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African Migrants Report Torture on Journey to Israel

  • Rebecca Collard

For years, African migrants and refugees found decent wages and relative security in Israel. Many continue to make the trek, but as Rebecca Collard in Tel Aviv reports, an increasing number of them are suffering abuse and assaults by smugglers on their journey through the Sinai.

When 19-year-old Yudit arrived pregnant in Israel three-months-ago, she told an increasingly common story of abuse, torture and extortion at the hands of Bedouin smugglers on the Egypt-Israel border.

Yudit says the smugglers called her father in Eritrea and demanded that he wire them money. When she could not get the thousands of dollars they demanded, she says, she was beaten with sticks and sexually assaulted.

Yudit says she was held for four months before being released.

She made her way to a shelter run by the African Refugee Development Center in Tel Aviv.

Yudit shares a room with her newborn baby and seven other women and children. A pregnant woman cooks on a hot plate in the next room and children run around the shelter.

Sarah Moesch, a psychology student from Germany, works with the women.

"We help the women become independent here in Israel because most of the women come from Africa, past the border and experience terrible traumas on the way, and come here with almost nothing," she said. "They are not actually women; they are kids - most of them are 18, 19-years-old."

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says that since 2007 an estimated 50,000 people have made the journey from Africa, through Egypt and across the Sinai Desert into Israel. But recently, says William Tall of the U.N. refugee agency, this precarious journey has become even more perilous.

"Reports started coming to our attention of serial and systemic sexual abuse of women and what started to emerge at that time was extortion of asylum seekers," he said. "These people are reporting paying between $30,000 and $40,000 to come to Israel. And the modus operandi is they pay a few thousand dollars, they are taken to Sinai and they'll be held there until such time as their family can gather the resources to have them released, suffering ill treatment and sometimes torture."

The group Physicians for Human Rights in Tel Aviv has interviewed hundreds of African migrants and refugees who say they have been victimized.

Sister Azezet Kidane, a nun from the Comboni Sisters, volunteers with the clinic. She describes what she calls torture.

"When I say torture, it’s the burning with fire, with electricity, the beatings - sometimes they die under the beatings," said Sister Kidane.

Sister Azezet says those who make it to Israel are not finding a land of promise.

"They paid a lot of money and passed through a lot of hardship and torture, and when they come here they find themselves in the parks and living with 10 or 15 people and do not find a job," she said. "People who want to come to Israel need to know it is not to find heaven."

Despite this, more than 1,000 Africans are thought to enter Israel each month. Israel has given temporary protection to thousands, but allows few to claim refugee status. The government is also building a fence to stem the influx, but human rights workers say that it will not likely stop the exodus.