Eritrean Asylum Seekers in Israel Increasingly Turning to Prostitution

Many of the women survived torture in Sinai and are single mothers in Israel with no support from the state

Vered Lee
Vered Lee
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A woman at an informal bar in south Tel Aviv.
A woman at an informal bar in south Tel Aviv.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Vered Lee
Vered Lee

The women live here as asylum seekers, many of them having endured torture in Sinai on the way. They are left as single parents in Israel. With no assistance or ability to earn a living, and with the government piling on obstacles, they are being pushed into prostitution

“If you’re into black African women, not necessarily Ethiopians, I can tell you that there are two or three really hot black masseuses at the spa in Rishon Letzion,” someone calling himself “Avshalom” wrote last Saturday on the “Amazing Sex” online (Hebrew) forum. Such offers of information are common on this platform frequented by men who want to pay for sex, but this post was yet another piece of evidence that women asylum seekers are going into Israel’s prostitution industry.

For several years now, far from the public eye, Israel’s sex industry has been swallowing up women asylum seekers from Eritrea. They can be found in brothels and so-called spas – a cover name for brothels – in Tel Aviv, Rishon Letzion, Petah Tikva and Ramat Gan. At this point it’s an open secret. The Health Ministry’s Levinsky Clinic, in cooperation with Israel AIDS Task Force, is preparing a report for the government ministries that will map out how prostitution is becoming more widespread among this group.

The first signs were seen about four years ago. “Hi everyone, I went today to the spa in Holon because I heard there was a new black girl, besides T., because I have a thing for black girls, too,” this same “Avshalom” wrote in July 2013. “She’s a cross between an Ethiopian and an Eritrean She hasn’t been in the country very long, so she only speaks a little Hebrew. It’s easier to speak English with her.” Another guy on the site, who calls himself “The Professor,” commented: “It’s just my hunch, but I bet she’s totally Eritrean. They added the ‘part-Ethiopian’ to be reassuring.” “The Professor” added, “I once called a spa in Tel Aviv and they told me they had Eritreans there.”

Overall, the amount of women asylum seekers that have gone into prostitution is thought to be fairly low, “but the numbers are clearly increasing,” says social worker Tali Ehrenthal, who has run the psycho-social department of the ASSAF Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel for the last four years. “Each year, we’re learning of dozens of cases of asylum seekers falling into prostitution, but it’s obviously just the tip of the iceberg and not representative of what’s really happening.”

This reporter tried to speak with asylum seekers who’ve become prostitutes, but they were reluctant to do so because of the shame and the fear of being stigmatized. “For the same reasons, they won’t tell the aid organizations directly either,” says Ehrenthal. “This information only comes up when they’re in trouble due to an unwanted pregnancy or dire financial straits, or when they get very sick,” she explains. “Eritrean society is very traditional and the subject of prostitution is a social taboo that goes against the culture. It can lead to harsh condemnation and to the women being ostracized from society. Also, they have a deep-seated fear because they are without legal status. This is a group that is suffering oppression in so many ways, and prostitution is another circle of oppression that makes them especially vulnerable.”

At first they worked mainly in south Tel Aviv, near the new central bus station, when the scene was more confined to their own community. But in the last few years they have spread beyond their familiar territory, and for good reason. “There are women who work in brothels in Tel Aviv and nearby cities like Holon, knowing that the customers who come to these places are Israelis, and so there’s less chance of people that know them finding out about it,” says one Eritrean who works with asylum seekers in Israel.

There are only about 7,000 women among all the asylum seekers in this country, and a majority of these women are from Eritrea. An estimated 30 percent were subjected to torture in Sinai. Some 3,500 have children (it’s not clear how many of them are single parents). “Female asylum seekers from Eritrea fled for their lives and came here searching protection,” says the Eritrean who works with the community. “The untreated trauma of the torture survivors, combined with the stark poverty they face, leads some single mothers to prostitution.”

A 2011 report by the Knesset Information and Research Center noted that “women who were raped on their way to Israel are stigmatized, and women attest about being commercially exploited for sex.” Six years later, the trend seems only to have increased.

Going out of the community

When the asylum seekers first became involved in prostitution, such business was always conducted behind closed doors – whether in informal bars or in the coffee shops in the Tel Aviv bus station. Sometimes it would be in an inside room in the bar, or sometimes the woman would go with the john to his apartment. “Out in public, it would be made to look like it was a regular couple, but it was really a woman being sent off with a john and then she would return to the place afterwards,” says Ehrenthal. “The arrangement includes mediation. Very often, the owner of the place is the one who closed the deal with the customer looking for a prostitute.”

In the last few years, the circle of customers has expanded as Israeli men seeking prostitutes no longer avoided these bars. At the same time, many of the asylum seekers would rather get away from the community as much as possible. The report from one Tel Aviv police raid on the brothel at 98 Hayarkon Street, opposite the Dan Hotel, one of the largest and long-running brothels in the city, mentioned that Eritrean women were found there.

Another worry for the asylum seekers, besides the shortage of aid and opportunities for rehabilitation, is the implications of the Deposit Law, which requires them to have 20 percent of their wages put into a fund that can only be redeemed when they leave Israel. According to the law, which was passed in May, employers of asylum seekers are also required to set aside 16 percent of the asylum seeker’s pay. If the asylum seeker does not leave the country at the appointed time, the government is authorized to take a significant portion of the money that has accumulated in the fund.

The aid organizations say the law could push many of them into poverty, and push more women into prostitution. “This trend is a result of government policy,” says Ehrenthal. “The government’s ongoing disregard and lack of caring about these women is exacerbating their situation.”

The Welfare Ministry commented: “Every victim of trafficking recognized as such by the Israel Police, including women in prostitution, is entitled to rehabilitation in one of the ministry’s ‘Ma’agan’ shelters. The emergency home for women in prostitution also accepts women without legal status (although, unfortunately, very few make use of this help). The long-term rehabilitation process for women in prostitution should really include securing their rights in terms of housing, health care (rehabilitation services) and optimal employment integration. Since they lack these rights, long-term rehabilitation cannot be undertaken. All that can be done is to offer an immediate response in dangerous and emergency situations.”

But not all asylum seekers who’ve become prostitutes are victims of trafficking. Many were tortured (repeatedly raped) when in Sinai and never treated, and others are single mothers who are in dire poverty, for whom no assistance is forthcoming. Activists from ASSAF and other aid organizations say that, contrary to the claim that “very few of the women make use of the help available,” the emergency shelters and hostels are closed to these asylum seekers and they cannot even obtain this level of help. This is largely due to their lack of legal status, as well as the language barrier.

The Population and Immigration Authority commented: “First off, we are not aware of Eritrean women who are trafficked or involved in prostitution. Second, there is no policy of deporting Eritrean nationals from Israel, and whoever leaves Israel does so of his own accord. Therefore, the authority cannot be blamed for these women’s situation due to the alleged deportation of their spouses.”

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