The trafficking of Eritrean and Ethiopian women through the Sinai Desert

The Voice of Freedom project has been working with the Ma’agan (Harbour) Safe House for trafficked women in Petach Tikva, Israel. The house, run by the Israeli Ministry of Welfare, shelters women trafficked to Israel for the purpose of sex slavery and who have now escaped. Some of the women have given evidence against their former captors, as well as suffering traumatic and violent journeys to reach Israel.

Israel’s position, its state of development, and relatively democratic system make it prone to abuse by traffickers and those who exploit others through slavery.  Sex trafficking (both internal and external), child labour, forced labour and bonded labour all exist.

Israel is a major trafficking hub, connecting Africa, Asia and Europe. Women are trafficked across Israel’s porous southern border with Egypt, across the Sinai desert, suffering rape and torture on the journey.


The State of Eritrea

An overwhelming majority of the women that pass through the Ma’agan Safe House are Eritrean.

The State of Eritrea is a country bordered by Sudan and Ethiopia. The State of Eritrea is ruled by a repressive military regime, struggles with extreme poverty and rejects all foreign intervention, including food aid. Due to the deep political and human rights crises faced by Eritreans, many flee their country. The UNHCR estimates that 3,000 Eritreans alone fled their country each month last year.

Of the thousands who flee Eritrea each month, some end up in Ethiopia but a large majority find themselves in overcrowded Shagarab refugee camps in eastern Sudan. These swollen refugee camps are now home to more than 90,000 people.


Traffickers prey on refugees

A sickening trade of human lives has grown out of the desperate plight of these refugees. Individuals are known to be kidnapped either before they reach the refugee camps or after they leave due to lack of safety and security in the camps. Some others put their lives in the hands of people smugglers, hoping to obtain safe passage to Israel, but are instead are held hostage or trafficked. Many of the victims are younger women.  The threat of kidnapping is starting to deter individuals from seeking protection in the Shagarab refugee camps.


The Sinai desert

The Sinai Peninsula is a largely lawless and expansive desert region. The region was occupied by Israel until 1982, when it was returned to Egypt as part of the Camp David Peace Accords. The region has served as a traditional transit route for people from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Northern African countries escaping political turmoil, hunger and poverty and hoping to end up in Europe.

Human trafficking in this region is carried out by a highly organised crime network of criminal gangs and human traffickers that stretches from Eritrea to the refugee camps in Sudan and to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. It has been alleged that Eritrean, Sudanese and Egyptian officials have been known to facilitate the process directly or indirectly in return for bribes. The trade through this region has intensified since 2009 as traditional routes to Europe via Libya and Tunisia have become progressively more difficult.




Map of Trafficking Route Source: ‘Egypt/Sudan: refugees and asylum seekers face brutal treatment, kidnapping and ransom for human trafficking ’ (3 April 2013) URL: 


Trafficked women subject to rape and torture

Many refugees end up being held hostage by criminal gangs in purpose-built facilities near the Israeli border. The traffickers are known to relay their victims agony to family members via mobile phone — forcing the families of the captives to listen to the victims screams – demanding extortionate amounts of money as ransom. Even when ransom is paid it is not uncommon for victims to be sold between different criminal groups along the trafficking route. The victims are subjected to extreme violence and brutality, including rape, beatings, torture, organ harvesting and death.

Reports state that somewhere between 95 and 99 per cent of these hostages are from Eritrea. The smaller percentage of hostages is generally made up of Sudanese, Ethiopians and Somalis. 

Whether kidnapped and trafficked, or transported by people smugglers, survivors have reported that individuals receive very little food or water and are transported in severely overcrowded trucks and other vehicles. Many perish as a result of suffocation, malnutrition and/or dehydration.

Even for those victims that make it as far as Israel, many obstacles and harrowing abuse can lie ahead. Trafficked women are often forced to work as prostitutes and domestic slaves in Israel, or are transferred further abroad to other parts of Europe. For those who escape their traffickers – the Israeli government has the power to deport or imprison them.


Voice of Freedom’s impact on wider efforts to combat trafficking

The UN has referred to the human rights abuses occurring in the Sinai desert today as one of the most unreported humanitarian crises in the world.

Amnesty International released a report in April 2013 entitled ‘Egypt/Sudan: refugees and asylum seekers face brutal treatment, kidnapping and ransom for human trafficking.’ Amnesty International is appealing for urgent and concerted efforts by the Egyptian and Sudanese governments to stop the kidnappings and trafficking.

Members of the Eritrean community are adamant that awareness should be raised about the tragic human rights abuses happening in the Sinai. Sustained and robust action locally and internationally will assist in dismantling the criminal syndicates responsible for the human and organ trafficking.

Voice of Freedom will work within the discipline of participatory photography – a recognised tool for advocacy and social activism. The project will provide the women with a therapeutic experience in which they find emotional catharsis through exploring, speaking about and creating work that represents their histories.

Our partners, ATZUM and Anti-Slavery International, say women who have been trafficked are ‘invisible victims’ – their voices are missing from campaigns. There is a need to let the victims speak – to highlight the human stories that show the impact of trafficking. Public opinion and education of police are crucial: photographs by trafficked women would be powerful and persuasive.

The work produced through the project will make the emotional impact of modern-day slavery real and immediate by depicting it in the words and images of those who have lived it. The photographs and accompanying texts produced by the women will become an accessible resource that appeals to the humanity and emotional experience of a diverse audience, and inspires them to contribute to the fight against modern-day slavery.

International action and media coverage has proven effective in the past in impacting human trafficking in the Sinai. For example in 2011, 600 refugees held captive in the Sinai were released shortly after CNN aired the documentary ‘Death in the Desert’.


To find out more about trafficking, please visit:

  • Amnesty International

o   ‘Egypt/Sudan: refugees and asylum seekers face brutal treatment, kidnapping and ransom for human trafficking ’

  • BBC

o   Mike Thomson’s Assignment, Escape from Sinai (BBC iplayer)

  • United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime


  • ATZUM Task Force on Human Trafficking


  • Anti-Slavery International


  • Stop the Traffik




  1. ‘Egypt: Human Trafficking in Sinai’ (17 April 2013) URL:;
  2. ‘The evil of human trafficking in Sinai’ (10 April 2013) URL:;
  3. ‘The deadly scale of trafficking in the Sinai (11 April 2013) URL:;
  4. ‘How Israel leads the world sex trade fight’ (10 January 2013) URL:;
  5. ‘Sinai torture for Eritreans kidnapped by traffickers’ (6 March 2013) URL:;
  6. ‘Egypt/Sudan: refugees and asylum seekers face brutal treatment, kidnapping and ransom for human trafficking ’ (3 April 2013) URL:

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