Field Report: Tel Aviv Visit
This short report is an account of Release Eritrea’s visit to Tel Aviv, to do a scoping of the challenges faced by Eritrean Refugee Women who were victims of Sexual and gender based harassment at the hands of people’s traffickers and smugglers in The Sinai.
The visit took place between Thursday 29th March and Sunday 1st of April. During the visit consultations with several refugee support organisations were held. Groups and individual refugees were also involved in a series of discussions, including newly arrived refugees who were sleeping rough in a public park.
2. Background to the visit
The visit follows a Release Eritrea Board decision (Feb. 2012 meeting); following discussions regarding the changing nature of our work in Egypt, after the revolution there and the escalating problems with trafficking and harassment in the Sinai and particularly the predicament of women, who are routinely sexually abused and go on to live with the consequences in Israel, where situations are difficult and support is extremely limited (there have been several incidences of murder of women)1.
A particularly horrific case was that of a man who murdered his wife and young daughter in their apartment in Ashkelon and then hanged himself 2.
3. Background to Eritrean Refugees in Israel
There are currently 35,000 refugees, from various African countries, living in Israel. This number includes around 25,000 Eritreans fleeing various forms of persecution from the regime in Eritrea.
Most have temporary protection in the form of conditional release visas, renewable every three months. The Israeli government has not clarified their official rights and hence they live under the constant threat that protection will be revoked. A few Eritreans have residence permits or six-month working visas, granted to specific groups in 2007 and 2008.
The temporary ‘visa’ is effectively a deportation order the ‘protection’ it offers is only a protection from deportation, but does not provide any rights. Many believe that the “policy vacuum” is intended to inculcate a sense of instability as a deterrent to would be refugees3.
Jobs are scarce and as the state does not provide work visas for refugees they are forced to enter the job black market, where they face exploitation. Their salaries often only allowing them to scrape together the rent for dilapidated and overcrowded apartments that they have to negotiate the rent of from Jewish landlords who often refuse to rent to foreigners or levy rent over and above the going rate.
Most new arrivals come directly from Eritrea, passing through Sudan and Egypt. Bedouin smugglers are paid between $3,000 and $20,000 dollars to get people across the Egyptian Sinai to the Israeli border. Eritreans pay significantly more money than other groups making this crossing and face more danger and abuse along the route. This is particularly the case for women who are routinely sexually abused and treated inhumanly by Bedouin traffickers who consider them subhuman.
Most Eritreans obtain the money to pay smugglers and traffickers through loans from friends and family. Once in Israel, repaying this loan is a priority this often means they have to work exceptionally long hours to pay for their daily requirements and support any family left behind. As the work is often hard labour, the conditions of work cause physical and psychological strain. This situation is worse for women who have to work equally long hours and under similar circumstances to men. The women have to also organise child care, which is often of poor standard as that is the only care they can afford.
Lack of awareness of contraception (and potentially cultural or religious barriers) also means that women often have multiple unwanted pregnancies that more often than not, they end up seeking terminations.
In addition to existing debt and obligations to support family back in Eritrea, refugees in Israel have to sometimes gather large sums of ransom money to secure the release of compatriots held captive by traffickers in the Sinai.
4. Details of the visit
4.1 Consultations with Organisations
4.1.1 Amnesty International
Amnesty International’s main concern with regards to Eritrean refugees is the policy vacuum that surrounds refugees. Israel does not have a clear policy regarding refugee status and rights, and there is no official authority responsible for dealing with them, making the status and future of refugees and asylum seekers unclear.
Eritrean refugees currently have an unofficial temporary protected and not a refugee status. There is no uniform procedure in granting status, and visas are issued in an arbitrary manner.
With no official refugee status, Eritrean refugees are denied work permits, access to medical and social services. And although the government has retracted from levying penalties against those who employ refugees and asylum seekers, the lack of clear policy means by enlarge the only employment that refugees are able to obtain tends to be in the black market where terms and conditions are compromised to say the least.
As a further deterrent a vast detention complex is being built on the grounds of Ktzi'ot prison in the Negev desert, close to Israel's border with Egypt. When it is completed the facility will become the world's largest holding facility for asylum seekers and migrants, capable of holding up to 11,000 people. In January, the Knesset passed a controversial bill categorising anyone attempting to enter the country through its southern border as an "infiltrator" who can be detained for at least three years.
