In the battle against sex trafficking, Israel’s ‘invisible’ women find new voice
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'Victims of abuse become victims of Israeli bureaucracy'

In the battle against sex trafficking, Israel’s ‘invisible’ women find new voice

Hundreds of women who are staying in the Jewish state illegally fall victim to abuse and find they have no one to turn to. Several NGOs are now trying to offer them a lifeline

Over the years, there has been a drastic decline in the number of status applications approved for women who arrived in Israel illegally (Illustration: iStock/via Zman Yisrael)
Over the years, there has been a drastic decline in the number of status applications approved for women who arrived in Israel illegally (Illustration: iStock/via Zman Yisrael)

Thirty-nine-year-old Amani, a Palestinian mother of seven, is a victim of domestic abuse. As a young girl, her father would hit her. When she was 14, her father forced her to marry an Arab Israeli.

“When I was 15, my brother-in-law started raping me. My husband and their mother, who lived with us, would also abuse me regularly,” she told Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel.

“After 18 years of marriage, my husband died and I had to return to my father’s home with my children. Three years later, he forced me to remarry, this time to a 64-year-old man, also from an Arab village in Israel. He would lock me up, rape me, and even call my father to come and beat me if I didn’t want to have sex with him. He treated me like a sex slave,” said Amani.

The ongoing cycle of abuse, humiliation, and helplessness drove Amani to attempt suicide. She was treated in a hospital, then moved to a women’s shelter in Israel.

“I couldn’t go back to my old life,” she said. “I couldn’t go back to that hell, but I was afraid for my life. I knew my father would murder me if he found out where I was — that he’d get me the second I was unprotected. So I left the shelter. I would sleep in the street or at friend’s houses — anything to avoid going back to the village.”

“My father had all of my identification papers and I couldn’t work. I suffered from poverty, hunger, and men who took advantage of my situation,” Amani said.

Suspects in human trafficking in court (Illustration: Oren Nahshon/FLASH90)

Amani was eventually able to escape the cycle of violence with the help of Isha L’Isha — Haifa Feminist Center, and she currently lives in a safe place. Still, she has no legal status in Israel and without documentation, she cannot support herself.

Established in 1983, the Haifa-based advocacy center has made a name for itself as one of the leading voices in the fight for women’s rights in Israel. The center’s mission statement, as it appears on its website, says that “currently, our main areas of activity include fighting against trafficking in women and prostitution; women and medical technologies; and building an empowered community of women.”

According to Amani, “The Population and Immigration Authority has ignored my petitions to be granted victim status in Israel,” something that can be done according to Article 203A of the Israeli penal code, which regulates the treatment of women who are victims of sex trafficking and related offenses who wish to remain in Israel for rehabilitation.

“I’m not willing to be silent anymore — I’ll file a police complaint if I need to,” Amani asserted. “I want to study, become a social worker and help other women in similar situations get out [of abusive situations]. But unfortunately, without my papers, all I can do is dream.”

‘I’m a victim of Israelis’

Lena, 36, also has no legal status in Israel, even though her eight-year-old daughter is an Israeli citizen.

“I was born in Moldova to a family with a sickly, alcoholic father,” she told Zman Yisrael. “I was a helpless girl, and I felt like I had no chance in the world. One of my mother’s friends introduced me to an Israeli man who assured me that if I came with him [to Israel] he would make sure I find work.”

The Population and Immigration Authority make no effort to keep proper records, NGO says (Illustration/Adobe Stock Photo)

“Like an idiot, I believed him. Eighteen years ago, he and his friends smuggled me into Israel through Egypt. From there they took me to a 70-year-old man who needed a caretaker. Shortly after that, I realized I made the greatest mistake of my life. [The man who brought me to Israel] took my passport, worked me to the bone, and sexually assaulted me. I didn’t know who to turn to, or how to escape and return to my country, so I stayed with him and did everything he asked,” Lena said.

