Sinai Bedouin accused of stealing refugees’ organs

A Sudanese Christian woman and her son rest in Israel after the ordeal of being smuggled across Sinai. (Flash 90)

JERUSALEM (JWN and agencies)—Bedouin tribes that make their living from smuggling African refugees and trafficking in women across the Sinai from Egypt to Israel are suspected of stealing organs from refugees who cannot pay their fee.

According to a CNN report to air Saturday, “Death in the Desert,” human rights activists have accused these tribes of enslaving and torturing refugees who cannot pay extortion money. They also say that, in order to ensure the viability of the organs they later sell, the organs are taken from refugees while they are still alive.

The network reports that corneas, livers, and kidneys are among the most sought-after organs.

The New Generation Foundation for Human Rights and the EveryOne Group, from Italy, have presented evidence that the bodies of African refugees have been found in the Sinai desert with organs missing.

The Sawarka tribe, one of the largest in the Sinai, was named as being involved in organ theft.

CNN quoted reports to the rights groups by refugees—from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan—who said they have been enslaved and tortured and the women raped if they cannot come up with the large sums of money the Bedouin charge for smuggling them into Israel.

Hamdy al-Azazy, head of New Generation Foundation, presented photos of corpses showing abdominal scars consistent with organ removal. The photos were taken at the morgue in the Egyptian port town of El Arish, where the bodies were brought.

Al-Azazy said the organs are taken from refugees while they are still alive. “The organs are not useful if they’re dead. They drug them first and remove their organs, then leave them to die and dump them in a deep dry well along with hundreds of bodies.”

He believes corrupt Egyptian doctors are working with the Bedouin. They come to Sinai with mobile hospital units to perform the operations, removing the especially popular corneas, livers, and kidneys for sale in Cairo.

“Mobile clinics using advanced technology come from a private hospital in Cairo to an area in the deserts of Mid-Sinai and conduct physicals on the Africans before they choose those suitable, then they conduct the operation,” Al-Azazy said.

CNN showed some of the photos of the dead to Dr. Fakhry Saleh, the former head of Cairo’s forensic department and an expert on the illegal organ trade.

“There are two kinds of scars. One is from a postmortem autopsy and one from surgery,” Saleh said, pointing to a scar that he says came from an operation that must have been performed shortly before the person died.

According to Saleh, the operation was conducted no more than 48 hours before death, indicated by the freshness of the scars. Furthermore, all the scars are in the area of the liver and kidney. “They are good stitches in the area of the liver and the kidney,” Saleh said.

Saleh has done extensive research on the illegal organ business in Egypt, which preys on poor people. The World Health Organization in a recent report called Egypt a regional hub for the trade.

“Organ trade is the second most profitable trade behind only weapons trade,” he told CNN. “It brings in more money than drug dealing and prostitution.”

An unnamed Bedouin source told CNN how profitable the organ trade is. “The doctors deal directly with the Sawarka family, and they buy the organs starting from $20,000.”

To keep the organs fresh on the journey from the desert to the city, the source said, “The doctors come with some sort of mobile fridge where the organs can be stored for six to eight hours and resold in Cairo or elsewhere. It’s like spare parts for cars.”

In Israel, a report released in February by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel noted that 52 percent of African migrants treated at a Jaffa clinic report having suffered physical abuse while in Sinai. Israeli NGOs suspect that the situation has worsened as Sinai has become more lawless since the Mubarak regime fell in March.

According to a report released earlier this year by Israel’s Population, Immigration, and Borders Authority, there were 33,273 illegal infiltrators in Israel as of December 23, 2010, all of whom arrived were smuggled across the Sinai border with Egypt. Of these, 19,442 were from Eritrea, 8,256 were from Sudan, and 5,575 were from other countries in Africa.