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The Struggle for Recognition of Human Trafficking Victims

Written by: Elizabeth Tsurkov

*Trigger warning: The post contains a testimony detailing torture*

Hundreds of asylum-seekers who had survived the Sinai torture camps were jailed in Israel under different version of the Anti-Infiltration Law since the summer of 2012. The last group that included dozens of survivors was released in November 2014 thanks to a the Hotline’s petition to the High Court. The three different version of the Anti-Infiltration Law that came into effect one after the other (since the High Court twice voided versions of the law) did not exclude survivors of the torture camps from detention. Thus, it was crucial to receive recognition as a victim of human trafficking for the purpose of slavery from the Israeli Police to be released from detention. This means that asylum-seekers who did not work without pay for their captors and were “only” tortured were kept in detention.

The Hotline’s activist visited and continue to visit the detention facilities for asylum-seekers and worked to secure the release of survivors of the torture camps. The process of achieving the recognition of a as a trafficking victim under Israeli law and finding a place in the government-run shelter for victims took six months on average. We met Daniel (not his real name), whose story appears in this post in Saharonim prison and tried to secure his release. Problems in identification and the fact that victims are apprehensive about sharing their story resulted in him being released only in November 2013, after over a year in detention. He was released thanks to the High Court ruling that voided the 3rd amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law. Afterward, we interviewed Daniel again and when he was finally recognized as a trafficking victim, we worked to ensure that he’ll receive the rights to which he is entitled.

Daniel’s family are members of the Jehova’s Witnesses community. Only four religious groups are legal in Eritrea: the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea. Believers of other faiths are jailed, tortured and held in life-threatening conditions. Between 1,200 to 3,000 people are detained in Eritrea today for their religious beliefs. Daniel was conscripted into the military in Eritrea and concealed his religion. During his annual break from service, Daniel taught others about the faith and someone notified authorities. Daniel was detained under harsh conditions for a year and three months until he gave up and promised to stop believing in his religion. Daniel was returned to the military where he kept praying in secret. Other soldiers abused him for his faith and he would run off from the military from time to time, get arrested, held in detention and then forced back intto the service. “I couldn’t handle the treatment in the military and the constant arrests, so I decided to escape Eritrea,” he told us. Daniel escaped to eastern Sudan and hoped to build a new life for himself.

Unfortunately for Daniel, men from the Rashaida tribe kidnapped him there and brought him to Sinai. Daniel was transferred between three torture camps – in the first two camps, after his family paid for his release, he was instead sold to another group of traffickers. The kidnappers would call his family while they tortured him to force the family to pay a ransom for his release. “They abused us. They gave us tasks to stand in different positions and those who failed were beaten with sticks and hot iron bars. Till this day I have scars and cannot unbend by hand. In this house there were also women. One of them didn’t have anyone to pay for her release, so they beat her furiously and after two days of beatings she died.” In the first torture camp “I was raped several times and they asked me to make noises. Then the Bedouin took me to another place and raped me several times, one after the other. It lasted for days.”

The captors not only starved, beat and raped Daniel. They also forced him and other Eritrean captives to carry heavy jugs of water and dig graves while they’re chained to each other. In the second torture camp, the captors forced Daniel to work in construction. Because he was held in slavery-like conditions for manual labor and sex work, Israeli Police recognized Daniel as a human trafficking victim. We met Daniel in prison and transferred the case of the Legal Aid Department at the Ministry of Justice, in charge of helping detained migrants through the process of recognition as trafficking victims. During his time in prison, Daniel was not recognized as a victim and was only released in November 2013. After he was released, we tracked him down and interviewed him once again and transferred his testimony to the Israeli Police. He was recognized as a trafficking victim and is now entitled to a year of rehabilitation in a shelter operated by the government for trafficking victims. During this year, Daniel can receive much-needed medial and psychological treatment and will be entitled to work.