Opinion

Israel Must Help Asylum Seekers Trapped in the Sex Industry

Human rights in Israel cannot be restricted to Jewish women only

There are approximately 7,000 female asylum seekers in Israel, 400 of whom are trapped in the cycle of prostitution.
Ilan Assayag

“We say that slavery has vanished from European civilization, but this is not true. Slavery still exists, but now it applies only to women and its name is prostitution,” Victor Hugo wrote. Sex work is conceptualized in research literature today as “modern-day slavery” and as “the world’s oldest oppression,” and it’s difficult not to notice its strong connection to identity, skin color and class.

The women who are trapped in Israel’s sex industry belong to the weakest groups: Mizrahi women, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Arab women, women of Ethiopian origin, women without legal status and Palestinians. It follows that the myth of sex work being a “choice” should be replaced with addressing the educational tracking, exclusion, marginalization and exploitation of society’s weakest groups.

The most vulnerable women in recent years are asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan. In 2013 I published a blog post (in Hebrew) reporting on sex work among asylum seekers. And in September 2017, in the wake of a rise in the number of asylum seekers engaging in sex work, I published an investigative report in Haaretz.

The mapping of prostitution and its extent appeared recently in a government report commissioned by the Labor, Social Affairs and Social Services Ministry, the Health Ministry and the interministerial anti-trafficking coordinator. What I discovered from my reporting work is now known to the government ministries.

There are approximately 7,000 female asylum seekers in Israel, 30 percent of whom were victims of torture in Sinai. In 2014, nonprofit organizations aiding asylum seekers had identified some 40 female asylum seekers who were trapped in the cycle of prostitution; that number is now around 400.

Clearly this is the just the tip of the iceberg. This sex work takes place in bars, residential apartments, in the street, through a pimp, in exchange for housing and in brothels. The men who are its consumers are Israelis from all strata of the population.

Having covered the arrival of the female asylum seekers in Israel in 2007, it is heartbreaking to see them enter the cycle of sex work. Most of the female asylum seekers fled for their lives to find safe haven in Israel from massacre in Darfur or danger to their lives from the dictatorial regime in Eritrea.

As a result of Israel’s hardheartedness, and under its responsibility, women resorted to sex work here. Many of them survived torture camps in Sinai; some had no choice but to work for a pimp who ransomed them. The rest live among us, poor and starving, forced into sex work as a result of the absence of a basic safety net.

For example, the government report recounts the story of S., 25, who has been here for eight years. She has a baby, her husband left for Canada. When she was fired from her work as a cleaner in a hospital because of the deposit law (requiring asylum seekers’ employers to withhold part of their salary, to be withdrawn only when the asylum seeker leaves Israel) she engaged in sex work in order to survive.

Despite warnings from advocacy and aid organizations such as Physicians for Human Rights and Assaf that the number of women in prostitution would rise, the doors to rehabilitation for female asylum seekers remain shut.

The Justice Ministry and the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration authority are conducting a pilot program for 100 female asylum seekers, with the aim of learning their needs, not providing rehabilitation.

There is nothing more shameful than treating female asylum seekers working as prostitutes like guinea pigs, and not providing help.

There is a great deal of knowledge in Israel about rehabilitating sex workers; it only needs to be adapted to asylum seekers, health services made accessible to them, they must be afforded protection from deportation and imprisonment and the “deposit law,” which could lead more women into the cycle of sex work, must be abolished. Human rights in Israel cannot be restricted to Jewish women only.