First Published in the Christian Science Monitor on December 30th
In October a boat attempting to carry refugees, mostly Eritreans, from Africa to Europe sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing 366 people in one of the worst marine disasters in European waters in many years. It put an international spotlight on the plight of immigrants seeking a better life and unmasked harrowing stories of exploitation and maltreatment.
In Egypt, thousands of refugees and asylum seekers have made the hazardous trip through the Sinai Peninsula in the hope of reaching Israel, entering somewhere along the 165-mile mutual border. The refugees are trafficked into Israel by various Bedouin tribes at extortionate cost, physically, mentally, and monetarily.
A recent report on human trafficking in Sinai by the European External Policy Advisors found that as many as 30,000 people have been trafficked through Sinai since 2009. About a third of those died in the process, and the traffickers have collected more than $600 million in ransoms.
In 2006, Sinai resident Hamdy al-Azazy made the decision to dedicate his life to the struggles of those refugees who were caught up in the human trafficking business.
“It all started when I was arrested in December 2006,” Mr. Azazy says. “I had a fever, and the police took me from my house when I was wearing next to nothing.”
In prison he found himself among 45 African refugees, mostly from Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa, who were caught attempting to reach the Israeli border. “They [the refugees] gave me jackets and warm clothes,” he recalls. “They treated my fever with cold water and looked after me. I felt that they were my family. I thought, ‘Why did they help me?’ I realized, this was humanity.”
He began talking to them and listening to their stories, amazed at how widespread human trafficking was and how little he knew about it.
He heard stories he is now all too familiar with: of husbands and wives and children separated, of kidnapping and ransoms, of organ harvesting, of torture and death.
Azazy had been working at his English-language center in the infamously dangerous capital of Egypt’s northern Sinai region, El Arish. He was born and raised in El Arish, so his ignorance of the pervasive human trafficking in the area took him by surprise.
“I began to hear more about the trafficking that is happening in my region. I was listening and thinking: Where is the [military] intelligence? Where are the police? Where is the Army? Where is the government?”
Shortly afterward he started the nonprofit New Generation Foundation for Human Rights. The organization gives assistance to jailed and hospitalized refugees, providing legal assistance, references, and medical treatment. For those that have been killed, Azazy transports the bodies that he finds to a morgue before ensuring they receive a respectful burial.
“I don’t know if they are Muslim or Christian or what, but I take them to the graveyard I made near my house and give them a proper burial all the same,” he says.
Through his family connections and history of human rights work, Azazy has access to prisons and hospitals that others lack.
“He’s very well connected with everyone. He has family high up in the military, he has a brother who is the main tax collector at the port, and he has a very good relationship with Bedouin,” says Dr. Ellen Rosser, an American peace activist and retired English professor who lived in El Arish for about two years.
Dr. Rosser first met Azazy in 2010.
“We had been speaking, and I volunteered to teach human rights [at his language center],” she says. “He was already concerned about the Bedouin. He was helping one group of Bedouin who were being paid very, very little for their land lease that the government had put a factory on.”
Azazy has since brought tribal leaders together and spoken to them about Bedouin rights, as well as the plight of trafficked refugees. It was through this work that Azazy built trusting relationships with many Bedouin tribes in the area, allowing him greater access and insight into the intricacies of human trafficking.
Now he knows all too well just how it works. “They transport them worse than animals,” he says. Refugees are hidden inside pickup trucks and empty oil and water tankers.
“They often make a false shelf in pickup trucks where the refugees cram inside and then have fruit, vegetables, [and] animals placed on top of them,” he says. “From one ‘torture camp’ to the next, this is how they transport them until they are arrested or killed or make it to Israel.”
The descriptions of “torture camps” become more vivid as Azazy shows video testimonies of African refugees who managed to escape their captors. Documents, videos, and photos that he collects are stored on a computer hard drive he carries with him: They show the horrors that thousands of trafficked refugees go through.
In one folder are documents and images of organ trafficking. In one photo an empty corpse is seen, cut open from just under the chin all the way to the navel, the rib cage cleanly sawn through. Accompanying the body is a postmortem document from the Egyptian doctor. Under cause of death it reads “Under Investigation.”
“Of course, this so-called investigation came to nothing. They know what has happened here, but they do nothing!” Azazy exclaims.
Having family in the military has not curbed his anger at what he sees as incompetence and outright corruption with regards to the Egyptian government and security services.
“It is so difficult to truly deal with traffickers because I know for a fact that many police are getting money under the table,” he says. “At the very least they won’t do anything when you ask; at the most they will try to shut you up.”
“He’s had to go into hiding for several weeks before, after threats from certain Bedouin tribes,” says John Stauffer, president of the American Team for Displaced Eritreans. “He’s certainly drawing attention to the situation, and he puts himself at some risk by doing so.”
Mr. Stauffer first heard of Azazy when an Eritrean friend in the United States told him that there was a man who was visiting refugees in the prisons in Sinai. Since then, they have kept in touch with regular phone calls and e-mail updates. Stauffer also provides some financial backing for Azazy’s work.
When asked how he could provide money to a man he hasn’t even met in person, Stauffer acknowledges that Azazy has a proclivity to make grand statements. But Stauffer stresses the good work Azazy has done.
“If he has one fault, I guess you can say he’s overly optimistic,” Stauffer says. “He’s probably been guilty of making a promise that is near impossible to keep in the past…. Sometimes he spices things up, but, all in all, you just can’t deny all the good he’s doing. I’m convinced that what he’s doing is very good for the refugees, so shame on me if I turn my back on that.”
Ahmed Salama, a Bedouin from the Sawarka tribe and a human rights campaigner with the nongovernmental El Gora Community Development Association, which offers services to thousands of Bedouins in the Sinai Peninsula, also notes Azazy’s remarkable ability to help imprisoned refugees.
“We’ve worked together before in coordination,” Mr. Salama says. “I work with the IOM [International Organization for Migration], and he works with various other international agencies. I know he’s been very successful in transferring many refugees back to their home countries or refugee camps.”
Since the Egyptian military overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in July, an increased military presence in Sinai has somewhat curbed the extent to which human trafficking takes place. However, Salama notes that “we are still talking about hundreds who are being kept with their traffickers.”
Azazy shakes his head and sighs, “I don’t see myself retiring from this anytime soon.”