This won’t just go away

We’ve all heard stories of rapes and beatings meted out to female refugees in Sinai who make their way here. Why is there no response?

March 7, 2011 22:44
3 minute read.
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women s tel aviv 311. (photo credit: Joanna Paraszczuk)

As you read this, Eritrean women are being imprisoned and raped by “human smugglers” at wellestablished torture camps in the El-Arish area of the Sinai while trying to make it to Israel. Those who eventually do make it here report that rape, sexual abuse, starvation, whippings, beatings and torture are routinely and systematically meted out to extort thousands of dollars from family members, friends or anyone who cannot bear to hear their cries.

Often no money arrives. Many asylum seekers report fatalities, often having witnessed such deaths up close.

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Many who are lucky enough to be ransomed arrive with unspeakable emotional trauma from the camps, not to mention the emotional burdens that uprooted them from their homes in the first place. Additionally, there is the arbitrary cruelty of Egyptian border patrols, who are as likely as not to open fire on these people as they try to cross the border.

Helen, a 26-week pregnant 21-year-old Eritrean, quietly told me she decided to uproot herself from her family and community after her husband was imprisoned and she feared for her life. (In Eritrea, civil and human rights are reportedly nonexistent, so arbitrary arrests, torture and forced labor are widespread.) She crossed into Sudan in the hope of finding work. She describes how some people offered her a job. Desperate, isolated and starving, she agreed to go with them.

The moment she got in the car she realized she had made a mistake. The car was covered to prevent her from seeing where she was going. She was deprived of food and water.

Upon arrival in the Sinai, her misery was multiplied when she was put in a camp – the only woman with more than 100 men. She was routinely raped and beaten. She believed she would die in the desert, and often wished for death.

Once her captors realized she was pregnant, they released her. This was not out of compassion for mother or unborn child but probably because of a cold calculation that, pregnant, she would no longer be of use.

ONCE HERE, Helen was promptly detained, as she had crossed the border illegally. She immediately requested an abortion, but the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly at the best of times and do not always go in the right direction for a traumatized, displaced asylum seeker who doesn’t speak the language.

When I met her on her release in South Tel Aviv, she was beyond the 23-week limit for a legal abortion. She is terrified that her community will ostracize her and her unborn child, and that her husband will divorce her once he learns of the child’s existence. Eritrea is one of the most patriarchal and traditional societies in Africa, and women are held responsible for rape no matter the circumstances.

Israel has adopted a policy of indifference to the plight of these people. The state neither accepts nor rejects them, and as a result they live in limbo, without access to basic human necessities. All Helen and women like her want is what all human beings have a right to: the ability to regain her dignity by being allowed access to basic health care, and the ability to work to feed and house herself and her unborn child.

Without this, her trauma will only be exacerbated.

In the absence of the state, civil society organizations here are taking on the responsibility of care and rehabilitation.

A handful of overstretched and under-resourced NGOs provide these women with basic needs. These brave women have come to seek safety, with a desire to help their families, who remain in intolerable circumstances.

They do not want handouts; they want secure and humane conditions while waiting until they can go back home.

Instead they face discrimination, misunderstanding, mistrust, social exclusion, deprivation and neglect. From the government, there is just silence, abdication of responsibility and the hope that they will simply go away.

In the meantime, NGOs are working hard to help and make these women’s lives just a little more tolerable.

The writer is coordinator of the UNHCR funded Community Mental Health Services at the African Refugee Development Center.

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