Thursday,20 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)
Thursday,20 June, 2019
Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Dealing with the Hydra

Despite government efforts to combat human trafficking, it remains a significant problem in Egypt, writes Gihan Shahine

Human Trafficking
Human Trafficking
Al-Ahram Weekly

It had been a long working day for Sabah, a 30-something maid, at a seaside chalet on the North Coast. It was time for a rest, a hot cup of tea, and a snack after a long day cleaning a seaside summerhouse.

But the orange sunset above the azure Mediterranean and the cool wafting breeze brought back sad memories to Sabah.

“I was just 16 when my elder brothers convinced my mother to make me marry a rich Arab man who came to our area to pick a young bride,” Sabah said with a sigh of regret.

“They pushed me into marrying him to get out of poverty. It was horrible marrying an old foreign man who already had other wives back home.”

Sabah had a daughter and a son before her husband decided to divorce her and marry another young woman. “He left me a house and a piece of land, but my brothers took them over and left me in a flat with nothing except the burden of bringing up the two kids,” Sabah said.

To make ends meet, she had to work as a maid. Her daughter soon dropped out of school and worked as a maid as well. It was not until Sabah’s daughter Farah turned 15 that her father suddenly asked to see his kids.

“Their father was dying and one of his sons insisted he should call his kids so that they could see him before he died, as a way of asking for God’s forgiveness,” Sabah said.

Sabah cries because her children are no longer living with her, but she hopes that they at least will “have a better life than mine.”

Sabah is luckier than other victims of summer marriages to wealthy Arabs, one of the most prominent forms of human trafficking that is widespread in Egypt’s rural and impoverished urban areas. The Path, a UN documentary on human trafficking in Egypt, shows how summer marriages contribute to a vicious cycle: loveless marriages produce children who are neglected or even abandoned and are then vulnerable to all types of exploitation.

The wedding drums had hardly abated when the 13-year-old bride featured in The Path, terrified and looking tiny in her huge wedding dress, started her journey into misery. The girl, who I will call Nadia, was forced by her greedy family to drop out of school and marry a 50-something Arab man looking for a summer marriage in return for money.

The first night was shocking, of course, but the incidents that followed were even more terrifying. Nadia’s new husband divorced her just two weeks after the wedding, and she is now pregnant. Her brother, who had already spent the LE15,000 paid for the marriage, told her he would get her another husband soon. Afraid of being forced into another marriage, Nadia decided to run away from home and live on the streets.

Ironically, the streets seemed to be a better home for the young woman. In the film, Nadia meets an elderly, runaway African maid who had also been exploited and mistreated by her employers. The African maid wanted to go home but her employers refused to give her back her passport, so she fled. The African runaway took pity on Nadia and took care of her until she gave birth. Nadia then started to work as maid in Cairo.

Nadia’s five-year old son Osama has no birth certificate and does not go to school. He ends up working as a mechanic in a workshop where kids are maltreated and exposed to hazardous working conditions.

At work, Osama has an accident: a car is dropped on his fragile little body. His mother rushes him to the public hospital where her employer works. The documentary closes with Nadia’s employer calling organ traffickers to tell them that he has a young boy with no family or papers and that it will be easy to take a kidney from him for sale.  

HUMAN TRAFFICKING IN EGYPT: The UN defines trafficking in persons as a serious crime and a violation of human rights that involves “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”

Exploitation may “include, at a minimum, prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude, or the removal of organs,” it says.

“Every year, thousands of men, women and children fall into the hands of traffickers, in their own countries and abroad,” according to a UN report. “Almost every country in the world is affected by trafficking, whether as a country of origin, transit or destination for victims.”

Egypt is no exception as it is used “as a source, transit and destination country for women and children who are subjected to forced labour and sex-trafficking,” according to the US State Department’s 2014 “Trafficking in Persons Report.”

Such trafficking takes different forms in Egypt, the most common being the trafficking of women and girls for the purposes of marriage, the exploitation of adults and children for labour (particularly domestic work), and the trafficking of street children and their sexual exploitation, according to the report.

The victims of trafficking, the report adds, “can be subjected to forced labour and slave-like practices, and encounter physical, psychological, sexual abuse and food deprivation.”

The report also says that Egypt has taken major steps to combat the phenomenon.

According to Article 89 of the newly adopted constitution, “slavery and all forms of oppression and forced exploitation against humans are forbidden, as is sex trafficking and other forms of human trafficking, all of which are punishable by law.”

