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Human Trafficking: The Sinai Phenomenon

By Alyssa Stein

According to the United Nations, it is time to pay attention to the “most unreported humanitarian crisis in the world.” Bedouins in the Sinai Desert are kidnapping asylum-seekers from Eritrea, thousands of whom try desperately to cross the Egyptian-Israeli border every year. In an effort to draw attention to this disturbing phenomenon, Israeli filmmaker Keren Shayo partnered with Swedish-Eritrean journalist Meron Estefanos to produce “Sound of Torture,” a documentary revealing the struggles of fleeing Eritrean refugees.

“Sound of Torture” follows Estefanos as she embarks on a journey through Egypt and Israel, sharing the stories of the Eritrean refugees she encounters. Prior to her trip to the Middle East, Estefanos broadcast a weekly radio show from Stockholm. During her show, she would read the names of recently kidnapped victims, as well as offer advice to Eritrean listeners. Many Eritrean family members and victims themselves would subsequently call in, seeking guidance on a variety of matters, including how to raise the funds to pay the high ransom fees the Bedouins were asking.

“We became one family,” Estefanos explains as she began her travels. “There was a time when we hoped we could meet face to face one day. That day has come, and I’m on my way to Israel.”

Estefanos focuses her trip on two refugees in particular. The first is 20-year-old Timnit. Though her family paid her ransom to her kidnappers nearly 18 months prior, neither her brother nor her boyfriend has heard news of her release. The second victim is Hiriyti, a woman who was pregnant at the time of her kidnapping. Estefanos works with her husband, Amaniel, to provide aid in paying the ransom for her freedom.

Documenting these refugees was no easy task. “It was pretty hard to get the trust of the Eritrean community,” Shayo explains. “Sometimes people thought I was cooperating with the Eritrean government. It was not easy, but we found the characters and stories that we wanted to follow—and tried to personally help all of them.”

Shayo first learned of the Sinai kidnappings in 2011. Through her previous work with asylum-seekers, she was already familiar with many Eritreans in Tel Aviv. Upon learning that the situation had worsened, Shayo teamed up with Estefanos to create “Sound of Torture.”

“In the beginning, the kidnappings were a very small phenomenon, and the ransom was between $3,000 to $5,000. Now, the ransom can reach as much as $40,000. I felt like I had to do something about it because it’s nothing institutions are going to take care of,” Shayo says.

And Shayo’s observations were indeed correct. Governments and other institutional bodies have failed to address the problem. In the 2014 U.S. Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report, Eritrea was placed in Tier 3, which signifies that the country’s government does not comply with trafficking laws and is making little effort to do so. Thus far, there has been minimal international pressure placed on Eritrea to deal with this issue. “There is no political interest," Shayo argues. Eritrea lacks either a robust tourism or trade industry, rendering it an impoverished state with few desirable resources. In short, it’s not a country others are invested in protecting—or even improving.

To make matters worse, the Egyptian revolution—and the political instability that followed—paved the way for Bedouin bandits to kidnap with abandon. Even today, Egypt is still too weak to properly address the criminality. Though the European Parliament and UN Council adopted a resolution demanding the Egyptian government fight against Bedouin traffickers, the Sisi government has taken no significant action to date.

Of course, establishing Egyptian anti-trafficking policy will only solve part of the problem. The second issue lies beyond the border. Should the Eritrean refugees make it to Israel, there are few resources to assimilate them into society. “It’s very difficult because they have no status here,” Shayo explains.

The only aid provided is by NGOs, and they only have the means to provide assistance to the direst of circumstances. “If someone is just seeking a little bit of help, they’re not really getting it.”

Shayo hopes her film will begin to address this second issue. She held one of the first screenings of the film in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), which she hoped would motivate the Israeli government to provide immediate relief for the refugees. “The screening did generate a lot of interest from the Parliament members,” Shayo explains, “but then the war began, and the interest was easily forgotten.”

Beyond Israel, Shayo wants global recognition. “Sound of Torture” has currently been screened for both the European Parliament and the UN Council in hopes of sparking political awareness—and ultimately action. It has also won awards in several major film festivals, including the DocAviv Film Festival in Israel and The Movies that Matter Film Festival in the Netherlands. The film has also been nominated for Prix Europa in Berlin this October.

“When we started to screen the film, everybody told us how they had never heard about this kind of thing,” Shayo says. “I hope now that the governments know where it can go and what the result of it is, they will try to stop it.”

A complete list of upcoming screenings can be found here.

To learn more about "Sound of Torture," visit Women Make Movies.

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Alyssa Stein is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Women Make Movies]

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