Protecting Migrants from Human Trafficking for Ransom en route

Illustration. Photo by Michal Tabechnik/Unsplash

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Lessons learned from the Sinai Peninsula

Human trafficking for ransom represents a new phenomenon developing on irregular migratory routes, particularly in Northeast Africa. Vulnerable migrants moving through conflict-ridden regions with fragile state structures and weak security arrangements such as Libya, Yemen or Sudan are being kidnapped and tortured to demand ransom money from their families. These practices, becoming “feasible” by ‘global’ mechanisms such as increased migration flows, virtually connected migrant networks and electronic payment systems, have emerged only in the last decades. Measured by the rising number of people being affected in places such as Libya, the mechanisms to protect migrants from such violence en route have hitherto proven to be inadequate.

The following policy paper seeks to delineate how an adequate international response to the protection of refugees from human trafficking for ransom could look like by tracing the origins of the new phenomenon and drawing lessons based on this case study. For the first time, human trafficking for ransom occurred in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula in 2009, where until 2014, approximately 25.000 to 30.000 migrants, mainly of Eritrean origin, were kidnapped and held captive in so called “torture camps”. In order extort high ransoms from their families, the hostages were brutally tortured while being connected to their relatives on the phone. According to scholars, this form of human commodification is new; until then, human trafficking had generally been known in the context of sexual exploitation, forced labour or organ trade but not for the purpose of ransom extortion.

Remarkable about the Sinai case is not only the uniqueness of the phenomenon, but also the restrained responses to the atrocities: both neighbouring states and the international community, made little efforts to contain the crimes, to release the hostages or to prosecute the traffickers, a criminal network expanding between Eritrea and Egypt. In fact, it was only due to a side-effect of enhanced military action of the Egyptian government against jihadist groups in the Sinai Peninsula that the torture camps were eventually destroyed, which led to the suspension of the traffickers’ operations there. Until today, most of the torture survivors continue to live in conditions of insecurity in their countries of destination, trapped in a state of limbo without status and legal rights, among them approximately 4.000 people in Israel.
This policy-paper examines responses by state and non-state actors towards the Sinai incidents and derives lessons for the future on how to better protect migrants from the new form of trafficking. Based on interviews with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and torture survivors in Israel, which were carried out as part of a research project by the author, as well as reports and literature about the Sinai case, the paper identifies policies that proved to be effective and considers what steps could have been implemented to combat the Sinai crimes and provide security for the torture survivors more effectively.

As one main finding, the paper identifies a lack of international cooperation as a major constraint that hindered successful protection measures and contributed to the high humanitarian suffering. Accordingly, the transnational character of the crimes – involving the abduction of displaced people, their cross-border transportation and the exploitation of transnational mobile networks to extort ransoms – partly resulted in a lack of clarity on who was responsible for protecting the migrants of concern. While generally, human security (and thus protection) is managed by geographical considerations, making the state responsible for protecting individuals and prosecuting crimes inside its national borders, this geographically based system of responsibility allocation was challenged by the transnational Sinai crimes. As will be elaborated hereinafter, the paper consequently proposes an international approach to tackle human trafficking for ransom as a global challenge.

To give tangible recommendations, the spotlight is placed on Germany and Israel as two generic actors to implement a joint strategy. The focus on these particular states arises from various considerations: 1) Germany’s growing role in global governance and as a leading actor in the humanitarian field internationally, especially in the context of forced migration, 2) Israel’s role as the most stable country in the region and hence it’s political and economic capabilities to engage more in refugee protection in the region, 3) Germany as an important member of the European Union and hence representative of potential European action, 4) Israel’s direct involvement in the case of the Sinai torture camps and the yet unsolved status of approximately 4.000 torture camp survivors on its territory, which the policy paper seeks to develop solutions for.

Nevertheless, the paper generates a general approach on how to protect migrants from human trafficking for ransom and should thus – under consideration of specifications of the respective contexts – be applicable for various regions and actor constellations.


Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) serves as a platform for exchange of ideas, knowledge and research among policy experts, researchers, and scholars. The opinions expressed in the publications on the IPPI website are solely that of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of IPPI.

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