As time went by, Lena met another man who offered her to live with him, but once she got pregnant he also became abusive. She remained with him during her pregnancy, but after her daughter was born, Lena fled to a women’s shelter.

“My daughter is the only happiness in my life and I swore I would devote my life to her and make sure she’s happy, that she would never suffer as I suffered in my childhood,” Lena said.

While Lena’s daughter received Israeli citizenship after undergoing a DNA test that proved her father is Israeli, Lena was asked to leave the country. For the past eight years she has been trying to obtain legal status in Israel as the mother of an Israeli minor, but to no avail. Devoid of legal status and lacking a work permit, she supports her daughter by working as a cleaner.

“I know I came here illegally, but I also know that it was Israelis who brought me here, trafficked in me, and exploited me,” Lena said. “I’m the victim of Israelis with Israeli IDs, and they have all the rights that I don’t have. All I ask is to be allowed to work, earn a living and raise my daughter who, at the end of the day, suffers the most from my situation — and she’s a citizen.”

Invisible women

Amani and Lena’s testimonies offer a rare glimpse into the lives of women who are victims of domestic abuse and have no legal status in Israel.

Data received from the Population and Immigration Authority (PIA) — obtained only after a legal battle waged by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an NGO dedicated to protecting the rights of refugees, migrant workers, and victims of human trafficking — shows that between 2010 and 2018, the PIA was petitioned by 93 battered women seeking to receive legal status in Israel.

Forty-eight of the petitions were granted, meaning only about half of the women received permits allowing them to stay in Israel — and even of the permits issued, the majority were valid for a year or less.

“The numbers paint a bleak picture,” Hotline attorney Stav Paskay told Zman Yisrael. “Over the years, there has been a consistent and drastic decline in the number of applications approved: While in 2010, 73 percent of the petitions submitted by battered women seeking legal status in Israel were approved, in 2018, only 37% of these petitions were granted.”

“Also, while in 2010 two petitions from women without children were approved, all the status petitions filed in recent years were from women who are mothers to Israeli children. In other words, women without children receive no response, so they simply put up with the abuse and remain silent because the state doesn’t offer them any real way out,” Paskay said.

But the official data seems to reveal only a fraction of the actual number of abuse cases. As it turns out, while the special committee formed by the PIA to look into such petitions examines dozens of cases a year, there are dozens — potentially hundreds — more petitions that are rejected outright and are not investigated.

“The petitions are filed with one of the dozens of PIA bureaus across the country, where every woman’s physical file is kept,” Paskay explained. “Dozens of petitions are denied at that early stage. If a petition makes it through, it is reviewed by the head of the Visa Desk, who also denies dozens of petitions not filed on humanitarian grounds, even though the Supreme Court has ruled that at this stage, only cases that have absolutely no chance of being granted by the committee should be denied. The reality is that only one or two cases a month makes it to the committee.”

Retired Judge Saviona Rotlevy, formerly deputy president of the Tel Aviv District Court (Miriam Alster/FLASH902/via Zman Yisrael)

According to Paskay, her organization asked the PIA for access its records back in 2017, in accordance with the Freedom of Information Law. The Hotline, she said, sought to understand how the agency implements its own procedures with respect to regulating the status of immigrants who are victims of domestic abuse — regulations the PIA itself set in place a decade earlier.

The PIA rejected the request, saying that producing the data would require “an unreasonable investment of resources” on its part, she said. “Unfortunately, the PIA preferred fighting us in court so it could preserve its ability to operate without being held accountable.”

Paskay said that the PIA’s response to the motion went into detail about why the request would hinder its activities, “which is how we found out that the agency was making no effort to preserve the data pertaining to the petitions filed with its humanitarian cases committee. In reality, the PIA itself has no idea what it’s doing. There is no data retention, no self-regulation and no way of telling whether the current abuse [prevention] procedure is meeting its goals.”

The state’s inability to deal with these women has tragic consequences for them and for their children. An Isha L’Isha study headed by Gender Studies scholar Dr. Ruth Preser calls the phenomenon a suspension of the rule of law and its protection over human lives.

