di Alexandra Chirita

When thinking about Egypt, most of us recall its former glory as the land of the ancient gods, the pyramids and mysterious hieroglyphs build on the rich spiritual beliefs of the Egyptian people. However, nowadays, this unique and mesmerizing culture seems to be deeply buried beneath several layers of violence, with the decaying stone monuments and their almost unreadable hieroglyphic texts as merely silent witnesses to the emergence of a new civilization, a civilization characterized by injustice, suffering and loss.

The Human Rights Watch (2015) has described contemporary Egypt as a country in crisis where human rights abuses, the use of torture and enforced disappearances by law enforcement agencies seems to be the norm. This approach endorsed by the Egyptian government has been regarded as a significant seatback, with the United Nations (2016) declaring that “the use of force against [the] civil society and against the expression of dissenting views on political issues contribute to a deteriorating climate for the promotion and protection of fundamental rights that form the essential components of a democratic society”.

Within this framework characterized by corruption, endless violence and political instability, terrorist organizations and organized criminal groups appear to thrive. According to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, terrorist groups active throughout the Egyptian territory have increased their attacks from an average of 30 per day to 100 per day between January and August 2015. Consequently, this amplifies the risks of human trafficking for vulnerable populations by increasing economic desperation, weakening the rule of law, decreasing the availability of social services and forcing individuals to flee for their safety. The Department of State (2016) argues that traffickers take advantage of such systematic social, cultural and economic issues and prey on those individuals who lack security and opportunity, coerce and deceive them to gain control, and profit from their compelled service. Being the third most profitable illicit activity in the world, human trafficking is a serious issue, one that threatens every demographic with more than 150 victims of different citizenships being identified in 124 countries across the globe (UNODC 2014). Moreover, with an annual profit estimated around $32 billion, UNODC (2012) has found that, between 2007 and 2010, human trafficking has had approximately 2.5 million victims worldwide. It is important to highlight that the overall number of victims put forward by UNODC represents the number of formally identified victims. Given the hidden and illegal nature of human trafficking, the actual estimation of affected individuals is likely to be much higher. Despite these compelling findings, tackling the threat posed by human trafficking in contemporary Egypt appears to fade in the background. In its 2016 trafficking in persons report, the Departments of State highlights this trend and contends that human trafficking is often overlooked in countries characterized by political instability and even omitted from formulations of humanitarian and emergency response policies. And, unfortunately, this seems to be the case in Egypt.

Although the Egyptian government has made some efforts to address human trafficking, budget shortfalls has had a crippling effect on any initiative to effectively protect victims and tackle the threat of trafficking. Hence, Egypt is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking (Department of State 2016).

Focusing more on children and women, children are rendered vulnerable to sex trafficking and forced labor, street begging, and agricultural based jobs. The industry of child sex tourism seems to be booming in Cairo, Alexandria and Luxor. Furthermore, IOM (2016) has observed a steady increase in the arrival of Egyptian unaccompanied migrant children (UMC) in Europe over the past five years. Ever since 2011, Egypt holds the highest ratio of UMCs among adult irregular migrants reaching Europe. In 2014, 49 per cent of the identified Egyptians arriving irregularly in Italy were UMC in comparison to only 28 per cent in 2011. This trend continued and, in 2015, 66 per cent of Egyptian irregular migrants were found to be UMCs (IOM 2016). It is often the case that they reach Europe clandestinely, with false documents and using the services of various smuggling networks or being hidden by traffickers. As a result, Egyptian children are left vulnerable to sexual exploitation, malnutrition, abuse, and other physical and psychological traumas. Survivors who have experienced such circumstances and spent time in smuggler-run camps painfully recall how smugglers often raped, tortured and even killed children (Middle East Eye 2016).

Following the 2011 revolution and the Arab Spring, Egypt has become the “the worst country for women’s rights in the Arab world” (BBC 2013). Egyptian girls and young women are seen as mere merchandise or ‘rentals’ to be bought to fulfill a contract by older wealthy men. Thousands of underage girls and young women are taken out of education, exploited and forced to marry. For the purpose of commercial sex or forced labor, young girls and women are forced by their relatives or specialized marriage brokers to take part in ‘temporary’ or ‘summer’ marriages. In these arrangements a potential foreign buyer pays a sum of money for a girl with whom he will spend a certain period of time and then either return the girl to her family or take her back to his country for domestic work. Azza El-Ashmawy, director of the Child Anti-Trafficking Unite at the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, said that “some girls have been married 60 times by the time they turn 18”. He further adds that such arrangements are “a form of child prostitution in the guise of marriage”. ‘The Path’, a documentary realized by IOM, illustrates this cruel reality.

Although they are still relatively limited from a global point of view, trafficking for exploitation that is neither sexual nor forced labor is increasing. Trafficking children and adults for armed combat or organ donation can be a significant issue in some locations. Earlier this year, the bodies of nine Somali immigrants, including a mother and her two young children, were found without their organs dumped in the sea near Alexandria. Reports have concluded that the victims were lured onto a boat that was meant to head to Italy, but were led to an undisclosed location in Alexandria where they were locked up and prepared for the removal of their organs. Though Egypt has strict laws regarding organ donation, the Coalition for Organ-Failure Solutions warns that traffickers operating in the North of Africa are increasingly targeting vulnerable populations such as refugees and immigrants.

Despite the government’s efforts to tackle human trafficking, the number of identified victims has substantially increased compared to the previous reporting period (Department of State 2016). The Department of State (2016) further adds that there is a lack of awareness, appropriate resources and training among the Egyptian police, security and judicial officials. Hence, Egyptian law enforcement agencies frequently fail to identify victims of human trafficking. Instead of protection and treatment, identified victims are often treated as delinquents, threatened with prison and deportation for acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking.

To conclude, regardless of the political instability that characterizes contemporary Egypt, diminishing the importance or even ignoring the threat posed by human trafficking is irresponsible and can have devastating effects on both the Egyptian community and the international community as well. The 2016 report of the Department of State makes several pertinent recommendations such as increasing investigations and prosecutions, investing in adequate victim focused services, better training for local enforcement agencies, and appropriate legal protections for migrants. However, addressing and seeking to reduce the demand that constitutes the base for human trafficking should be at the heart of any endeavours that seek to prevent and eventually stop this gruesome crime from happening.