December 13, 2010
Hostages, Torture, and Rape in the Sinai Desert: A PHR-Israel update about recently arriving asylum seekers
Refugees and asylum seekers escaping conflict, genocide, famine, and torture face an extremely difficult journey. Thousands set out from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and other African countries in search of safety and protection, passing through Egypt, where their situation remains hostile and insecure. Once arriving in Israel, they are immediately detained, often for several weeks, months, and sometimes even years. As a first stop after detention, they find their way to the Open Clinic at Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-Israel) in Tel Aviv-Jaffa to receive treatment for trauma or illness experienced along the way. PHR-Israel's Open Clinic is an open medical center operated by volunteer Israeli physicians who provide medical treatment to uninsured persons and engage in advocacy to the government to ensure better protection for refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrant groups.
In recent months, clinic staff began noticing a growing trend of women, recently freed from detention, seeking abortions. In conversations with our doctors, many women confessed to being raped prior to entering Israel. Of a total of 165 abortions facilitated by the clinic between January- November 2010, PHR-Israel suspects that half were requested by women who were sexually assaulted in the Sinai. During the same period, 1,303 women have been referred for gynecological treatment, here too, a large percentage as a result of the trauma endured in Sinai. Harsh experiences in the Sinai have also translated into an increased number of patients seeking rehabilitative services from our Open Clinic. In the first 11 months of 2010, 367 people required orthopedic treatment; 225 were referred for physiotherapy.
To make sense of the growing accounts of torture, hostages, ransom, rape, physical and sexual abuse,PHR-Israel initiated a questionnaire posed to new patients arriving to Israel through the Sinai desert. Between October 12 and December 7, 2010, PHR-Israel interviewed a total of 167 individuals from Eritrea and Ethiopia, Sudan, the Ivory Coast, Somalia, Nigeria, Ghana, Congo, and Sierra Leone, including 108 men and 59 women, ranging in age from 19 to 66.
Initial findings show that Eritreans and Ethiopians encountered pronounced harm, more so than any other group questioned and so for the purposes of this paper, their results have been analyzed separately. Because many of the female patients felt shame and guilt about their experiences, the vast majority of women chose not to respond to questions about sexual abuse. Of the 13 women who agreed to answer such questions, 38% answered that they had been assaulted. Other than sexual assault, participation by women and in general in the survey was high; the following information is based on an average of 144 responses. 77% of Eritreans and Ethiopians reported physical assault including punching, slapping, kicking and whipping (compared to 63% of patients from other African countries). 23% of Eritreans and Ethiopians reported burning, branding, electric shock, and hanging by the hands or feet. No patients from other countries reported this phenomenon. 47% of Eritreans and Ethiopians reported seeing others beaten or tortured. 94% of Eritreans and Ethiopians reported being deprived of food and 74% reported being deprived of water. The phenomenon also occurred among other Africans, 80% were deprived of food and 53% deprived of water.
On November 19th, PHR-Israel initiated an in depth feature in the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, entitledDesert Hell, telling about the now institutionalized torture and abuse endured by refugees, especially those from Ethiopia and Eritrea, in the Sinai on their way to Israel. According to repeated accounts, groups of approximately 200-300 Eritrean are brought to Sinai where they are held in metal containers or compounds. Captives undergo torture by burning or beating, as smugglers call their relatives demanding the immediate transfer of funds to be guaranteed transit to the Israeli border. Because of the high ransom price, it often takes weeks or even months for refugees to be taken to the border. It is during this time that women are separated from the group, detained in secluded rooms and subjected to repeated sexual acts, abuse, and rape at the hands of their captors.
On December 3rd, PHR-Israel received new testimony that leads us to believe the situation in the Sinai is growing significantly worse. Whereas victims were previously asked to pay between 2,500-3,000 USD, additional sums are now required as ransom bringing the total amount paid to captors as high as 10,000 USD. According to the accounts we have received from sources close to the hostages currently held in the desert, approximately 220 people are currently being held by the smugglers in a camp in Sinai. The group of 80 individuals that arrived one month ago was joined last week by 140 additional asylum seekers en route to Israel.
The Egyptian-Israeli Border and Detention upon Entry
A careful, well thought-out, and comprehensive response is urgently needed. In addition to the immediate harm facing Israel's asylum seeker and refugee population in the Sinai, Egyptian border guards at the Israel-Egypt border often 'shoot to kill' refugees running to Israel. In the last year, refugee groups have claimed that the Egyptian border guards have become more ruthless, injuring and killing more refugees than in years past. According to our survey, of the 47 people who chose to answer questions about border shootings, 12 had been shot.
To make matters worse, the Israeli army sometimes employs a 'hot return' policy contrary to international law, whereby refugees are returned to Egypt between one hour and five days upon their crossing into Israel. Even though reports of beatings, death, rape, and immediate deportation are well known by Israeli authorities, the Israeli army continues to engage in this policy. According to official information provided by the Israeli Deputy Minister of Defense, 136 asylum seekers were 'hot returned' to Sinai in 2010. Based on patient testimony, we have reason to believe that the actual number is much higher.
When Israel returns refugees to Egypt, they are subjected to deportation back to the countries from which they escaped. Refugees caught by Egyptian police either in the desert or at the border face physical abuse, sexual violence, imprisonment, and deportation back to their home countries. While Egyptian NGOs and UNHCR are sometimes able to intervene on behalf of refugees facing deportation (including those facing certain death or imprisonment in countries including Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia), over the last three years hundreds of refugees have been deported from Egypt back to their home countries. In June 2008, several sources reported a mass deportation of hundreds of Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees back to their home countries. Many were killed upon arrival and others thrown into prison or subjected to forced military conscription.
Every refugee that crosses into Israel is detained at one of two Israeli detention facilities. As of today, approximately 2,000 refugees and asylum seekers, including women, small children, and unaccompanied minors, are currently in Israeli prison facilities. An under-funded and often discriminatory prison system means that refugees have to wait long periods of time before seeing a prison physician and issues like gynecology, rehabilitation, and mental health are mostly neglected. After waiting weeks, and sometimes months, asylum seekers are released with nothing but a bus ticket to one of Israel's major cities.
Physicians for Human Rights-Israel calls on:
• the international community to advocate to the Government of Egypt to find and release the refugees and asylum seekers currently held for ransom in the Sinai desert. Once found, we call on the international community to ensure a holistic solution for these people including safe-passage to a third country.
• the government of Israel to take responsibility for the refugees and asylum seekers that currently reside within its borders. To respond to immediate medical needs, we call on the government of Israel to grant "social residency" status to all asylum seekers, enabling them to access public social services, including health care and rehabilitation. As per its obligations to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the government of Israel should also implement a more transparent and comprehensive system of Refugee Status Determination (RSD) for all asylum seekers and integrate and implement full human trafficking protections into domestic law.
• the Israeli and international public to support human rights organizations in Israel and Egypt that provide humanitarian services to refugees and advocate locally and internationally that the Israeli and Egyptian governments take responsibility to prevent further suffering and care for all those affected.
For more information, please contact Yael Marom, PHR-Israel Spokesperson at 052-5563485 or by firstname.lastname@example.org.