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Human Trafficking in the Sinai: The Price of a Human Life

27/06/2013 15:22 BST | Updated 27/08/2013 10:12 BST

"Listen, you have one and a half hours to get the money and meet me, that's your last chance or you can forget the whole thing." Meron Estefanos, Swedish-Eritrean journalist and human rights activist, who received this message did not manage to find the 33,000 US dollars she was asked to give in exchange for her friend's life. Two hours later, she received another message: "Forget about it, use the money for the funeral. Good bye."

The man she was trying to save was held in a torture camp in the Sinai desert in Egypt. After she was unable to pay the ransom for his life, he has been reported dead. But she did not forget about it. Instead she went to the police, which has resulted in prosecution against the men who sent her these messages. The trial commenced on June 12th in Solna district court, just outside Stockholm. Two young men, 18 and 21 years old, are accused of aggravated extortion. They have allegedly pressed relatives and friends of persons held in Sinai for money, in exchange for their release. This is the first trial of its kind, but far from the first case. Since 2009 stories about the torture camps have been pouring out of the Egyptian desert, told by those whose relatives could afford to get them out.

This is how it happens: refugees and asylum seekers in Sudan and Egypt are kidnapped by criminal gangs, taken to the lawless Sinai where they are held captive and subjected to torture. They are chained together for days on end, regularly beaten and hardly fed. Electric shocks are sent through their bodies. Boiling plastic is poured on their bare skin. Some are raped or forced to have sex with other captives. Meanwhile the kidnappers contact their relatives and demand money in exchange for their family member's life. The family has to listen to their loved ones screaming down the phone while the torture is going on. If they do not pay up, the captive will be killed. (This man, for example, was burnt to death.) If they take too long to find money, chances are the captive will die from the torture in the meantime. It has happened many times. The price of a human life is high. People sell their houses and everything they own, and take out enormous loans to be able to pay for the lives of relatives and friends. Ransoms are usually 30-40,000 US dollars.

The majority of the victims are originally from Eritrea. Since the end of the independence war with Ethiopia, civil war and clashes with neighbouring countries have made it difficult to rebuild the country. Today it is a one-party state with almost no political freedom and poor respect for human rights. In 2001 all independent media was shut down and many journalists are still imprisoned since. All Eritreans have to attend compulsory military service from age 18-40. Punishment for deserters are severe, and many young people choose to flee the country. According to UNHCR, as many as 3000 Eritreans per month flee the country, despite armed guards on the borders.

They go to Sudan or Egypt hoping to gain refugee status, which will then allow them to apply for asylum somewhere in Europe. Large refugee camps, such as the Shagarab camps in eastern Sudan, often lack security arrangements to protect the people who live there. Kidnapping and trafficking of people from the camps to the Sinai has become so common that people hesitate to seek protection there. The inhabitants do not feel safe anymore, even during the day. Human trafficking is such a lucrative industry that once you are kidnapped, you are often sold several times before reaching the Sinai, or even sold again after the ransom has been paid. The kidnapped are transported on overcrowded trucks and held in basements or abandoned houses in the desert. Many people die during the transport, from lack of food or suffocation. Others are beaten to death before reaching the camps. The survivors leave the Sinai with unbelievable injuries: burns from gasoline, hot plastic and cigarettes. Some have to amputate fingers and hands after being hung from the ceiling for so long. Many have open wounds all the way to the bone from the chains around their hands and feet.

Hearing this, it is difficult to understand why the world is not reacting. While the Swedish trial should be seen as a welcome step taken by local authorities, it is unlikely that it will affect the overall situation in the Sinai. The two accused are middlemen, they can be tried in a local court because they are Swedish citizens and the alleged crime occurred in Sweden. The larger problem of trafficking and torture will go unaddressed. It is up to the Egyptian government to enforce laws within the Sinai, the Sudanese government to protect refugees in camps on its territory, and the Eritrean government to protect their citizens. The rest of the world, as the torture victim Tekle observes, does not show much concern. "CNN, BBC, and Al Jazeera have all reported about us. Amnesty International published a long report recently. But the world doesn't care," he said.

This article was written by Boel Marcks von Würtemberg, and originally appeared on the International Political Forum. Boel is a 23-year old from Sweden, living in Scotland and currently studying for an MSc in Human Rights and International Politics. She graduated in 2012 with a BA Honours in Journalism, and is aiming to work with research and reporting of human rights and development. Boel enjoys travelling, writing and swimming.