The Social Affairs Ministry has refused to place a woman from the Gaza Strip into a shelter for survivors of prostitution because she has no legal status in Israel.
M., 27, fled her family in Gaza after they forced her into a series of temporary marriages with older men – something that’s legal under Islamic law but is effectively institutionalized prostitution.
During the year since she arrived in Israel, she was also forced into prostitution. She lived in the street for much of this time, but is now in temporary housing.
Normally, the ministry provides solutions for women who are recognized as victims of human trafficking or slavery even if they have no legal status. But it rejected her lawyer’s request that M. be recognized as such due to objections from the security agencies.
As far as is known, there are no specific suspicions about her. The problem is merely that she came to Israel from Gaza illegally and may still be in contact with people there.
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The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories is now trying to arrange a temporary residence permit for her.
“I only want to live with dignity,” M. said. “At least to be in a safe house and to find work so I can live. I’m tired of life and there’s nothing left for me but committing suicide.”
She said the courts, shelters and the welfare services have all refused to help her. “Every time I hear of a shelter for women in prostitution, it hurts me. I don’t want this life, but what can I do?”
Her attorney, Reut Shaer of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, termed the ministry’s rejection of M.’s request “unreasonable.” The Tel Aviv municipality, which runs the shelter, supports admitting M. to it.
In April, M. was interviewed by two officers from the police’s human trafficking department. She told them her father abused her both physically and verbally, and from the time she was 19, he also forced her into several temporary marriages in exchange for payments reaching tens of thousands of shekels. When she eventually refused, she was imprisoned in her room and beaten to the point where she needed hospitalization.
About 18 months ago, she said, she fled to Jericho with help from a woman she met in the hospital. But when she arrived, the man who brought her imprisoned her, forced her to marry him and gang-raped her together with some friends, all the while citing religious justifications.
She eventually escaped and fled to Be’er Sheva, where she began working as a prostitute. One man tried to extort her into sleeping with him, and when she refused, he reported her to the police as an illegal migrant. But she then filed a complaint against him, and the police decided to release her to a shelter for women in prostitution.
A few days after she entered the shelter last winter, she was told she would have to leave, because it was full and she had no legal status. She was left out on the streets and moved to south Tel Aviv, where a man drugged her, locked her in a Jaffa apartment for three weeks and then pimped her, taking half the money she earned.
Eventually, she ran away from him and is now supporting herself by cleaning houses.
M. gave the police officers medical documents and screenshots of threatening messages from her family to support her story, and a police official said they found the story credible. Nevertheless, the official added, they had to reject her request for recognition as a victim of trafficking, because she didn’t meet the criteria specified in the law.
However, the officers did transfer some of the material to the Tel Aviv police so they could investigate the crimes committed against her.
In her letter to the ministry last week asking it to find a solution for M., Shaer wrote that “when a person asks for protection and shelter from the welfare authorities at a time of crisis, as a last resort, you shouldn’t rummage through his identity and origins.” Even someone with no legal status has the right to basic protection, she added.
The ministry said that its program to rehabilitate survivors of prostitution “is intended for Israeli citizens only. The ministry also has solutions for victims of trafficking with no legal status, but the condition for entering a halfway house earmarked for this population is recognition of the applicant as a trafficking victim by the Israel Police.”