The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants appealed late Tuesday against the Interior Ministry to a special court for migrant issues to grant permanent humanitarian status to 27 young Ethiopian women who made there way to Israel in 2012 after being used as sex slaves in the Sinai.
The 27 women had been stolen from their homes in Ethiopia and were recognized by Israel as victims of sex-trafficking some time ago.
However, in January, Interior Minister Arye Deri granted each of them a one-year work permit, which could lead to an attempt to return them to Ethiopia in 12 months.
While the Hotline was pleased with the granting of a humanitarian status to work and live in Israel for 12 months, it also criticized the part of the decision which referred to an eventual goal of returning them to Ethiopia.
According to the NGO, Deri’s decision of trying to find “a secure channel” for returning the women was “extremely unreasonable” on several grounds.
They said that 12 months was grossly insufficient to undergo rehabilitation and that Deri’s plan would simply drag out the impact of the harmful effects the women had endured.
The developments have come as several of the women, who were kidnapped between the ages of 13 and 20 and tortured in the Sinai’s sex-slave trade, had previously been threatened with deportation, despite being victims seeking refuge in Israel.
Deri was asked by the Hotline in June 2020 to grant the victims humanitarian protection, which would effectively allow them to stay in Israel due to the risks presented by their return to Ethiopia.
Some 5,000 people contacted Deri following a September 2020 report on the survivors by KAN News, demanding he assist the 27 victims and allow them to reconstruct their lives in Israel.
Next, the Knesset subcommittee on combating the slave trade met in October 2020 to ratchet up the pressure on Deri.
It criticized state representatives who attended the hearing, saying they were unprepared to present a coherent position about how the state planned to handle the women, who everyone acknowledged were slave-trade victims.
Rather than allowing the survivors to stay in the country, Deri said in January that the Interior Ministry would be investigating a potential “suitable channel for a safe return” to Ethiopia.
“The expectation that within a year they may be returned to Ethiopia is unrealistic,” Ayelet Oz, executive director of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, told The Jerusalem Post at the time. “The expectation that during their rehabilitation they will be able to handle a return to Ethiopia is unrealistic.”
The rehabilitative progress is based on a firm foundation, for example, a regular home, she said, and deportation would risk the rehabilitative process of these severely traumatized victims.
“They are being told that they must try to do everything from the beginning again in Ethiopia,” she added. “This is a gamble on their lives – a gamble we would not be able to accept.”
That a transition back to Ethiopia must be investigated alludes to its potential risk.
“These are women who have gone through hell and are in a daily war for survival,” the Hotline said in a statement following the announcement. “It is clear to everyone that even after another year, there will not be a ‘suitable channel for a safe return.’”
Throughout the past year and a half, several of the women had their requests for refugee status rejected, despite evidence that they should have been granted humanitarian status, the Hotline said. Since they were handled as a group that was abused, imprisoned and eventually transferred together, all decisions about their status should apply to every one of them, it said.
If the victims are returned to Ethiopia, all the rehabilitation they have been through in Israel will be reset and must start anew, and the danger goes beyond that, Oz said.
“In Ethiopia, there is a terrible social stigma toward women who are victims of sexual abuse and sex trafficking,” she said. “They are singled out and shunned terribly. They are addressed like prostitutes. The percentage of victims who become victims a second time in Ethiopia is extremely high. Deri’s decision does not seriously address these excessively big risks.”