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Tortured for ransom: extortion on migrant routes

The phenomenon of torture for ransom is increasingly occurring on migrant routes as a new form of human trafficking.

Sinai Peninsula. ארכיון גן-שמואל/Wikimedia Commons.

Between 2009 and 2014, a disturbing new phenomenon occurred on the Egyptian peninsula, close to the Israeli border: people on the move, mainly of Eritrean origin, were kidnapped and brought to so-called ‘torture camps’ for the purpose of extortion. There they were subject to the most horrific abuse, including rape, burning and hanging. During their torture, their relatives were called on the phone and connected ‘live’ to proceedings in order to enhance the pressure to pay.

Between 2009 and 2014, approximately 25,000 to 30,000 people were tortured in these camps.

For those behind these crimes – a network of Sinai Bedouins and transnationally organised groups operating between Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt – this practice proved highly lucrative, with ransoms reaching up to $50,000 per hostage. Families in East Africa and migrant communities in various parts of the world were targeted, with many ultimately having to sell family property and activate diasporic networks in order to collect the amounts necessary to secure release.

Troublingly, despite the extent of the violence that migrants have experienced, little had been done to protect the persons of concern. Between 2009 and 2014, approximately 25,000 to 30,000 people were tortured in these camps and at least a third lost their lives. Yet the Egyptian authorities did almost nothing to prosecute traffickers or set hostages free. On the contrary, as a Human Rights Watch report from 2014 reveals, collaborations between authorities and traffickers actually enabled the business to flourish. It was only as a side effect of enhanced military operations against terrorist networks unrelated to the extortion business that the camps stopped operating in 2014.

On an international level, too, these atrocities received very little attention, eventually turning into what the UN called “one of the most unreported humanitarian crises in the world”. Serious attempts by states to pressure Egypt into prosecuting crimes rarely materialised, while human rights organisations typically overlooked the issue. Sadly, such a ‘non-response’ is common in the western treatment of violence against black African migrants: it is accepted, or worse, ignored.

Systematic violence against migrants for the purpose of extorting ransoms has become a widespread phenomenon on flight routes, organised both by private criminal groups and ostensibly also by state officials.

Copycat crimes and a continuum of violence

Today, survivors of Sinai torture camps stranded in Egypt or Israel receive almost no state support. Instead, they exist in legal limbo and without fundamental rights due to their lack of legal status. Meanwhile, these kinds of kidnappings are now paralleled in other regions, including Libya, Sudan and Yemen. As several NGO reports show, systematic violence against migrants for the purpose of extorting ransoms has become a widespread phenomenon on flight routes, organised both by private criminal groups and ostensibly also by state officials. The exploitation of transnational ties and cross-border migrant solidarity structures, reconfigured through mobile media and cyberspace communication in a globally connected world, make this model of trafficking a genuinely contemporary phenomenon that commodifies the human experience of suffering and compassion in a hitherto unknown way.

However, such ‘innovation’ is only possible because of the political structures that enable it – unstable conflict zones, without rule of law, combined with the anti-immigration politics and border regimes that compel vulnerable migrants to move through them. As several scholars on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery have shown, it is state practices of migration control and illegalisation that push migrants into the position of becoming vulnerable to abuse such as this.

We need to recognise that absent international interest in the Sinai atrocities and state-sanctioned violence in the form of anti-immigration policies are two sides of the same coin: to truly combat violence against migrants we need foremost legal and secure ways to migrate. For as long as states keep their borders closed, the horrific business of torture for ransom is unlikely to stop.


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