Egypt plans to establish special courts to try smugglers and human traffickers, the Reuters-affiliated Aswat Masriya news website reported on Sunday.
Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zend made the announcement after meeting with a delegation from the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Zend described human trafficking as a “retreat to the middle ages,” a comment not dissimilar to one made by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Rinzi recently, who compared human traffickers to slave traders.
According to a 2015 report by the US State Department, Egypt is “a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking.” The report added that, although the country has made “significant efforts” to address the issue, it does not fully comply with the minimum international standards of human trafficking prevention.
Egypt issued a law in May 2010 to battle human trafficking. A report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) approved of the legislation, but cited concern about the state’s capability to implement such measures, based on previous experiences.
EIPR maintained Egypt has not made enough effort to raise public awareness of the issue, and lacks the formal proceedures to identify traffickers and provide protection for victims.
“Many victims of trafficking were criminalized for acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked … and law enforcement officers routinely arrest victims and further mistreat them through verbal, physical or sexual abuse,” EIPR asserted.
Director of the Egyptian Organization to Help Refugees and Human Trafficking Prevention Rehab Abu Bakr told Mada Masr that the Justice Ministry’s move is welcome, but that the country requires better procedures for implementing such laws.
“Refugees, especially African refugees, are subject to a number of rights violations, including sexual harassment, rape and forced marriage,” she explained.
Abu Bakr added that campaigning for the rights of refugees and victims of trafficking has been difficult, due to the reluctance of people to speak out and a number of incidents in which organizations working with them have been held culpable by authorities. Although she adds that Egypt is generally trying to tackle these issues.
But experts have highlighted problems of conflating smuggling and trafficking when there are clear differences between the two: smuggling is mostly consensual, while trafficking is coercive, with the relationship between the trafficker and the people they are trafficking often extending beyond the border crossing itself.
Egypt’s authorities are not the only policy makers to combine the phenomena in recent months, as violence has been used against migrants and refugees, sometimes for profit, thus blurring the lines between the two.
Critics say governments have a vested interest in portraying people on the move as victims or criminals to suit policy decisions and punishments.