Amnesty Israel's position is that the prolonged detention of refugees is illegal and should never be used as a deterrent.
4.1.2 Physicians for human rights
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-Israel), is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that strives to promote the right to health for all. In Israel the national health coverage does not apply to residents without legal status, including refugees and those seeking asylum as well as their children. This situation leaves many vulnerable Eritreans, including victims of rape and torture, without appropriate medical care.
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel's Open Clinic have been treating an increasing number of female asylum seekers coming to the clinic to request abortions. Many of the women were repeatedly raped in Sinai while on their way to Israel. In response to these reports and other additional evidence, PHR-Israel developed a questionnaire administered to new patients at the Clinic about their journey through the Sinai.
Between 12 October 2010 and 30 January 2011, PHR-Israel interviewed 284 asylum seekers. Among the findings: 59% of the respondents stated that they were held under close guard and/or shackled to each other with chains; 52% of the respondents reported that they were subjected to serious violence. Approximately 15% have scars and signs of violence on their bodies from the torture they suffered in Sinai. In addition, 44% of respondents stated that they witnessed violence and/or fatalities of other asylum seekers while they were in Sinai; 88% stated that they experienced severe hunger and food deprivation; and 66% reported that they were denied access to water4.
ASSAF, which in Hebrew is an acronym for Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, is another organisation providng vital support to Eritrean refugees. Through a range of psychosocial care programs, ASSAF provides support to strengthen the African refugee communities in Israel. ASSAF also works to improve the treatment and response towards African refugees, especially in light of Israel’s role as initiator and signatory of the 1951 United Nations’ Refugee Convention.
ASSF’s recent research concludes that the limbo that asylum seekers experience as their present and futures are uncertain leads many to suffer from anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. Their complicated visa status, employment insecurity, lack of social services, and lack of health insurance and access are only the tangible challenges asylum seekers experience and rather than deal with their stress, most people avoid dealing with their sadness or stress and hence succumb to sleep and eating disorders and this inevitably impacts on their ability to work5.
Another report by ASSAF has a detailed analysis of the barriers to building a strong and supportive community of Eritrean refugees in Israel and sites the following6:
- A general lack of trust between Eritrean people
- Collective hopelessness
- Ongoing interference of Eritrea’s dictatorial system (through the embassy and individual ‘supporters’ of the regime)
- long workdays, arbitrary work schedules, and survival challenges in daily lives
4.1.4 ARDC women’s refuge
The African Refugee Development Centre (ARDC) is a non-profit organisation founded in 2004 by refugees and Israeli citizens to: assist, support and empower refugees and asylum seekers.
Over the last year there has been an increase in the number of Eritrean refugee women who have been victims of rape and sexual violence during the flight through the Sinai desert; they all have emotional and psychological struggles as well as financial and practical problems that impacts negatively on their ability to overcome the double trauma of displacement and abuse. Many, who live in the women’s refuge the ARDC runs, suffer from chronic depression and anxiety that has implications for their children. In response, ARDC launched the Women’s Empowerment Project.
Clearly ARDC’s refuges are meeting a need for Eritrean refugee women, however their resources are limited and hence always having to turn away vulnerable women and their children. There is also a growing concern for children’s welfare and particularly for children of mothers who are forced to work long hours and have to leave their children with little or no supervision during school holidays. The cost and quality of child care facilities for preschool aged children is another concern for refugee women.
Israel’s Ministry of Interior took over refugee status determination responsibilities from UNHCR in July 2009. Since then, UNHCR has not conducted interviews but has an advocacy role and works to “secure access of refugees and asylum seekers to Government provided services,” as well as provides funds to organisations assisting refugees in Israel.
4.2 Consultation with Eritrean Refugees
4.2.1 Women’s group
The Eritrean women’s group is a group of women who survived the Sinai crossing some had an easier journey than others, many suffered sexual abuse and torture, all have incurred debts and have to work extra long hours to provide for their basic needs, pay their debt and support the families that they left behind.
Discussions regarding their needs started by their telling of concerns (and sense of guilt) for those that they left behind either in the Sinai or back in Eritrea.
