In 2012, 27 young women who had been stolen from their homes in Ethiopia and thrown into a sex-trafficking ring in Sinai were released into Israel and recognized as victims of sex trafficking. On Sunday, Interior Minister Arye Deri gave them one-year work permits, which paves the way for their return to Ethiopia after a year.
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants criticized the decision, saying the women would not be able to undergo rehabilitation within such a short time.
The decision comes as several of the women, who were kidnapped between the ages of 13 and 20 and tortured in the sex-slavery trade in Sinai, were threatened with deportation, despite being victims seeking refuge in Israel.
Deri was asked by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants last June 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. Nothing has come of the request until Sunday’s announcement of the work permits.
Some 5,000 people contacted Deri following a September report on the survivors by KAN News, demanding he assist the 27 victims and allow them to reconstruct their lives in Israel.
The Knesset subcommittee on combating slave trade met in October 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 on Sunday said 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. “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.
The hotline on Sunday announced its intention to appeal the announcement by Deri to the special appeals court for migrant issues, despite its support for the one-year work permit.
“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.”
Oz told of a young girl who after being severely abused as a victim of sex trafficking was returned to a rehabilitation home in Ethiopia. Her father came to take her home, but when he found out what had been done to her, he left her there. “They cannot return and settle down as part of society there when they are shunned by society,” she said.
The young women must be granted some form of citizenship in Israel, Oz said. Deri has it in his power as interior minister to grant such rights and has used them in the past, she said.
“This discussion of deportation must not go on, but rather, they must be guaranteed a home here once and for all,” Oz said.
Yonah Jeremy Bob contributed to this report.