Flouting International Law: Violating the Human Rights of Asylum Seekers, Including Victims of Torture and Human Trafficking, in and en route to Israel – Laurie Lijnders
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel
My 15-year-old brother Habtom disappeared after he was released from an underground cell in the trafficking compound of Abu Khalid, where he was tortured for three months until we paid US$35,000 for his release, a young Eritrean woman told me during a visit to her home in a Tel Aviv suburb. Habtom, who fled forced military conscription and institutionalized slavery in Eritrea, was kidnapped in April 2012 from Shagarab refugee camp in Eastern Sudan by Rishyada tribesmen. Through a well-organized network of human traffickers operating in Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, and Israel, he was transferred to the northern Sinai desert, near the Egyptian border with Israel.
The Israeli Ministry of Interior estimates that 60,000 African asylum seekers, mainly from Eritrea and Sudan, have arrived in Israel in recent years via the country’s southern border. According to Israeli human rights organizations, arriving asylum seekers face serious rights violations on both sides of the border.
Drawing on ethnographic research I conducted in conjunction with Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-IL), I focus here on two forms of violation frequently committed on the Israeli side: detention without charge and refoulement, or illegal deportation in violation of international law. Policies like these are designed – again, in contravention of international law – to deter asylum seekers from coming to Israel. Those who do arrive are often in desperate need of medical treatment after perilous journeys involving torture, starvation, and sexual abuse.
Under a new Anti-Infiltration Law passed by the Israeli Parliament in January 2012, asylum seekers (i.e., those who have not faced refoulement) can be detained for three or more years without charges or access to legal representation. They are held in either the Saharonim detention facility or new tent camps now under construction in Israel’s Negev desert. When complete, these facilities will hold up to 30,000 people, making it the largest detention center for migrants in the Western world.
In recent months, stories about the disappearance of Eritrean asylum seekers like Habtom on the Egyptian side of the border have become increasingly common. Many have been detained in trafficking compounds in the lawless northern Sinai. Once released, they may be sold to another trafficking network or caught, wounded, or killed by the Egyptian border patrol.
As Israeli NGOs like PHR-IL have documented, numerous Eritrean asylum seekers have experienced harsh treatment including torture, kidnapping, and rape during the journey. In addition, many have been held hostage by human traffickers for indefinite periods and forced to pay large sums of money for their release. These practices of hostage taking and ransom have affected so many Eritreans in Israel that nearly everyone I met seems to know someone who has been held hostage. Many have contributed money to help achieve a hostage’s release.
Asylum seekers who do reach Israel may be forcibly returned to Egypt by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) – or imprisoned in Israel. According to recent reports by the Hotline for Migrant Workers and other Israeli NGOs, the IDF has not only reintroduced the illegal policy of refoulement but also entered Egypt, detained individuals pursuing asylum in Israel, and handed them over to the Egyptian authorities.
Not only do these practices violate Israel’s obligations under domestic and international law, but they also send victims of torture and human trafficking back into danger. In some cases, Egyptian soldiers have reportedly sold asylum seekers to human traffickers or deported them back to Eritrea or Sudan. Individuals imprisoned in Egypt face appalling conditions with no access to medical treatment and, in some cases, sexual abuse by the Egyptian prison guards. In a recent phone conversation with a group of Eritrean women who were forcibly returned in June, I learned that malaria and diarrhea are serious problems. The current unrest in Sinai threatens to further block refugees’ access to medical care and to fundamental instruments of international legal protection.
For asylum seekers who cross the border and are detained in Israel, access to medical treatment is unreliable. Among asylum seekers who have been released, many have reached Israeli cities, and often PHR-IL’s Open Clinic, with untreated torture wounds, scars, burns, and broken or swollen joints.
In addition, many women who became pregnant as the result of rape have been denied care or treatment while detained. In June, Ha’aretz newspaper reported that an Ethiopian woman who became pregnant after being raped in Sinai had been detained since November 2011 due to a lack of capacity in a shelter for trafficking victims. Now six months pregnant, it was too late for her to undergo an abortion. To prevent such occurrences, Israeli human rights NGOs have insisted that Israel screen all detained asylum seekers and offer identified victims of torture and human trafficking prompt and timely access to medical and follow-up care.
Both Israel’s neglect of trafficking victims’ health needs and its practices of refoulement are serious human rights violations. At present, Israel lacks a comprehensive, transparent, and fair system for identifying victims of trafficking, torture, or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, resulting in lack of access to medical and follow-up care. Detention itself causes continued harm to people who experienced torture in the Sinai, and the rehabilitation system created for victims of human trafficking is closed to most Sinai victims. Instead of imprisonment, Israel needs a clear policy including effective screening, access to shelters, rehabilitation services, and medical treatment.
Similarly, punishing asylum seekers for unlawful entry is a violation of international refugee law, and Israel’s international obligation of non-refoulement prohibits forcing anyone to return to a country in which he or she is at risk of persecution or other serious human rights violations. The Israeli government should uphold its international obligations by protecting the health and welfare of all asylum seekers, particularly victims of trafficking and torture both in and outside of detention.
A few weeks after our initial conversation, I received a phone call from Habtom’s sister. He had called her from a police station in Sinai after being handed over to the Egyptian border patrol by IDF soldiers and now awaited deportation to Ethiopia. African asylum seekers, including victims of torture and human trafficking, are thus moved from one form of detention to another – from a torture camp in Sinai to a detention facility either in Egypt or Israel. Both the detention and the refoulement of asylum seekers present alarming evidence that the State of Israel is undermining access to asylum and medical care and failing to provide protection from persecution.
Laurie Lijnders received an M.A. in Cultural Anthropology from the Utrecht University, where she concentrated on migration, borders, and violence. She has researched experiences and expressions of torture and sexual abuse in the borderlands of the Northern Sinai desert and the journey of African asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa to the Middle East. She works in the Open Clinic of Physicians for Human Rights-Israel and is involved in several research projects on the journeys and lives of African asylum seekers in Israel.
Lijnders, Laurie. 2012. “Flouting International Law: Violating the Human Rights of Asylum Seekers, including Victims of Torture and Human Trafficking, in and en route to Israel.” Accessed [date] at http://accessdeniedblog.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/flouting-international-law-violating-the-human-rights-of-asylum-seekers-including-victims-of-torture-and-human-trafficking-in-and-en-route-to-israel-laurie-lijnders.