Case studies included in Preser’s research demonstrate how basic legal protections do not appear to apply to these women: If they are able to find work, they are paid less than minimum wage; they have no nutritional security; and the rights of their children to protection and care are routinely violated.

The study noted that police have neglected to file traffic accident reports on behalf of these women, and their rights as medical patients are violated because in many cases, hospitals do not provide them with an interpreter. They are therefore unable to understand details about the medical procedures they undergo or give informed consent for them. In many cases, they are are denied their basic rights when in police custody.

The study further showed that mothers deprived of legal status in Israel have an impeded ability to properly parent their children. Many of the women interviewed described daily threats by their abusers to contact police or child protective services and have their children taken away.

The constant intimidation limits the ability of these women to set boundaries or assert their rights, and the majority of them are too frightened to take action. In many cases, the women don’t dare sue for child support, file sexual harassment claims against their employers, or risk any other action that might trigger their abusers to make good on their threats.

A protest installation against sex trafficking imitating a fast food truck with a ‘menu’ from which men can order (Miriam Alster/Flash 90 via Zman Yisrael)

Amani and Lena’s testimonies were included in a public hearing held in December by the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants and Isha L’Isha. The hearing sought to publicize the state’s failure to deal with the phenomenon of abused women who are ignored by the system due to their lack of legal status.

Retired judge Saviona Rotlevy, formerly deputy president of the Tel Aviv District Court, presided over the proceedings.

“These are women who have endured lifelong hardship and violence of all types,” Rotlevy said at the hearing. “These women and their children are victims of the global and political situation, and of the use of violence as part of a worldview that sees women as property — and now they have become victims of Israeli immigration policy and its subsequent bureaucracy.”

Rotlevy further criticized the state saying that as Israel is a signatory to the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, “It must, as the enlightened state it professes to be, uphold the articles of this treaty, as well as other relevant treaties.”

Rotlevy said she was referring specifically to Article 6 of the convention, which states that “all children and young people have the right to survive and the right to develop. It also says that the government should work to prevent the deaths of children and young people.”

Israel is also a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which addresses abuse against women. The treaty explicitly states that no legislation can be passed to prevent or discourage women from reporting abuse — specifically immigration laws that restrict women from reporting violence.

‘Justice must be served’

At the end of the hearing, a detailed demand was formulated, listing the actions necessary to stop this systemic failure and protect the lives and well-being of the most overlooked women in Israeli society.

The chief demand was that the state uphold the orders detailed in the international conventions to which it is party, streamline the endless bureaucracy that impedes these women’s ability to provide for their children and ensure their well-being, and significantly cut short the processing of status petitions. The demand stated that this was especially with respect to petitions involving children, which, it said, the state should classify as “humanitarian cases” automatically.

Other demands include ensuring that women have access to information in their language; that police be required to assign female officers to such abuse cases and ensure interpreters are present in the relevant proceedings; the PIA should maintain steady and ongoing contact with human rights groups dealing with violence against women; and the PIA must allow petitioners to be present in any hearing of their case.

The groups further demanded that the hearings be properly recorded and that their protocols become part of public record.

A statement by the Population and Immigration Authority in response to the claims brought by Zman Yisrael said, “The claim that the Population and Immigration Authority is working and/or lending itself to inflicting ongoing harm and injustice that endangers the lives of women and their children indicate a lack of knowledge and awareness to the PIA’s efforts.”

“Each such complaint is handled by the PIA with the utmost sensitivity and responsibility, and in collaboration with the majority of relevant bodies that can assist in such cases,” the statement said.

“The PIA has a unique procedure in place for such cases (‘Termination of the Family Unification Process over Violence’), whereby we work to bring cases involving abuse before the Humanitarian Committee for the purpose of a [legal residency] statute review. Moreover, in serious cases, we promote the issue of granting legal status even without convening the committee,” it said.

A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.

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