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Tortue Camps of Sinai

Helping African victims of human trafficking in Israel

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African Refugees in the Sinai (AP Photo)

In recent years, some 50,000 Africans have crossed into Israel from Sinai, creating a refugee problem that Israeli authorities have struggled to solve. Most are from war-torn Eritrea. Many Israelis consider them “infiltrators” just looking for jobs and want them deported. But to hear the tragic stories of some of these refugees can leave one very sympathetic to their cause.

Eritrea has been ruled by a brutal dictatorship ever since it seceded from Ethiopia two decades ago. The United Nations has denounced the regime for its repression, religious persecution, frequent executions, and forced military conscription program. This has led to a steady exodus of native people from Eritrea.

Still, most Eritreans in Israel never planned to come here. Efraim (name changed), 28, originally hoped to find work in Angola. He was being persecuted for his Christian beliefs and hid out in the capital of Asmara for three years.

“People like me could get imprisoned underground. I didn’t want to end up in a ship container”, Efraim recently told Word From Jerusalem.

So Efraim joined the estimated 3,000 Eritreans who flee each month to overcrowded refugee camps in Sudan. There the real tragedy began. Fetching water just outside a UN refugee camp, he was abducted by traffickers circling the camp in big black trucks and waiting for anyone to venture out.

Efraim was taken to northern Sudan and handed over to a convoy bound for Egypt. Men and women mainly from Eritrea and Ethiopia, all thirsty and hungry, were put in trucks and covered with hay. Efraim thought about jumping off at some point, until all the prisoners were chained together.

The human smugglers then sold the abductees to Bedouins in the Sinai Peninsula for a small sum. The entire network of smugglers consists of nomadic North African tribes who funnel their prey to Sinai, where they are held for ransom.

“Compared to the Bedouins that run the camps in Sinai, the transporters get little money”, Efraim recounted. “But all the ransom money usually comes through bank transfers... through banks! Which means somebody must know about this. Many in Egypt must know about this… but no one does anything.”

The UN has described the human trafficking trade centered in Sinai as one of the world’s most unreported humanitarian crises.

Efraim’s abductors initially demanded three thousand dollars from his family. When calling his relatives they would torture Efraim and make him scream, to scare his family. During one phone call they broke Efraim’s wrist.

“If somebody was screaming for mercy, they would torture them even more”, Efraim stated.

As Efraim’s mother and siblings desperately raised money from extended family, the kidnappers hiked the price to thirty thousand dollars and threatened to sell his organs. For two months he was beaten and tortured almost every day. The chains ripped the skin off his legs and Efraim started losing his eyesight, most likely from blood poisoning.

“I did not believe I would come out alive”, Efraim admitted. “They would hang me by my hands. My wrist never healed properly from being broken, and both of my hands were becoming disfigured. With no blood circulation, at one point I lost all feeling in my fingers.”

Almost half the group brought into the Bedouin torture camp with Efraim died soon after arriving or as a result of torture. Women were especially abused. Many actually wished for death.

Egyptian security forces patrol Sinai but only in limited numbers, as Egyptian police are afraid of the better-armed Bedouin militias.

Efraim recalled one Muslim man who tortured prisoners and constructed prison cages, but did his job in tears and prayed every day that it would all end.

“In a sense this man saved my life”, said Efraim. “He pleaded for me, told the owners that my family will get the money so they needed to keep me alive.”  Thanks to this Efraim’s feet were unchained. Yet with no real key, they broke the chain with rocks and left his ankles in even worse shape.

“I didn’t believe I would ever walk again”, Efraim shared. “It was truly by God’s miracle that my feet got healed!”

Nevertheless, his health remained poor and his captors were eager to get rid of him. Even though his family wired the ransom money, they sold Efraim to Saudi Bedouin traffickers also plying the lawless Sinai.

When Efraim’s new ‘owners’ realised his health was shot, they dropped him near the Israeli border. After walking all night with a few other freed but battered prisoners, they were finally noticed by some Israeli soldiers. The IDF patrol showed mercy to the group, and Efraim was taken to a hospital in Beersheva.

The stream of African refugees entering Israel from Sinai peaked at over one thousand per month, but that has now been reduced to a trickle due to the rapid construction of a 260-km border fence. Most of those who came in cannot obtain official refugee status, nor can they work or receive social services.

Recently, Israeli law was changed to now allow automatic detention of asylum seekers crossing the border. A huge detention center has been built in the Negev, where the most recent African migrants are now being housed and fed and treated fairly.

Meantime, a recent study found that an estimated 6,000 Eritreans who arrived in Israel over the past three years had been tortured along the way, like Efraim. But the total number of Eritreans kidnapped and tortured in Sinai is higher, with over four thousand presumed dead.

Once in Israel, Efraim was finally safe from his tormentors and has slowly recovered his strength. He has gained weight and learned to walk again. Israeli doctors have performed seven operations on his hands and feet to save his limbs and maybe even his life.  Yet today, Efraim remains in urgent need of more operations to restore full use of his hands. They are completely disfigured and were almost amputated. But Efraim cannot imagine life without his hands.

Efraim asked not to be named or photographed for this article, but he is hoping someone will come to his aid. He has no money, no documents to travel and no way to work, and thus is stuck in a foreign country that wants to deport refugees like him, even though he did not come to Israel by choice. Sadly, he also cannot return to his home country. So Efraim is hoping that God has another miracle waiting for him.


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