A report released Monday by the Hotline for Migrant Workers and Physicians for Human Rights-Israel shows that the conditions under which tortured African migrants are being held could prove devastating. “They are being held without treatment, without appropriate services and while ignoring studies showing that lengthy incarceration can have a particularly destructive effect on survivors of slavery and torture,” the report says.
The report is based on information that is being regularly collected by the two organizations, as well as on the examination and analysis of 30 transcripts of hearings and testimonies from torture survivors who appeared before the custody tribunal at the Saharonim detention facility between June and September.
The information shows that the torture and abuse that these migrants suffer in the Sinai detention camps is getting worse. The victims are also being held for longer periods than in the past – 140 days on average – and the ransom requests are getting higher, reaching as much as $33,660.
While the stricter law against the entry of African migrants has indeed reduced the flow of those sneaking over the Egyptian-Israeli border, some migrants – those who have clearly been enslaved and tortured in Sinai detention camps – are still being admitted on humanitarian grounds.
Nevertheless, these victims, who include women and children, are still being incarcerated under the amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, which went into effect in June and allows the state to hold migrants for up to three years, regardless of whether they qualify for asylum.
Desperate migrants from Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea who pay smugglers to get them across the Sinai are often sold by their traffickers to Bedouins, who take them to camps, where they are tortured in an effort to get their relatives to pay ransom to release them. There have been horrific reports of rapes, burns, and even organ extractions.
According to the NGO's report, 50 percent of the survivors brought before the custody tribunal were identified as Eritrean refugees who had been kidnapped in the Sinai and sent to Israel against their will. The rights groups say that in 30 percent of the transcripts, the tribunal found visible signs of torture on the victims’ bodies and that while six of the 30 victims were recognized as slavery victims, only one of them, a man, was taken to a shelter for victims of human trafficking. The five others – four women and a man – have been held in detention for months, waiting for a spot to open up in one of the shelters.
The data also shows that 60 percent of the survivors were women (22 of the 30) and more than half of them (18) told of being raped.
Another part of the report deals with the “deficient treatment” given to the victims in Israel. According to the report, the Saharonim prison, which is where the asylum-seekers, including the torture victims, are taken, doesn’t have basic health services, which causes the refugees’ health and mental state to deteriorate even further. The prison has only four social workers for 2,000 asylum seekers, of whom only one speaks Tigrinya, the language of most of the torture victims.
“The torture victims are not released from custody unless they are classified as having been enslaved. Many of the victims were ‘only’ tortured and thus do not meet that definition, so they will spend a long period in jail,” the report says.
The report also states that until just recently, the women and children were being held in tents, despite the harsh weather along the Egyptian border in both summer and winter. Moreover, Saharonim prison doesn’t offer gynecological treatment or abortions, even though hundreds of the asylum-seekers held there were victims of rape or sexual abuse.
According to data from the Israel Prison Service, of 1,996 migrants who arrived in Israel in 2011, only 54 complained to the Israeli authorities that they had been sexually assaulted in the torture camps in Sinai. Yet even the prison service data show that only 23 of these 54 women saw a gynecologist before being released from detention; the others were released with no treatment, and after being released had to seek help from the free clinic run by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel.
Meanwhile, while only 54 women admitted to the authorities that they had been sexually assaulted in 2011, the PHR-I clinic referred 1,585 migrant women to gynecologists that year, and helped perform 21 abortions. With the passage of the new law, it isn’t clear whether such women will get the treatment they need, since they can be held for lengthy periods and thus cannot seek help outside the prison either.
“We cannot agree with a policy that determines that prison is the place for innocent victims who survived torture, captivity, rape and serious abuse,” said Shahar Shoham, who heads PHR-I’s Department of Migrants and Persons with No Civil Status. “Instead of offering aid and refuge to those seeking protection, the State of Israel chooses again and again to use dark practices whose declared aim is to make people who want to live, despise life.
“The State of Israel must change its ways, stop jailing asylum-seekers and ensure that victims of the torture camps have access to adequate health and welfare services,” she said.
Attorney Reut Michaeli, the director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, added, “The policy is evidence of totally losing one’s way, and of the creation of a hierarchy of suffering – of this one being released while the other stays in jail, based on the level of torture they underwent. The price of the lack of treatment will be paid by the victims and Israeli society alike.
“Israel must immediately establish a procedure for identifying and treating victims of torture, both in the prison and outside it Similarly, Israel must allow the entry of all asylum-seekers, particularly those who were torture victims, and evaluate their request for asylum,” she said.