In what may be the deadliest incident involving migrants or people seeking asylum and Egypt's military in a decade, 15 Sudanese have reportedly been killed by Egyptian security forces in the Sinai Peninsula near the border with Israel.
The Associated Press cited local officials saying that the group of Sudanese were killed on Sunday, possibly during an encounter between smugglers and Egyptian authorities. Another eight people were detained.
"Fifteen bodies of Africans shot dead were found at dawn on Sunday south of Rafah," said Tariq Khatir, an official at North Sinai's Health Ministry.
The deaths underscored the Sinai's endemic insecurity as well as the use of force by Egyptian authorities against civilians. In late October, militants associated with the self-declared Islamic State terror insurgency claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian airliner that crashed in the Sinai shortly after takeoff, killing all 224 passengers and crew onboard.
The latest incident added to the toll of migrants, many fleeing war and repressive regimes, that have perished in the desert en route to Israel and Europe — a longstanding and dangerous route that has recently been overshadowed by the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Syria's civil war. Though increased militarization in northern Sinai has made the trip more difficult for migrants and refugees, many still attempt the treacherous journey.
Human rights groups and officials have for years documented the deadly conditions that migrants suffer in the Sinai, including the systematic use of torture to obtain ransom payments from the families of trafficked individuals. Most of those who flee East Africa through the Sinai are Eritrean, but Sudanese are also present in great numbers along trafficking routes.
One 2013 study carried out by two Dutch researchers and an Eritrean journalist estimated that as many as 30,000 people — the vast majority of them Eritrean — had fallen victim to traffickers in Sinai between 2009 and 2013. The authors, professors Conny Rijken and Mirjam van Reisen along with Meron Estefanos, determined that 10,000 migrants and refugees had died while being trafficked, often directly as a result of torture and hunger.
In the report, many who survived harrowing imprisonment in the Sinai recounted migrants and refugees being beaten until their bones shattered, others being hung upside down from ceilings, while some had limbs cut off by human traffickers. During hours-long torture sessions, family members, many of whom had already traveled to Europe, were made to listen to the cries of their loved ones over the telephone.
Various nonprofit organizations including Human Rights Watch have said that officials in Sudan and Egypt have colluded with traffickers and profited from the trade. HRW released a report last year which determined that in at least 19 documented occasions between 2009 and 2012, "one or more Egyptian public officials cooperated with traffickers transporting Eritreans to Sinai where they were severely abused." The officials, the organization said, violated Cairo's obligations under the UN Convention on Torture.
The Sudanese who died on Sunday were attempting to reach Israel and join roughly 50,000 other Africans who have sought refuge in the country. Tensions surrounding the presence of African migrants have risen in Israel this year, where the government does not consider those who cross into the country seeking asylum to be refugees.
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