Sex for Visas: Israeli Immigration Worker Suspected of Rape, Extortion of Asylum Seekers

Yigal Ben Ami, tasked with renewing visas for asylum seekers, is suspected of leveraging his position to sexually exploit women under the threat of deportation

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Asylum seekers wait in a line outside Israel's Immigration and Population Authority’s facility in Bnei Brak, in 2018.
Asylum seekers wait in a line outside Israel's Immigration and Population Authority’s facility in Bnei Brak, in 2018. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

D. never imagined that the man who was supposed to grant her asylum in Israel would be the one she would come to fear most. In 2018, she came to Israel on a tourist visa, fleeing her country of origin after her ex-husband was imprisoned for what she calls “political threats” to the government. “I was afraid to go back there,” she tells Haaretz in Russian. Meanwhile, she supported herself in Israel through cleaning jobs and applied for asylum at the Immigration and Population Authority’s facility in Tel Aviv, before officials told her report to the authority’s facility in Bnei Brak. 

There, she met Yigal Ben Ami, a worker at the Population Authority’s unit for handling asylum seekers, who was tasked with reviewing her visa. Last month, Ben Ami was arrested on suspicion of receiving sexual bribes from D. and other women in exchange for dispensing stay permits. Since then, police have uncovered a larger web of alleged sexual exploitation. Now, Ben Ami is charged with rape, extortion, fraudulent receipt of goods, fraud, breach of trust and attempted forgery.

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At first, Ben Ami was suspected only of receiving bribes. Wiretaps of the mobile phone he used while committing the crimes raised the suspicion that he received sexual bribes from D. Following his arrest and the seizure of his phone, Ben Ami’s entire alleged exploitation industry was revealed.

He is suspected of approaching at least nine women, meeting four of them. Police suspect that he raped at least one of the women and tried to kiss or sexually assault others. He met the women when they came to him to apply for visas, and later would find them and offer to renew their visas in exchange for sex. Ben Ami is currently under house arrest. His case has been transferred to the prosecution, which is expected to indict him. 

D. tells Haaretz that at their first meeting at the authority’s facility in Bnei Brak, Ben Ami gave her a visa for four more months, but on one of the pages of her passport he left his phone number with the name Avi. “It was weird, so I messaged him, and he asked to meet at a coffee shop in Bat Yam. At the meeting he asked me to give him names of illegal residents and said that in exchange he would ‘solve whatever problem I have’ and extend my visa to stay in Israel.”

Ben Ami initiated another meeting, which took place at D.'s home in Bat Yam. “I was sick, so he came to my house. He grabbed my hand and started hugging and kissing me. I understood what he wanted. I didn’t want it, but I had no choice, and he used force. After he got what he wanted he gave me the visa and told me I can’t tell anyone what happened because it would be dangerous for me and for him. He said I don’t have to come to the office in Bnei Brak because they’re deporting all the asylum seekers now. He said if I came they’ll send me straight home and that now everything goes through him.”

The next encounters, she says, were in Ben Ami’s car. “Every few months he would come and make me have sex with him, and then he would give me a note with a visa for a few more months. He kept pressuring me mentally that I’ll be deported. I was his prisoner mentally. I didn’t want to sleep with him, but he kept telling me that if I told what was happening I’ll be deported, and I was afraid.” 

Through Ben Ami's coercion, the two met around ten times in total. “I tried to avoid it, but he kept telling me, ‘Don’t play with me. You’re playing with fire.” He demanded that I send him nude videos. I had no choice. It was hard for me, but he made me do it.”

D. decided to leave Israel at this point. “I couldn’t take it anymore,” she says. But last month, officers of Unit 433, Israel's national fraud investigations unit, raided her house, and arrested her. The charge: Bribery. 

Asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv, in April.Credit: Moti Milrod

“I didn’t even understand what they were talking about. I work in cleaning. Then they explained it was sexual bribery. I told them: ‘What are you talking about? He exploited me. I had no choice.’ They pressured me. They yelled at me at interrogations until I passed out. Like I was a criminal. Later on they believed me, but to this day I am treated like a criminal. In the interrogations, I had no strength left anymore. They confronted me with Ben Ami and I just wanted to leave. I couldn’t look at him.”

D. says that to this day her passport and mobile phone have not been returned to her. “I’m like a hostage. It’s clear to me that there were others before me that he exploited. I came here to ask the Israel for asylum and found myself sexually exploited by the very person who was supposed to protect me – and now I’m the guilty one that they want to deport? It’s hard,” she says in a broken voice. “Today they already understand that I’m a victim he exploited, so why am I still being treated like I’m guilty?” 

In response a police source said that once the investigation showed that D. was sexually exploited by Ben Ami, she was treated as a sex crime victim in every way. “It’s regrettable to hear those comments, but the treatment she received was respectful and decent,” says the source. The sexual bribery case opened against D. is expected to be closed by the prosecution. 

Delayed response

Haaretz has learned that suspicions against Ben Ami were raised as early as last year, and in August of this year a court issued an arrest warrant. Despite this, the police did not make the arrest until November 9. Ben Ami confessed to sexual contacts with some of the women, but in interrogation claimed the sex was consensual.

Judge Erez Melamed of the Rishon Letzion Magistrate's Court rejected this defense, saying it was inconsistent with the investigation materials. Ben Ami claimed that some of the women gave him information which he passed on to the population authority’s intelligence coordinator, following which undocumented residents were arrested. He claimed that was why he extended the women’s visas. His attorney claimed that the acts were not committed violently or coercively but in a relationship that turned “friendly and informal.”

The Population and Immigration Authority denied his claim, stating in response that “Mr. Ben Ami does not belong to the authority’s intelligence array and was not asked at any point to collect intelligence, and most certainly not in the unacceptable manner it was allegedly done. We fully and utterly reject the worker’s claims that he was acting on behalf of the authority or was employed by it to obtain the information, and we will allow the police to exhaust the investigation as required.”

The Population Authority has tried in the past to terminate Ben Ami after a disciplinary process found him guilty in 2017 of falsifying reports, but the disciplinary tribunal of the public service decided not to fire him. Instead, it demoted him for three years, removed him from oversight to administrative duties for five years, and gave him a severe reprimand. Sources at the authority say that they knew nothing of Ben Ami’s actions, and that they condemn them. 

Attorney Ness Ben Natan, representing D., told Haaretz: “This is a crime victim who was exploited, and we are counting on the authorities to act resolutely in this case.”

Attorneys Shachar Lis and Sassi Gez, representing Ben Ami, said that “Our client, who has no criminal background, has cooperated fully at his police questionings, admitted to having fully consensual sex with one of the complainants with no connection to his duties, and he strenuously denies all other charges against him. It is not for naught that the court has ordered our client released, nor is it for no reason that the prosecution has refrained from asking for remand. We are convinced that further down the road the prosecution will realize that there was nothing criminal in our client’s actions and order the case against him closed.”

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