Rights watchdog calls on Egypt to free migrants held in Sinai

Human Rights Watch called on Egyptian authorities, in a statement issued Wednesday, to free hundreds of migrants held for ransom and abused by human traffickers and other criminals in the Sinai Peninsula.

The rights group said Egypt should use its increased security presence in Sinai to detain, investigate, and prosecute the traffickers. The organization says it has documented the trafficking of the mostly sub-Saharan migrants and asylum seekers in Sinai, who are tortured and sexually assaulted to press their relatives for ransom.

“Thousands of sub-Saharan asylum seekers and migrants attempting to cross the Sinai have fallen victim to abusive traffickers and other criminals,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch.

Under former President Hosni Mubarak, law enforcement officials did little to intervene, although Egypt has a strong anti-trafficking law.

“President [Mohamed] Morsy’s government should distance itself from the policies of the Mubarak regime and take the rights of victims of trafficking into account in planning law enforcement operations in Sinai.” Stork said.

Egyptian authorities often struggle to control undocumented African migrants trying to cross into Israel, who try to migrate in search of better opportunities.

The army launched Operation Eagle after a 5 August attack near the Rafah border crossing left 16 Egyptian security officials dead.

While Israel welcomed the move, many commentators have raised fears that the temporary presence of large numbers of troops in Sinai, in contravention of the peace treaty's military appendix, could become permanent — spelling trouble for the Jewish state.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday said he expected the Egyptian Army to withdraw its reinforcements from the Sinai Peninsula at the end of its operation to root out Islamist militants.

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