In 2010, Egypt endorsed anti-trafficking Law 64, which criminalises the offence of trafficking and provides for appropriate protective measures for its victims. In the same year, a national referral framework was established, with the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood (NCCM) acting as lead agency.

The NCCM established a hotline for people who are being trafficked or for those who know someone they believe is being trafficked. In collaboration with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), it then works with the persons involved to help them with their health needs, shelter and legal services.

Egypt has also issued a nationwide order to all district courts to gather information from the past five years, as a way of identifying and targeting anti-trafficking efforts. The government says that during 2014 alone it carried out 27 trafficking investigations and initiated 15 prosecutions under the law.

But although Egypt criminalises human trafficking, the problem remains significant.

The exploitation of refugees, organ trafficking and illegal immigration have all been prominent in Egypt over the past few years, the US report warns.

Egypt’s ranking in human trafficking “globally dropped” in the 2015 “Trafficking in Person Report”, reportedly for its “poor record of addressing the sexual exploitation of women and children.”

According to the report, “Although the government prosecuted other serious crimes, it achieved no trafficking convictions, a decrease from the five convictions in the previous reporting period.” It continued, “The government also did not investigate or punish officials complicit in trafficking crimes despite reports of such corruption.”

The report also explained that there has been a failure among law-enforcement officials to properly identify those who are most vulnerable to trafficking, including foreign migrants, people involved in prostitution, street children and women in domestic service.

As a result, such people may be “routinely treated as criminals and punished for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to human trafficking,” it says.

The Justice Ministry has, however, slammed the US report on the grounds that it lacks “credible sources on actual efforts made by the government to combat the problem.” A statement said that the US report also included exaggerated numbers of street children, and it refuted claims that wealthy Arabs “purchase Egyptian women and girls for ‘temporary or summer’ marriages for the purpose of prostitution.”

“The US State Department report has turned a blind eye to all the efforts made by the Egyptian government in the legislation it has issued to criminalise human trafficking and prostitution in the children’s law, the anti-money laundering law, the labour law and the law regulating human organ transplants. Law 64 of 2010 combats the trafficking of human beings,” the Justice Ministry statement said.

Minister of Justice Ahmed Al-Zind recently stated that Egypt will set up an ad hoc court for human trafficking and illegal immigration crimes, which he said “represent a regression to the Middle Ages.” Al-Zind further called for cooperation at both official and unofficial levels to fight the phenomenon during a meeting he recently held with the head of the IOM, William Lacy Swing.

DEPRIVED OF THEIR INNOCENCE: Back on the streets, Mohamed (not his real name) has no knowledge of the US report, but he is probably living through its subject of trafficking.

It was on the closing days of the holy month of Ramadan that the young boy, looking about ten years old, was seen begging. He claimed he needed the money to get new clothes for himself and his siblings, pointing to his old rags in support of his argument.

But at the end of the street an older man was waiting.

He was apparently a street child leader, known as someone who typically offers protection and shelter to homeless children in return for money and sometimes sex and drugs. If Ahmed, or any of his street friends, do not return with money, they will probably get beaten.

The likes of Mohamed dot Cairo’s streets. They are to be found almost everywhere, sleeping under flyovers, in sewage pipes or in old garages. Experts suspect that Egypt’s problem of street children, with anywhere between 200,000 to two million (no one can give an accurate number) of both sexes on the streets, may have increased due to the poor economy since the 25 January Revolution.

Such children, experts agree, have probably fled from broken homes and domestic violence, and have ended up being subjected to all forms of exploitation, from sex trafficking, to forced labour and begging.

Reports on the issue show that sexual abuse can reach the extent of prostitution, and drug addiction is almost inevitable in the case of homeless children. Such children may end up in correctional institutions, where, activists say, they may also be subjected to abuse that may turn them into professional criminals.

A 2011 study by Egypt’s National Centre for Social and Criminological Research (NCSCR) found that at least 20 per cent of street children were the victims of trafficking in which they were exploited by a third party, most commonly for sexual purposes, and also for forced begging, theft and the sale of narcotics.

In a speech aimed at informing people of the country’s progress in the economic, social and political spheres in February, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi acknowledged the problem of street children and pledged that LE100 million would be made available to solve it. However, the US report laments that confusion remains “among ministries on how this funding is to be allocated for anti-trafficking measures.”

Al-Sisi insisted that the solution to Egypt’s problem of street children is not to stigmatise these children, but to take them in hand and allow them to feel welcome in society. Yet, away from the streets and behind the closed doors of the luxurious houses in Egypt’s new suburban areas and satellite cities, other children are subjected to what experts call modern forms of slavery.

