Egypt: Rape, torture & murder of migrant women in Sinai Desert

Hotline for Migrant Workers

Hotline for Migrant Workers, an organisation supporting undocumented migrant workers, refugees and victims of trafficking in Israel has published a report detailing accounts of torture, rape and murder of migrants at the hand of smugglers and traffickers in the Sinai Desert in Egypt, en route to Israel. According to the report and testimonies collected approximately 5,000 women were smuggled into Israel through the Sinai Desert in recent years and the majority of the ones who were held by the smugglers in the desert in 2010 were raped.

The report entitled, “The Dead of the Wilderness”, was an analysis of testimonies from 60 asylum seekers; 24 women and 36 men, mainly from Eritrea, who were victimized by the smugglers in the Sinai Desert. The rest were from Ethiopia and Sudan. 

17 of the women interviewed for this survey said that they were raped. However, most of the women find it difficult to share their ordeal because of fear from their communities. They say their community perceives rape as the victim's fault, ‘an incident that the victim must hide and forget, and if it is not, the woman will be banished from the community’.

Their accounts are reinforced by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a medical center operated by volunteer Israeli physicians who provide medical treatment to uninsured persons and lobby the government to ensure better protection for refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrant group. PHR stated that in recent months their clinic staff has noticed an increase in number of women seeking abortion, many of them stating that they have been raped prior to entering Israel. 

Of a total of 165 abortions facilitated by the clinic between January and November 2010 the center suspects that half were requested by women who were sexually assaulted in the Sinai. Besides, during this period, 1,303 women have been referred for gynecological treatment, a large percentage resulting from the trauma endured in Sinai. 

The report also includes accounts of men who said women were being raped in front of them. Interviewees reported that at least 34 women were raped near them. One of the men also admitted that several men in his group were raped as well, as punishment for trying to prevent the rape of the women.

An Eritrean woman, who spent 8 months in the desert, said, “On March 2010, when I was still in Sudan, I agreed to pay the smugglers $2,500 to transfer me to Israel. When I arrived in Sinai, the smuggler sold me, along with a group of other people, to another smuggler named Abdullah. Abdullah demanded an additional $10,000 from me. I had no way to raise that sum of money.

“Abdullah raped me for five days and two other smugglers raped me as well. I wanted to resist but I had no strength and the smugglers nearly strangled me during the rape. I got pregnant and I'm now seven months pregnant. I must have an abortion. My husband should not know what happened to me in the desert and I must not give birth to this child.”

A 22-year-old Eritrean man, who was held in the desert for 6 months said, “There were five women in the group jailed with me. Abdullah would take the women out every day and rape them. He also told the other smugglers that they could rape the women.

“The night guard always looked at one of the women. One night he ordered all of us to look the other way and raped her right next to us. We heard her cries. We couldn't help her.” 

Another said, "We, the men in the group, tried to protect the young women from the smugglers who wanted to rape them. They took us, put our legs and hands in chains and raped us as a punishment."

The report from Hotline for Migrant Workers calls upon the Israeli government to invest the necessary resources to bring to trial the collaborators who reside in Israel. 

It calls upon the Egyptian authorities to take action against the smugglers and traffickers and the international community to persuade Egyptian authorities to stop ‘the horrifying and illegal actions their citizens are committing against human beings’. 

Recently Israel was accused of employing the 'hot return' policy, contrary to international law, whereby asylum seekers are returned to Egypt between one hour and five days upon their crossing into Israel despite the knowledge of the risk of beatings, murder, rape, and immediate deportation upon their return.

Also a report from the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has recently criticised Israel's policy toward migrant female workers who are pregnant. 

The countries’ policy requires that these women leave the country within three months after giving birth or, alternatively, send their children abroad if they wish to retain their work visas. 

Hani Ben-Israel of Kav LaOved (Worker's Hotline), said, "Even though Israel has been a member of the convention for 20 years, the committee's recommendations prove that it is far from fulfilling its obligations.

"The committee provided validation to repeated claims made by Kav LaOved regarding the difficult and restrictive employment conditions of migrant workers in areas like nursing, and it condemned violations of the law on work hours and rest. The committee also concluded that a state that has committed itself to full equality of rights for women must not punish them for getting pregnant or giving birth."

The committee criticised the weak status of female migrant workers in Israel and their difficult employment conditions, which include working around the clock and being forced to live in the homes of their employers. 

It further expressed concern about the Interior Ministry's policy of nullifying work permits of foreign workers who marry or are in a relationship and recommended that this policy be revoked.