Fourteen Ethiopian women who have been recognized as trafficking victims have nevertheless been in jail since April due to a shortage of shelter space.

The smugglers who brought the women into Israel had hoped to collect a ransom from their families in exchange for their release, according to an official with the Justice Ministry's legal aid department. But when it turned out that most of them were orphans, and thus had no one to pay up for their release, some were subjected to vicious sexual abuse, the official said.

Just last week, Haaretz reported on another Ethiopian migrant who was also jailed for more than a month because Ma'agan, Israel's only shelter for trafficking victims, had no space for her. She, too, was reportedly severely sexually abused by smugglers in Sinai and is currently in the advanced stages of pregnancy.

The 14 women jailed since April were part of a group of 40 women and girls who had gone to a town on the Ethiopia-Sudan border in hopes of finding work, the legal aid official said. Once there, they were told they could find high-paying work over the border in Sudan. But upon entering Sudan, all 40 were kidnapped to Sinai and a ransom was demanded for their release, the official said.

In April, after it had become clear that most of the 40 women were orphans who had no one to pay the ransom, the smugglers took them all over the border and dumped them in Israel. But before that, some were sexually abused as "punishment" for their inability to pay, according to the legal aid official.

After entering Israel, the women were taken to Saharonim Prison. There, on the basis of their testimony about what happened to them in Sinai, 14 of them were recognized as victims of sex trafficking.

Having been recognized as trafficking victims, the women should have been sent to a suitable shelter. But Ma'agan has room for only 35 women, and it is currently fully occupied. As a result, the women have been in Saharonim for almost two months. The Justice Ministry's legal aid department has asked the Social Affairs Ministry to find some better solution for them, but so far, none has been found.

Aside from the 14 trafficking victims, the group of 40 also included several unaccompanied minors. They do not appear to have been abused, according to the legal aid official, and have asked a custody tribunal to order them placed in boarding schools. Some of them have since been placed.

Of the adult women, several asked to be sent back to Ethiopia, and all who did so have since been repatriated.

The Justice Ministry said that "in light of the shortage of space at the Ma'agan shelter, particularly complex cases are being dealt with ad hoc by the [legal aid] department in an effort to find a unique solution suitable to the circumstances of each case, such as being released to shelters that don't deal with trafficking victims."

The Social Affairs Ministry declined to comment.