Israel’s other refugee question

By Lucy Newman, January 21, 2013
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Last year Israeli politician Orit Zuaretz declared that in Israel “the phenomenon of the sex trade as we knew it is practically eliminated”. Her statement is reflective of a positive shift in Israeli government policy since 2006 in regards to the issue of sex trafficking. Israel now has two official shelters and the perception of victims in the Israeli media and society has shifted from being hostile, to sympathetic.

There is however, another group that needs government attention. Since June 2012, all African asylum seekers arriving in Israel have been automatically imprisoned without trial, for a minimum of three years. Detainees include those previously trafficked, raped and tortured in the Egyptian Sinai. Although Israel is the destination country, and is therefore not responsible for the abuse suffered prior to entry, it nevertheless has obligations as to how it treats these people once they arrive.

Asylum seekers, who cross through the Sinai from Egypt, often pay Bedouin smugglers to facilitate their passage to Israel. These smugglers have then held the individuals to ransom for large amounts of money, above the original fee. Some have been kidnapped by gangs from refugee camps in the Sudan, and then brought to camps in Sinai for ransom profits.

Conditions in these camps include being chained up underground, electric shocks and beatings. Women are often subject to systematic rape. Captivity can range from weeks to months depending on the time that the asylum seeker’s family takes to gather the ransom (up to $35,000). If sufficient ransom isn’t raised the asylum seeker may be murdered.

It still has obligations once they arrive

If the family manages to pay the ransom, the asylum seeker will likely then be left at the Israeli border with the physical scars of the torture still raw on their body. Israeli law enables automatic detention of anyone who irregularly crosses the border, which includes asylum seekers who enter Israel illegally. This is despite the fact that under international law, illegal entry should not impact an asylum application.

Once in detention in Israel, an asylum seeker may be identified as a victim of trafficking; a classification with significant implications for their subsequent treatment. When defined as a victim of trafficking, the individual may have access to an Israeli shelter, which provides rehabilitation and support.

Yet Israel’s definition of trafficking covers only those who have been exploited for a specific purpose, for example sex or labour. Asylum seekers who have “only”been raped or tortured along the way often do not meet this. Israel has no system of rehabilitation specifically for victims of torture, so these victims are left to languish in prison.

There are serious problems with the current system of dealing with victims of torture and trafficking in detention centres. First, there is a lack of identification of victims of trafficking. And even if a victim is identified, spaces in these shelters are extremely limited.

Israeli NGOs, media outlets, as well as MKs from the trafficking committee have raised this issue, but as yet there has not been an improved policy brought in to deal with this complex issue.

The issue of how to rehabilitate tortured asylum seekers cannot be separated from the wider context of Israeli policy toward this group. In Israel, there is no certain way of knowing who is a refugee. The government does not assess asylum applications of Sudanese and Eritrean nationals individually, but gives them “group protection”, which does not allow for access to welfare services or any preventative healthcare — as refugee status does. Internationally, 88 per cent of Eritreans gain refugee status. If each case was decided individually in Israel, it is likely the majority of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers would receive recognition as refugees.

As friends of Israel, we can and must say that the Jewish state cannot allow victims of torture and trafficking to be left in prison without sufficient rehabilitation.

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Lucy Newman researched the Israeli response to victims of torture for her MPhil at the University of Cambridge. She is currently working with René Cassin on the issue of human trafficking

Last updated: 11:17am, January 21 2013