the police at the bridge and tunnel took bribes to let us bring Africans into Sinai. Sometimes the police even drove the trucks across. In December, the military took over control of the bridge. Sometimes they make it difficult to cross at the bridge and tunnel, but they still take bribes and let us cross," the trafficker said.
In Sudan, Eritrean asylum seekers told HRW about 13 cases in which Sudanese police handed them over to traffickers. In eight cases, the Eritreans said the transfer happened inside, or just outside, a police station in Kassala, an eastern Sudanese city.
"Shortly after I crossed into Sudan, two policemen in blue uniforms caught me near Wadi Sherifeh and took me to a police station where they kept me and another Eritrean man from around 6 pm to midnight," a 26-year-old Eritrean man, who fled his country in 2012, told HRW.
He explained that one of the police officers said he would take them to a nearby refugee camp, but instead handed them over to a group of traffickers.
"[The traffickers] hit us with an iron bar and put us in the back of the pick-up and covered us with a big plastic sheet. I then heard them talking with the police for half an hour and then we left and they drove us to a house where they held us for a night before taking us to Egypt."
Lack of accountability
According to HRW, Sudanese authorities had prosecuted only 14 cases involving trafficking of Eritreans in eastern Sudan as of December 2013.
And while Sudan said it had helped release 195 trafficking victims from different sites across the country by the end of 2012, not a single person was prosecuted for trafficking-related crimes before that year.
The lack of accountability is even more pronounced in Egypt, where there hasn’t been a single conviction of a Sinai trafficker under Egypt’s criminal or anti-trafficking laws, HRW found.
In 2012, a source told HRW that he had alerted police to the whereabouts of traffickers who were holding a group of migrants in the Sinai. A police officer reportedly responded
: "There is no way we can do anything about it. That area is known for being under the control of well-armed groups - the police can’t enter."
In November 2012, Major General Jaber al-Arabi, secretary general of the North Sinai Governorate, told HRW: "There are no refugees in Sinai and there is no one torturing anyone in Egypt, so don’t spread rumours. People enter Egypt and Sinai illegally and we arrest them, prosecute them in the military courts, and transfer them to their embassies."
|A strengthening of Egypt's military presence in the Sinai has led to a decrease in human trafficking, the government says [AP]
Sinai was declared a demilitarised zone under the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and the Egyptian security presence in the area was severely restricted.
But since the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the security situation in the Sinai has deteriorated, with kidnappings and violence becoming more frequent.
Sinai-based groups have also claimed responsibility for a string of attacks on police and army targets in the area, and across Egypt, which have increased since the military deposed former President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.
The military-backed government in Cairo has beefed up its security presence in Sinai, and arrested scores of people as part of a countrywide crackdown on Islamist groups, including, most notably, Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt's Abdel Atty said that the Egyptian government was working with its Sudanese counterparts to prevent human trafficking across their shared border. "A few days ago, the minister of defence of Sudan was here, and one of the major topics is how to have a better coordination, better control over the borders," Abdel Atty told Al Jazeera.
UNHCR's Lejeune-Kaba welcomed this coordination.
"We want to see governments all working together so that it becomes difficult for smugglers to go from one country to the other," she said. "There needs to be a regional effort so that new [trafficking] routes don’t prosper."