M., a 28-year old Eritrean woman who grew up in Ethiopia, decided to emigrate with her husband in May 2009 in the hopes of a better life. Trying the Sudan and then Egypt, they eventually hoped to make their way towards Israel. A group of Bedouins took their money in exchange for a promise to bring them to Israel, but instead, they allegedly abused them terribly.
“My husband was tortured by them,” M. told workers at the Hotline for Migrant Workers in Israel, where they recorded her testimony from her cell in Saharonim prison. “In front of my eyes, they slowly burnt parts of his body until he died of his wounds. His body was tossed on the road. I was raped and badly beaten by them.”
This week, the testimony of M. and nine other women currently in the Saharonim prison awaiting deportation will be heard by the Committee on the Trafficking of Women in the Knesset. The goal of the Hotline activists is to grant women status as victims of sex trafficking in order to allow Israel to provide the women with a safe haven rather than send them back to where they came from.
“The state of Israel must recognize them as victims of torture,” advocate Osnat Cohen Lifshitz of the Hotline told Yediot Aharonot.
“I can’t tell you exactly where I contracted AIDS,” testified one of the other women, T. She, like other women, believe that money that passed hands was payment for her — that is, to purchase her as a sex-slave. “On the way from the Sudan to Sinai, I was raped by a Bedouin named Salah. Around 9 p.m., he took me with a group of people to the desert, and then moved me to an isolated space, where he held me and raped me for three days straight, without any protection. I resisted, I cried, but he didn’t listen. He whipped me with a belt, tied my hands behind me, and would rape me over and over again. I couldn’t run because I was so far away from people and did not know where to run to. After the three days, he brought me back to the group. I didn’t tell anyone about the rape until after I found out that I had AIDS, and then I told the prison social worker.”
Over the past 10 years, thousands of women have been trafficked illegally into Israel through the Egyptian border. They used to be predominantly women from the Former Soviet Union, but since 2005, the numbers of FSU women who come to Israel as part of the illegal trade have gone down — thanks in large part to the dedicated work of the Knesset Subcommittee on the Trafficking of Women. Unfortunately, the numbers of African women being trafficked have been steadily rising. In addition, there has been a sharp increase in the number of Eritrean women seeking asylum in Israel.
According to a report of the Human Rights division of the American Department of State, hundreds of asylum seekers who were sent back to Eritrea have since “disappeared.” The Ministry of Justice in Israel describes Eritrea as a country in which “human rights violations and political persecution are widespread, and include the incarceration of prisoners of conscience without charge and without trial, persecution on the basis of religion, the disappearing of citizens, and more.” Sigal Rosen, the Public Action Coordinator of the Hotline, told Yediot that the women “cannot be returned to Eritrea because of real threat to their lives.”
S. says she was held for three weeks by a group of Bedouins in the Sinai desert. The leader, a man named “Doyet, along with five other Bedouins whose names I don’t know, raped me continuously.” S., along with the other women, eventually managed to free themselves, and then arrived at the Israeli border where they were summarily arrested for illegal entry. They are currently awaiting deportation, but the fear is that if they get sent back, they will be returned to a life of torture or worse.
The voices of these women, women awaiting deportation back to Eritrea who were sold as sex-slaves when they desperately tried to build a better life, are being heard in the Knesset for the first time this week.
The question standing before the Israeli government is whether to be like the rest of the world and enforce cold, heartless laws that do not recognize the particular suffering of migrant women whose bodies are stolen and sold, or whether Israel will in fact be a light unto the nations and act with heart and compassion and protect these women, the strangers among us, as the Torah implores us to do.