In Landmark Ruling on Human Trafficking, Israeli Court Grants Victim Permanent Residency

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Chile Ezra, protesting in front of the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority in Jerusalem, June 2020.
Chile Ezra, protesting in front of the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority in Jerusalem, June 2020.

In an unprecedented ruling, a foreign-born woman, recognized by authorities as a victim of human trafficking, was granted permanent residency status in Israel. Chile Ezra, who was forcibly brought to Israel in 1997 by human traffickers but has since rehabilitated her life, has been fighting a deportation order for five years.

In his ruling, Judge Marat Dorfman of the immigration appeals tribunal wrote: “It is clear to me that granting a permanent residency permit is not a miracle remedy that is capable of healing her wounds, but I am of the opinion that permanent residency has something in it to grant the appellant the feeling of stability that she lacked during her life, in light of all she went through because of her abduction from Hungary to Israel.”

“I am ecstatic,” Ezra told Haaretz, crying tears of joy. “I still haven’t grasped it because it’s the big dream I have fought to realize. I’m proud and excited to be part of Israeli society and live here legally with rights like every citizen, man or woman. This is a historic day for me and for a lot of women victims of trafficking and prostitution, who the court sees and they are not invisible to it,” she said.

“This is a ruling that changes my life and I hope it will also be the turning point for other trafficking victims who live in Israel today with [legal residency] status. My fight against the Interior Ministry has ended but I still have an enormous amount of work in the battle to eradicate prostitution and raise the awareness for this harsh phenomenon,” added Ezra.

But in response to the court’s decision, the Interior Ministry's Population, Immigration and Border Authority submitted a request to delay implementing the ruling days so it can examine whether to file an appeal to the district court. A two-week delay was granted.

“I am shocked that the government is continuing to persecute and abuse Chile Ezra, who is recognized as a victim of [human] trafficking, after the appeals tribunal gave her justice,” said Hen Tirosh, a lawyer from the Herzog Fox and Neeman law firm who represents Ezra on a pro bono basis. “There is no justification, not legal and not moral, to appeal the ruling,” she added.

Ezra, whose story was exposed for the first time in Haaretz in 2016, was born in Hungary and suffered from domestic violence and sexual abuse in her youth. She became a mother at a young age, consumed alcohol and tranquilizers and fell prey to a criminal organization that trafficked in women when she was 22. She was brought forcibly to Israel in 1997 when trafficking in women flourished here. Her passport was taken from her and she was trapped in a brothel that maintained order with violence and abuse; she was a sex slave for 20 hours a day, seven days a week.

When she escaped from the criminal gang, she sank into the local prostitution industry, became addicted to hard drugs and married an Israeli citizen, an ex-con who worked in the brothel as a clerk. They had a civil marriage ceremony and tried to obtain permanent residency for her through the Population and Immigration Authority. But their efforts to get off drugs and rehabilitate themselves collapsed and they lived as a couple for years on the streets near Tel Aviv’s central bus station.

Ezra was repeatedly and violently raped by a client, a serial rapist named Vendmo Brooklyn, who regularly attacked sex workers at the old Tel Aviv bus station. She filed a police complaint, and as a result of her courageous testimony, he was sentenced to 28 years in prison. Finally, she took herself in hand and tried to rehabilitate herself. But in 2015, her partner died, as a result of which her request for residency status was denied and she was told she had to leave the country. She appealed and has been fighting to stay since.

She has been off drugs for 12 years and is no longer working in prostitution. I interviewed her in 2016 when she was fighting the decision to deport her. Her visa was taken away and she was left with no way to work until a decision was made in her case. She was paralyzed with fear, and when she found herself in dire financial straits, she sank back into prostitution for four months.

Ezra is conducting a daily battle to overcome the trauma she experienced from human trafficking, prostitution, and a society that remained indifferent to her situation. The police finally recognized her officially as a victim of human trafficking on November 20, 2019.

After her long tribulations, she received a B-1 work visa for one year on June 28 from the humanitarian committee that advises the Interior Ministry – but her request to receive permanent legal residency status for humanitarian reasons was denied. She then appealed this decision to the immigration appeals tribunal, asking to be awarded legal residency.

She appeared without obscuring her face in the film, “ A Whore Like Me,” directed by Yael Shachar and Sharon Yaish, which followed her life, out of a desire to make viewers aware of the plight of prostitutes. The film won the Ophir Prize for Best Documentary under 60 minutes, and it is included in the Education Ministry’s culture basket. Ezra has turned her life into a daily public relations campaign against prostitution. She lectures and has been working to help prostitutes at the Levinsky clinic in south Tel Aviv for nine years – seven as a volunteer and the last two for pay.

Judge Dorfman highlighted Ezra’s significant contributions to Israeli society in his ruling: “The appellant is one of those rare women who, in spite of all the terrible upheavals in her life, found the human strength to rehabilitate herself and even contribute from her experience to the rehabilitation of other women and extract them from the circle of drugs and prostitution. It seems to me that the public interest actually supports granting permanent residency status to [Ezra] in Israel so she will continue to contribute from her vast experience to the rehabilitation of additional women,” wrote the judge.

Dorfman – who opened his ruling with a reference to Anton Chekhov’s story “A Nervous Breakdown,” which describes an encounter in a Moscow brothel – wondered aloud how to prevent the demand for human trafficking in women in Israel. He did not accept the Interior Ministry’s view that Ezra’s connection to Hungary was stronger and more tangible than her connection to Israel.

“After all, as of today the connection of the appellant with her family in her country is weak. At the same time, [Ezra] has been living in Israel continuously in a legal manner, cumulatively for over 10 years. During this period the appellant has built a rich social framework ...and it seems that this structure is extremely essential for her rehabilitation. While this framework has been growing and strengthening, her connection to the country [of her birth]... only weakens,” wrote the judge.

Ayelet Dayan, the associate director of the Task Force on Human Trafficking and Prostitution in Israel, which joined proceedings as a Friend of the Court, said: “Today, justice was done in Israel. The decision to grant Ezra [legal residency] status is a most moral and just decision and represents recognition of both her suffering and her contribution to Israeli society.”

Tirosh praised the court’s ruling “which saved the Interior Ministry from itself. It is good to know that there are other authorities in Israel who are able to provide humanitarian compassion.”

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