Pirates attacks have been a serious plague in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean for years. Between 2009-2012, in the Horn of Africa, Somali pirates are estimated to have racked in more than 450 million dollars in ransom payments from ship-owners worldwide. The number of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden has steadily decreased over the last two years, thanks to the international counter-piracy efforts. However, if successful Somali piracy has declined, crime groups involved in human trafficking and migrant smuggling from the Horn of Africa into the Mediterranean Sea, have developed into better structured organisations. The decline of pirate vessel hijacking on the one hand and human trafficking on the rise on the other, suggest that both phenomena can be related to ‘pirate financing’. The pirate ‘financiers’ invest in different pirate operations depending on the expected return, so they just diversify their business.
Migrant smuggling and human trafficking that flow from the Horn of Africa and sub-Saharan Africa have increased after the Egyptian crisis, particularly in the Sinai region. As a border area, Sinai has traditionally housed all forms of smuggling. Furthermore, Egypt’s instability has worsened the traditional security vacuum in this region. The deterioration of Egyptian state control over the area has fostered illicit activities, including human trafficking, and has turned Sinai into a lawless area of human trafficking, just as Somalia was until 2011.
Lawlessness, smuggling and militancy have thrived on the peninsula since the 2011 fall of Mubarak’s regime. The state security apparatus that underpinned the Egyptian regime collapsed, creating a vacuum that the territory’s sparse Bedouin population quickly filled with coping mechanisms of its own. Captivated by the prospect of acquiring power and independence, Egypt’s weakened security forces are challenged also by Jihadist anti-army rebellions in Sinai. (It is reported that approximately 15 main terror groups are operating in the Sinai peninsula, just as many as local armed Bedouin tribes.) Sinai has now become a major centre for people trafficking from the Horn of Africa to the Eastern Mediterranean. Refugees from sub-Saharan Africa (mainly Eritreans, Somalis, Ethiopians) are kidnapped and tortured, and kept as hostages until relatives rally together to raise the money to pay their ransom. Ransom prices are getting higher every year; they can amount to tens of thousands of dollars per person turning human trafficking into an even more lucrative business than Somali piracy. The escape of many Eritreans and Somalis from their countries begins in the form of a smuggling arrangement agreed between smugglers and the smuggled people. As can be seen from numerous reports and interviews of victims, the journey takes a different shape when the refugees arrive in the Sinai Desert. At this spot refugees are asked to pay more money than was initially agreed when they made the deal with the smugglers at the initial point of departure. The situation develops into hostage-taking and kidnapping. However, as reported by some interviewees, there are also victims who have been hijacked by human traffickers before they reach the Sinai Desert.
It is estimated that between 2009 and 2013 alone, the number of migrants to Europe and Israel, who were kidnapped in the Sinai region, ranges between 25,000 and 30,000. Human traffickers make more than 100 million dollars per year out of kidnapping in the Egyptian Sinai region alone. Revenues increased further after the fall of the regimes of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
Over the past two years, the human trafficking business in Egypt against migrants from the Horn of Africa has turned out to be more lucrative than that of the other major, trans-national illicit activities traditionally found in East Africa such as: ivory trafficking and piracy and, almost as profitable as the main regional illegal trade, the importing of heroin from Asia.
To evaluate the profit coming from the global human trafficking from East Africa, one must consider that the Sinai transit route is just one among several others for people escaping from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia or from other countries in the region. Some refugees and migrants from the Horn of Africa voluntarily transit Yemen, through the port of Aden, en route to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Every year one hundred thousand people are smuggled at the ports of Puntland and Djibouti en route to Yemen’s refugees’ camps. These alternative routes are less expensive, but a larger number of people transit there compared to those that choose the Sahara route. Human smuggling profits amount to over $15 million per year, and they are shared among a relatively small number of traffickers. The number of people fleeing East African countries heading north is unlikely to decrease over the coming years. In fact, the root-causes of migration in departure countries have not been eliminated nor even been partially solved. Besides, South Africa and neighbouring countries’ migration policy placing strict limits on immigration does not help the situation, just as the attempts to close the large refugee camps built over the past decade have not, camps such as Dadaab camp, in Kenya, which has long been a source of controversy, with allegations that it has been used for the smuggling of goods and weapons from Somalia. The control of migration flows in the Mediterranean will only be possible if the departure and transit countries adopt responsible policies combating transnational crime organizations, perpetrators of 21st century slavery. (P.Q.)