Of their situation in Israel they talked about the general sense of hopelessness, the strains of their daily life, the fact that they don’t sleep or eat well (sleep is often interrupted by constant worry over employment and anxiety about meeting financial commitments).
Those with children worry about their future, their welfare and particularly the conditions in the child care facilities they leave them in, as it is the only thing they can afford.
They have little support from the community as the community is fragmented, but they would like spiritual support to sustain their hope for the future and also help them through their difficulties.
They would also welcome education/training opportunities as well as opportunities to sit and relax as women together.
4.2.2 Youth organisation members
The youth organisation is made up of mostly young men who are extremely frustrated by the situation in Eritrea as well as their predicament in Israel. They mainly talked about the need for a political solution to the problem in the country and although willing to support their women with their initiatives, they were sceptical about resources being used for something that they didn’t see as a ‘long term solution’.
4.2.3 St Mary Orthodox Church Leaders
St. Mary’s Church conducts services every evening and on Saturday mornings. The church is supported through donations from church members but has a relationship with the Coptic Church. The congregation has multiple needs that the church tries to meet, but the priests and other leaders are all too aware of the fact that they can at times be overwhelmed with these needs. The leaders were enthusiastic to support all refugee support initiatives and particularly support for women and children as they consider them to be the most vulnerable members of their community.
4.2.4 Individual victims of rape and harassment in Sinai
A series of individual consultations with women who were raped and tortured during the Sinai crossing revealed the horrendous nature of what women experienced and continue to suffer from. Several of the women contacted had received treatment for gynaecological problems associated with rape (often gang rape) at the hands of Bedouin traffickers.
As well as the psychological difficulties they face, they also have the added stress of earning enough to send money to their families back in Eritrea, pay off their ransom and then have something for themselves. Some women find the hard physical nature of the cleaning and factory/farm jobs available, impossible due to their injuries as a result of torture.
All and particularly those who were open about their experiences feel a sense of shame and alienation from the community and particularly from their male counterparts, who consider them ‘tainted’.
4.2.5 Lenvinsky Park
Neve Sha'anan is a neighborhood in Tel Aviv. It is a major transportation hub, with both the new and old Tel Aviv Central Bus Stations located there. The main street, Neve Sha'anan Street, is a pedestrian mall. Many refugees live or work in Neve Sha'anan. Levinsky park is at heart of the neighborhood, many newly arrived refugees actually live there sleeping rough in the park. Recently a refugee died of hypothermia and as a result two tents have been erected there for rough sleepers, however this isn’t nearly enough.
Many newly arrived refugees talked of the increasing difficulties in obtaining employment and housing and it was evident that many also struggled with food and clothing. A simple meal of bread and humus was distributed to newly arrived refugees, during the visit, and was received gratefully.
5.1 women’s issues
Eritrean refugee women suffer from multiple difficulties associated with their gender and the abuse they suffered on route to Israel. Once in Israel the harsh life with a lot of uncertainties and marginalisation exacerbate their vulnerabilities. Many have frequent unwanted pregnancies, there are concerns of widespread domestic violence, sexual violence and stigmatisation as victims of sexual violence.
Those with children have the added stress of parenthood as well as the challenge of bringing up children with uncertain future.
Many women feel that they have been cut off from spiritual support as a result of their experiences and also the fragmentation of the community in Tel Aviv, but they recognise the need for spiritual support and guidance to help them survive their experiences and rebuild their lives.
Newly arrived refugees and those with no relatives and/or friends already in Tel Aviv, are forced to sleep rough in Levinsky Park, where they are reliant on food handouts and have no washing facilities. There was evidence of obvious hunger in some of the people at the park and job scarcity is making this situation a long term or even permanent option for some refugees. Some individuals and groups provide soup kitchens and clothing handouts in the park.
5.3 Lack of prospects and opportunities
Although many Eritrean refugees would have liked to get the opportunity to gain some training and improve their prospects, there is no opportunities for this and this contributes to the general sense of helplessness and hopelessness.
5.4 Hopelessness and lack of pastoral care
The potential of the churches in building individual as well as community resilience remains largely unexploited and the churches and their leaders seem to have fallen victims of the division and infighting within the community and interference of the regime in Eritrea