At one North Coast summer house, two young girls are not only different in looks, but also in the chores they have to handle. Whereas girls of their age are usually playing merrily, these two girls are trapped in servitude, cleaning the chalet, washing cars, and wading along a long sand walk to serve treats to the picnicking family and their visitors who are lounging on the beach.

Many poor families, unable to make ends meet, send their young girls to work as maids for affluent families, sometimes in the hope that their children will get better food. At present, more than one million children between the ages of seven and twelve work each year for Egypt’s agricultural cooperatives in cotton pest management.

“They work eleven hours a day, including a one- to two-hour break, seven days a week, in other words far in excess of the limits set by the law,” says a report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). “They also face routine beatings by foremen, as well as exposure to heat and pesticides.”

“Egyptian children are recruited for domestic service and agricultural labour,” the US report says and warns that “some of these children face forced labour through restrictions on movement, non-payment of wages, threats, and physical or sexual abuse.”

According to the 2010 International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC), out of Egypt’s 17.1 million children, 10.7 per cent are engaged in work, which represents about 1.8 million children. Another 10 per cent are engaged in “other forms of labour,” meaning that their work is considered to be less dangerous or harmful, even if they are under age.

Economics is usually the driving force behind the rise of child labour, particularly in developing countries. Many companies and factories depend for their survival on the low wages that children will accept, and families are willing to send their children out to work to help support them.

OTHER FORMS OF TRAFFICKING: Away from the domestic scene, many Egyptian men are also subjected to forced labour in construction, agriculture and low-paying service jobs in neighbouring countries, such as Jordan, according to the US report.

Egypt’s borders with Libya are notorious for the operations of traffickers heading for Europe, and many migrants have been caught using this route. Illegal migration has become a huge business, and traffickers have been capitalising on the absence of security in both Libya and Egypt since the Arab Spring.

The European Commission has reported that “it appears that people have paid in most cases between $5,000 and $7,000 per person per trip, and in some cases children have travelled for free,” when travelling illegally to Europe.

In 2014, the detection of illegal immigrants in “the central Mediterranean area reached a staggering level,” according to Frontex, the EU border agency. “More than 170,000 migrants arrived in Italy alone, representing the largest influx into one country in European Union history. Many migrants have departed from Libya, where the lack of the rule of law allows smuggling networks to thrive.”

Frontex added, “Syrians fleeing the civil war and Eritreans were the top two nationalities, but numerous Africans coming from sub-Saharan regions also use this route.”

Although there are no accurate statistics regarding the number of illegal migrants from Egypt, Adel William, secretary-general of Awlad Al-Ard, an NGO that has been working on this issue for years, said illegal migration has increased significantly over the past few years, especially after the economy floundered badly following the 25 January Revolution.

William says that the first six months following the revolution saw a significant drop in the number of illegal migrants because people had hopes of better things. “But as the economy worsened, unemployment and poverty increased and people had no other choice but to throw themselves into the Mediterranean to survive,” he said.

Those who are trafficked to work abroad may “experience the withholding of passports, forced overtime, non-payment of wages, and restrictions on their movements,” the US report said. It laments that Egyptian efforts to combat trafficking have been “focused on Egyptian nationals to the detriment of foreign trafficking victims.”

The report continued, “Men and women from Egypt, South and Southeast Asia, and Africa are subjected to forced labour in Egypt in domestic service, construction, cleaning, begging and other sectors.” It warns that some maids brought from Indonesia, the Philippines, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sri Lanka are reportedly “held in forced labour conditions, experiencing sexual, physical, and emotional abuse, the withholding of wages and documents, restrictions on movement, and no time off.”

Employers, the report says, take advantage of some domestic workers’ lack of legal status and employment contracts “as coercive tools to threaten arrest and abuse if they escape or complain of poor conditions.

“Women and girls, including refugees and migrants, from Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and to a lesser extent the Middle East are forced into prostitution in Egypt,” the report adds.

“Instances of human trafficking, smuggling, abduction, and the extortion of migrants, primarily from Eritrea and to a lesser extent, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Cote d’Ivoire, continue to occur in the Sinai Peninsula at the hands of criminal groups.”

According to documented testimonies, many of the migrants are held for ransom and are forced into sexual servitude or forced labour, for example on construction sites, during their captivity in Sinai.

In mid-2013, the report notes, “international organisations observed a temporary decrease in the flow of these migrants into Sinai, likely in part due to an aggressive Egyptian military campaign in Sinai in August 2013, as well as to Israel’s construction of a fence along the Israel-Egypt border.”

