Despite the fact that Israel admitted back in 2012 that it had a duty to provide a humanitarian solution for the victims of “torture camps” operated by human smugglers in Sinai, it was not until a few months ago that team began formulating a program for survivors, Haaretz has learned.
The Justice Ministry team is scheduled to submit its recommendations in June, two months after the expulsion of citizens of Eritrea and Sudan is slated to begin.
Survivors of the Sinai torture camps are not recognized in Israel and receive no aid from the authorities, despite harsh criticism by the United Nations and by human rights organizations. After years of dragging its feet, the state agreed to “meet its promise” to assist the victims — only after hundreds or even thousands of them will have left the country without receiving the proposed aid.
Others will be jailed, potentially triggering memories of having been imprisoned and tortured in Sinai. The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants has documented dozens of survivors of the torture camps who have been summoned to hearings in Holot and in Bnei Brak and given a choice between being transported to Rwanda and being jailed indefinitely at the Saharonim prison.
At least six have already been transferred from the Holot detention center, in southern Israel, to the adjacent prison, in accordance with the protocol approved late last year — despite the pleas of representatives of the Hotline to the state border authority.
“I fled from Eritrea to Sudan, and during my stay in Khartoum I was abducted to the Sinai desert, where I was held for a month before I managed to escape. During the month that I was captive in Sinai, I suffered, and was witness to, terrible torture: beatings with iron and plastic instruments that left scars on my body... [people being] tied to the backs of vehicles and dragged on the ground until they died.
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"I witnessed the death of my good friend who was murdered this way. My captors forced me to bake pita for captives and to help with translation. Since the torture was done outside, at one point I managed to escape, and I crossed the border into Israel with other Eritreans. They [Egyptian soldiers] shot at us but we made it across the border safely,” relates Daniel, a torture camp survivor in his 30s who has been living in Israel for seven years and whose application for asylum in Israel was denied.
One of six brothers in Eritrea, he served in the country’s army for six years. After one of his brothers died in the war with Ethiopia, Daniel and his four remaining brothers decided to escape from a life of forced labor, each one choosing a different direction: One brother is now in Sweden, two are in German, a third in New Zealand, the fourth died when the refugee boat he was in sank on the way to Italy — and Daniel himself hopes to remain in Israel. “My brothers in Europe had much better luck than I. They received citizenship, they are being taught the language and get help in adjusting. Here it is hard, everything is hard. They don’t want us.”
After 11 months and three weeks in the Holot detention center, Daniel was scheduled to be released this week, but instead of going free he is to be incarcerated in Saharonim. When faced with the choice between Saharonim and “voluntary departure” to Uganda or Rwanda, he did not hesitate. “Of course I chose Saharonim. I’m not willing to go to Rwanda because I see what happens with my friends. One died in the sea on the way to Europe, and I also can’t return to Eritrea: My brothers fled from Eritrea too, and now they’re refugees in Europe. Since we all fled my father is in prison now, so I can’t go back because I know I’ll be put in prison too.”
Daniel is one of around 4,000 asylum seekers, according to the estimates of human rights groups, who survived the torture camps in Sinai and reached Israel. Around 1,000 gave in to pressure and left Israel in the last few years, without getting help. Unlike victims of human trafficking who are recognized in Israel, the state neither recognizes nor does it grant rights or treatment to torture victims.
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Physicians for Human Rights and ASSAF — the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, filed an urgent petition in the High Court of Justice against the detention in Holot of asylum seekers who were tortured and enslaved in Sinai. The petition emphasized the need to explicitly prohibit the practice of sending torture victims to the detention center and argued that the issue must be settled immediately. A ruling is still pending, but the impending closure of Holot within the next few weeks has made the petition moot. Holot will be closed, but the situation of torture survivors will only become more difficult when they are forced to face the possibility of indefinite imprisonment in Saharonim or deportation to Uganda or Rwanda.
“The experience of prolonged imprisonment for vulnerable individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder in connection to experiences of captivity and imprisonment in torture camps in Sinai is difficult and destructive. Being in the area reminds them of their days in captivity in Sinai, as does the desert landscape,” explains Tal Steiner, a lawyer who is the head of the legal department of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.
“The pressure applied to them in the facility in Saharonim to agree to deportation is pressure to which torture victims are particularly vulnerable. We hear reports of frequent meetings with the Interior Ministry in which they are told they will be imprisoned indefinitely. This is extreme psychological pressure on people who need rehabilitation, not imprisonment. Beyond that, the entire population of torture victims needs rehabilitation, help and protection from deportation. The measure that the state has taken so far are too little, too late. Even after the recommendations for the pilot program are submitted, in June, there’s no way to know what they contain, how much will be implemented and how quickly. The problem is acute and there must be urgent, immediate action.”
