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A few of the asylum-seekers enter Israel through the Ben Gurion Airport with tourist or pilgrimage visas, but most, not having any other option, cross the southern border after a long and arduous journey through the desert.
The asylum-seekers’ journey begins with a dangerous escape from their homeland. Those who are caught on the border with Eritrea, for example, are shot or detained. Asylum-seekers pay smugglers thousands of dollars, huge sums by local standards, to escape persecution or enslavement in their homeland. The travel lasts weeks, sometimes months, together or in groups. The journey of asylum-seekers is often stopped in an Egyptian jail or in captivity of Bedouin smugglers-turned-extortionists in Sinai.
In 2009, activists of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants began encountering female asylum-seekers in the prisons for asylum-seekers in Israel who reported being raped by smugglers who held them captive in Sinai. In early 2010, testimonies began arriving of male asylum-seekers being held and tortured in Sinai to extract ransoms from their relatives. Since 2010, the Open Clinic run by the NGO Physicians for Human Rights-Israel began documenting the testimonies of survivors of the torture camps in Sinai. They have collected the testimonies of about 1,000 torture survivors. most of them Eritreans, who came to receive medical care at the Clinic.
Asylum-seekers testified that they were held in the desert until relatives and members of their community paid a high ransom in exchange for their release. The asylum-seekers held at the torture camps are shackled to one another with metal chains and are kept in crowded and filthy rooms, exposed to extreme heat and cold, starved, humiliated, beaten, burned with iron and electrocuted, sometimes to death. Women and girls are gang-raped, routinely, day after day. The victims are also forced to work without pay.
The asylum-seekers are told to call their family and then the kidnappers begin torturing them so that their families hear their screams and do everything and anything to raise the sum of the ransom. The ransom sums rose steadily since 2009 and are extremely high compared to income in the asylum-seekers’ countries of origin – $30,000 and higher. Most of the hostages at the Sinai torture camps are Eritreans and the money is raised by their families in Eritrea that sell everything they own to rescue their loved-ones. The large Eritrean Diaspora (half of the Eritrean nation lives outside of Eritrea due to the dictatorial regime there and the civil war the preceded its establishment) also makes significant monetary contributions to efforts to release the victims. Oftentimes, hostages who had their ransom fully paid are then transferred to another kidnapper who demands another ransom. This can go on for months with one hostage being traded like cattle and extorted by several smugglers. Those who do not pay the ransom on time are often murdered; the same fate awaits those who attempt to escape.
From the testimony of an Eritrean female asylum-seeker who entered Israel on June 30, 2012, as it was given to the Administrative Tribunal at Saharonim Prison for asylum-seekers:
I am a citizen of Eritrea. I came to Israel because the smugglers kidnapped me in Sudan. I planned to get to Sudan from Eritrea… I am not willing to return to Eritrea now. I would like to say that in Sudan three smugglers kidnapped me. I stayed with these smugglers for three days. After that, they transferred us to Sinai. I stayed in Sinai for six months. My legs were chained with a metal chain. I was also beaten with a stick by the smugglers. They also burned me with melted plastic. Also, I was raped for two months. Four smugglers raped me. Their names: Jinji, Michael, Fox and Heitham. They all looked like Bedouins, sometimes two smugglers would rape me every day, and at times just one of them. They raped me every day for two months. They did not use contraceptives. I did not say anything about this in the hearing because I was not asked about it at all. Eventually, I had to pay $28,300 [for my release – HRM]. My family in Eritrea paid the money.
Those who are released or manage to escape arrive at the Israeli border in a state of malnutrition, suffering physical injuries and mental trauma. Some of the women carry another heavy burden – a pregnancy from their rapists. At the border with Israel, the asylum-seekers are arrested and sent to the Saharonim Prison. Israeli human rights NGOs and the UNHCR estimate that about 7,000 survivors of the torture camps live in Israel, hundreds of them in need to continuous medical care due to physical injuries they’ve sustained. A few dozen of them are indefinitely jailed under the Anti-Infiltration Law at the Holot internment camp and Saharonim prison.
After the construction of the border fence was completed in 2012, the number of asylum-seekers entering Israel dropped drastically (43 asylum-seekers entered Israel in 2013). However, the torture camps in Sinai continue to operate thanks to kidnappings of Eritrean refugees from Sudan. The kidnappers, members of the Rashaida tribe, often transfer the hostages to the torture camps in Sinai. Upon paying the exorbitant ransom, the hostages are sometimes released in Cairo. Those who successfully escape or are released in Sinai are often arrested by Egyptian authorities. Many of them are jailed in harsh and even life-threatening conditions in overcrowded jails in police station in Sinai. After they are detained, the asylum-seekers are deported to Ethiopia and sometimes Eritrea, thus blatantly violation the Refugee Convention. The Egyptian regime does not grant human rights organizations or the UNHCR access to survivors of the torture camps.
Only a few of the survivors of the Sinai torture camps have been recognized by the Israeli police as victims of human trafficking and slavery. According to Israeli law, only a person who was employed by the smugglers for a prolonged period of time without pay is a victim of human trafficking and enslavement. Survivors of the torture camps who were “only” tortured but not forced to work by the kidnappers do not meet the criteria of the law. Survivors of the torture camps who are recognized as victims under Israeli law have the right for a year of recovery in the shelters for human trafficking victims and access to medical and welfare services for that one year. Those who are not recognized under Israeli law, like all other asylum-seekers, do not have access to welfare of medical services. This means thousands of survivors of the torture camps in Israel are denied much-needed medical treatments, psychiatric and psychological care and social services, making it so much harder for them to recover from the horrors they’ve endured.
In late 2014, due to the crackdown of the Egyptian regime on terrorist networks in Sinai, the torture camps there stopped operating. Instead, new torture camps sprung up in Sudan and Libya.
Read our in-depth report on the Sinai torture camps:
* Tortured in Sinai, Jailed in Israel, October 2012
* Human Trafficking and Exploitation of Female Migrant Workers and Asylum Seekers, June 2010