Refugees in Saharonim jail
Refugees in Saharonim jail. For many trafficking victims, there is no end in sight. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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They were kidnapped from their homeland, beaten, raped, bound hand and foot, and dumped on Israeli soil. The more than 20 women and girls from Ethiopia whom the state has officially recognized as victims of human trafficking have been free from their abductors for the past five months - and they have spent that time incarcerated in Israeli prisons.

For many of them, there is still no end in sight.

Under Israeli law, the entire group should have been given treatment to help them through their ordeal and about half of them - girls aged 14 or 15, classified as unaccompanied minors - should have been placed in boarding schools. But the Education Ministry has refused to accept them, and they have remained in the Givon and Saharonim jails - both of which house adults, not other minors.

The adults were supposed to have been sent to Maagan, a shelter for female victims of trafficking run by the Social Affairs Ministry. This isn't an option for the girls, because the shelter says it isn't equipped to handle minors. But in any case, Maagan is already full. So the women have remained at Givon and Saharonim as well.

By law, trafficking victims are supposed to be held in jail only until an alternative can be found. And for minors, the law explicitly specifies a maximum limit of no more than 60 days. These girls have already been held for three months beyond that limit.

The entire group was kidnapped from Ethiopia and brought to Sinai, where they were held for ransom for three months while being repeatedly raped, beaten and starved. After the kidnappers had collected ransom from the women's families, they dumped them over the border, in Israel.

Once here, the women were quickly recognized as trafficking victims, which means they can't be deported and must be offered treatment. But despite a custody court's ruling that they must be transferred to shelters or boarding schools, they remain in jail.

The group is being helped by lawyers hired by the Justice Ministry's legal aid department. But some of their appeals to the Education Ministry on the girls' behalf have been totally ignored, while the rest have been rejected.

The ministry has given two reasons for its refusal. First, it said, it has nowhere to put the girls: Its boarding schools for unaccompanied minors already have their maximum complement of 150 students. Second, it added, the girls are from a country to which migrants can legally be deported - even though, as recognized trafficking victims, these girls cannot be legally sent back to Ethiopia.

Attorneys Smadar Ben-Natan and Michal Pomeranz recently filed petitions against the ministry on behalf of three of the girls, and the administrative affairs court is to hear the first case tomorrow. The state, however, has already said it will request more time to find a solution.

Members of the group said their nightmare began when they went to seek work in a town along the Ethiopian-Sudanese border. When a stranger offered to take them to a place where they could find better-paying work, they agreed. The man loaded them on trucks, along with 60 other people, and drove them to Sinai.

When they realized they were leaving Ethiopia, the girls said, they asked to be taken back. In response, their guards fired in the air and threatened to hang them if they didn't keep quiet and do as they were told. After that, they didn't dare complain.

The journey to Sinai took two weeks, during which they never left the truck and were given food only every three days - a bit of bread and filthy water. Once in Sinai, they were imprisoned in huts and told they would have to pay ransom for their release.

The girls said they were usually kept bound hand and foot, unless their captors needed them to do some work. The only food they received was a bit of flour and water every three days, with which they baked bread. They were beaten frequently and raped, often in full view of their fellow captives. Sometimes they were beaten during the rapes. The beatings were especially severe when the kidnappers were calling their families to discuss the ransom, since the kidnappers wanted their relatives to hear the captives scream.

Eventually, the families managed to scrape together about $3,400 each (60,000 Ethiopian birr ) in ransom money. In early April, the kidnappers freed them and dumped them inside Israel.

Like all migrants who enter illegally, they were originally taken to Saharonim for processing. There, they were quickly recognized as trafficking victims.

While in jail, the petitions noted, the minors receive no schooling, are allowed only very limited outdoor exercise and have no activities to fill their time. Treating underage trafficking victims in this fashion violates both Israeli law and the international conventions Israel has signed.

The Social Affairs Ministry said it is doing the best it can to help trafficking victims. It recently set up two halfway houses for trafficking victims, with the goal of enabling some women to move there from Maagan, freeing up space in the shelter.

The Justice Ministry's legal aid department confirmed that it has been told space for some of the women is due to open up at Maagan shortly. It also said the Social Affairs Ministry had acceded to its request to put some of the women in other shelters, even though Maagan is the only one that specializes in trafficking victims.

For the girls, however, no solution is yet in sight. The Education Ministry said merely that it is studying the matter together with the other relevant ministries to try to find an appropriate solution.

The legal aid department acknowledged that the situation presents a unique challenge, because never before has Israel had to deal with a such a large group of victims, and particularly with so many minors, all at once. Nevertheless, it said, keeping them in jail for five months cannot be considered an appropriate solution.