Her remarks are echoed by Sigal Rozen, the public policy coordinator at the Hotline. “At least 36 survivors of the torture camps managed to overcome the difficulties and the traumas and to survive at Holot, while counting the days to their release with gritted teeth. How sad they were to discover that now, before their hoped for release, the immigration agency is demanding that they go to Rwanda or be imprisoned in Saharonim, which is even more crowded than Holot and there’s no possibility of leaving the cell, which is too crowded and whose door is locked,” she said.
In Sinai, smugglers imprisoned many asylum seekers who were on their way to Israel, in harsh conditions that included cruel torture, sexual assault and rape, all in an effort to pressure their families to pay large ransoms.
Already in 2012 the Justice Ministry recognized the need to take action and instructed the directors general committee on human trafficking to address the treatment of asylum seekers who are victims of torture but not of human trafficking. The committee appointed two subcommittees — one to collect data on the extent of the phenomenon and to create a profile of the victims and another to devise solutions in the area of health and welfare — but nothing happened. In 2014 the directors general committee on human trafficking passed a resolution instructing “the team that examined the issue of torture to recommend to the committee how to categorize the victims of torture and what benefits to grant them.” No recommendations were ever submitted.
Since July 2015, torture camp survivors have been sent to Holot. The state did not respond to appeals by human rights organizations on the poor condition of asylum seekers in Holot and Saharonim. In May 2016, the United Nations Committee Against Torture discussed a periodic report submitted by Israel on the issue. In remarks on the report, the committee expressed concern that Israel was not doing enough to identify victims of torture among asylum seekers and ruled that detention should only be used as a last resort and for as brief a period as possible.
Late last year, Justice Ministry Director General Emi Palmor instructed the establishment of the team to draft the pilot program for treating torture camp survivors. A source told Haaretz that a number of government ministries, including the ministries of health and of social services, opposed the move but gave in to pressure from the Justice Ministry. Justice Ministry officials believe they should be the ones addressing the issue solely because of its proximity to the issue of human trafficking and the concern that the torture victims — whose families often paid high ransoms to secure their release — are more vulnerable than others to trafficking. The ministry believes the state has no responsibility for these individuals according to international law because the torture was not carried out by government organizations or within Israeli territory, and that any aid to these victims is a right rather than a duty.
The interministerial discussions found large information gaps regarding how many asylum seekers were victims of torture and how these people were identified. That led the Justice Ministry to establish a pilot program to identify needs and draft a treatment protocol for survivors of the Sinai torture camps. The team is reviewing around 100 cases that are known to various governmental and nongovernmental organizations, examining existing information about the victims without interviewing them. The data will be used to establish criteria for identifying victims of the camps and assessing their needs. The Justice Ministry wants to help only the most severe cases, torture survivors whose day-to-day functioning is impaired, and not the thousands of survivors living in Israel. Presumably, the group will be drawn from Sudanese and Eritrean nationals who will not be deported in the first round of expulsions. It will include women and men with families, and they will be eligible for welfare and mental health aid as well as possibly being excluded from deportation.
Samuel was also given a choice between Saharonim and expulsion to a third country, but unlike Daniel he decided to flee Holot and try to survive in Israel without any legal status. After a year and a half in Saharonim, he felt he could not take going back there. “I fled from Eritrea to Sudan and from there I was abducted to Sinai,” Samuel related.
“In Sinai I was held in a camp with many other Eritreans, and we suffered torture for a month and a half until my parents managed to pay the ransom demanded by the smugglers. Through the period of captivity in Sinai, I endured torture that included being tied up, having urine and excrement poured on my naked body. Women who were tied to us were raped by the captors and when I tried to protect them, I was badly beaten as a punishment. After my parents scraped up the money, in the second half of 2012, I was set free and I entered Israel. I was imprisoned for a year and a half in Saharonim and was released. I was arrested a second time because I didn’t have a visa, and was held in Saharonim. While in prison, I applied for asylum, which was denied on the grounds that I should have applied during my first year in Israel. I tried to reopen my case but my request was denied. In January I was summoned to a hearing and I was requested to leave Israel for Rwanda, but I refused.”
If Samuel meets up with inspectors from the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, he’ll be sent to Saharonim again, and will face strong pressure to leave for Rwanda or Uganda.