Nonetheless, international organisations have also reported that new groups of African migrants, some of whom may be trafficking victims, entered Sinai and were held by criminal groups in November 2013.

“There continue to be infrequent reports that Egyptian border patrols shoot and sometimes kill migrants, including potential trafficking victims, in Sinai. Many are also arrested and detained in Egyptian prisons in Sinai, while some were transferred to the Qanatar Prison in the Greater Cairo area in 2013,” the report notes.

TRAFFICKING OF REFUGEES: They were, perhaps, the worst six weeks in the life of 23-year-old Eritrean refugee Hamed (not his real name).

Like many of the UN-estimated 3,000 Eritrean refugees who flee repression in their homeland every month, Hamed ended up in the brutal hands of traffickers while en route to Europe via Egypt and Sudan and was tortured for money.

The UN estimates that 4,000 trafficking victims, usually transiting via Sudan and Egypt to Europe, Israel or other countries, reportedly died in the period between 2008 and 2013.

Hamed was lucky not to die.

But his dream of a relatively safe life and finding a living in Europe turned into a nightmare when he was kidnapped by traffickers near Sudan’s Shagarab Refugee Camp in March 2012. Hamed was among 26 Eritreans, including women, handed over to Egyptian traffickers in Upper Egypt and then held in Sinai with 24 other men and eight women for six weeks, according to a report by the US human rights group Human Rights Watch.

The report documents how the first group of kidnappers asked Hamed for a $3,500 ransom to release him, and threatened to remove his organs if he didn’t pay. His family back home sent the ransom, but instead of releasing him the kidnappers then sold him to a second group of traffickers, who asked for a higher ransom of $33,000.

Hamed was quoted in the HRW report as saying that the kidnappers beat him with “a metal rod”, “hung him from the ceiling”, gave him “electric shocks” and “dripped molten plastic onto [my] back”, and raped the female refugees who were held captive with him.

“Sometimes they threatened to kill me and put a gun to my head,” Hamed said. “One person died after they hung him from the ceiling for 24 hours. We watched him die . . . I thought I was going to die, but in the end a group of us managed to escape.”

Hamed’s account is one of 37 testimonies collected by the HRW for its 79-page report entitled “‘I Wanted to Lie Down and Die’: Trafficking and Torture of Eritreans in Sudan and Egypt.” The report, issued in 2014, gives a disturbing picture of what it calls “ongoing human trafficking and torture in eastern Sudan and Egypt.”

The report speaks of the torment the refugees have been through at the hands of traffickers, mostly from tribes making large amounts of money from this crime. The HRW has urged the authorities in both Egypt and Sudan to take effective steps to stop the atrocities.

A 2013 report by the Coalition for Organ Failure Solutions (COFS) is equally shocking. The report indicates that organ trafficking is on the rise in Egypt, estimating that the victims are in the thousands. The report says that refugees, especially Sudanese and other asylum seekers, are the most common victims, as traffickers seek to exploit their insecure legal status in the country.

According to the report, entitled “Sudanese Victims of Organ Trafficking in Egypt,” the traffickers remove the kidneys of their victims “either by inducing consent, coercion, or outright theft.” The report was written based on case studies of 57 Sudanese refugees, including men, women, and children, who all said they were the victims of organ trafficking.

Members of the UN Human Rights Council have been calling on Egypt and Sudan to take action and “investigate and prosecute human traffickers accused of kidnapping, torturing and killing Eritrean refugees in the Sinai Peninsula.”

In reaction, Egypt’s chief delegate to the UN in Geneva, Hisham Badr, delivered a statement to the General Assembly on behalf of the government in which he stressed the “importance of international and regional cooperation in the fight against human trafficking.”

COMBATTING THE ISSUE: William notes that Egyptian efforts have focussed on the “symptoms rather than the remedy” to trafficking.

“Designing laws and penalties and tightening up security measures may solve part of the trafficking issue for a short period,” William notes. “But we need to admit that almost all forms of trafficking are deeply rooted in social issues like poverty, unemployment, broken homes and civil wars. Neither legal action nor allocating funds will thus uproot the problem. Rather a strategy should be designed to tackle these issues at the root.”

And the consensus remains that such a strategy needs the collaboration of the whole international community, which should start looking at illegal immigrants, refugees and street children as victims rather than as criminals.

“If this does not happen, trafficking will burgeon despite the efforts to combat it,” William concluded.

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