Israeli Activists Launch Campaign for Migrant Victims of Sinai Torture

Harnessing the success of a new Israeli film, activists seek to raise global awareness of brutal plight of Eritrean asylum seekers.

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Asylum seekers showing scars of torture inflicted by Egyptian smugglers in the Sinai, at a 2013 protest at the Interior Ministry.
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

A campaign to raise awareness about Eritreans seeking asylum in Israel who undergo torture in Sinai kicks off this week with a special screening in the Knesset of a new, award-winning film on the subject.

“Sound of Torture” by filmmaker Keren Shayo won the Best Debut Film Award last month at the Docaviv International Film Festival in Tel Aviv, Israel’s premiere venue for documentary film.

Gila Orkin, the director for international relations at The New Fund for Cinema and Television, one of the foundations that helped finance the film, noted that somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 Eritrean asylum seekers who have been incarcerated in the Sinai torture camps currently reside in Israel.

Since the film was released last month, she said, the foundation has been trying to help Shayo and producer Osnat Trabelsi in their efforts to harness its power to affect real change. Specifically, their goal is to convince the Israeli authorities to officially recognize these asylum seekers as victims of torture so that they can be eligible for essential health and social services in the country.

In addition to the screening in the Knesset this Wednesday, the film will also be shown over the next few weeks at the Israeli Supreme Court and in the United Nations in New York.

The New Fund for Cinema and Television is partnering in the effort to promote screenings of the movie here and abroad with several local and international human rights organizations, among them Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights, and Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel.

“We also want to created international pressure to put an end to the Sinai torture camps and free all the hostages there,” said Orkin. “We’re very concerned because similar torture camps have now been set up in Libya.”

Also collaborating in this outreach campaign will be Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean-born refugee living in Stockholm who is the main protagonist of "Sound of Torture." In her efforts to create international awareness of the problems, Estefanos hosts a weekly call-in radio program in Sweden for victims of the Sinai torture camps and their loved ones.

In the past decade more than 300,000 Eritreans have fled the cruel military dictatorship in their home country, often risking their lives in the process. Because the doors of Europe have been closed to them, many have taken the treacherous journey to Israel by foot, via Sudan and Egyptian-held Sinai, in their search for a safe haven.

Ever since 2009, many of these refugees – men, women and children – have been caught by Bedouin smugglers in Sinai and held there in the torture camps, their captors demanding tens of thousands of dollars in ransom in exchange for their release.

In order to make their demands known, these smugglers provide their captives with cellphones, which are used to communicate with Estefanos, and with friends and relatives who made the journey and live in Israel. The cries of agony as the asylum seekers undergo torture are heard over the phone, and the heart-wrenching responses of their family members and friends as they listen are all documented in the film.