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Witness: A Q&A with Tsega Gebreyesus

While doing doctoral research in Israel, Tsega Gebreyesus met survivors of a human trafficking chain in the Sinai desert. The asylum seekers had been kidnapped on their journey to Israel and suffered unimaginable cruelty while traffickers tried to extort money from their families. After interviewing dozens of survivors and translating for them at clinic in Tel Aviv, Gebreyesus knew she had to share their stories. She published the article “Bodies in the Desert” in the Spring 2014 issue of Johns Hopkins Public Health.

Gebreyesus talks about the origins of the story and how the experience changed her life in the following Q&A with editor Brian W. Simpson.


When did you first know you wanted to write this story?

I was sitting at a café reflecting on an encounter that I had the day before with a young Ethiopian man who had come into the clinic begging for ransom money for a friend whom he knew was being raped and tortured in the Sinai. My ruminations led to my questioning what I could do to help to share the stories of the Sinai survivors that I had met while translating for Physicians for Human Rights-Israel. I was impressed by the survivor’s grit and their herculean efforts to maintain a positive life outlook in spite of the atrocities they had experienced in the Sinai torture houses and the present challenges of Israel’s increasingly harsh immigration policies.

I decided to ask my Hopkins program director, Dr. Peter Winch, for suggestions about what he thought I could do. He recommended that I contact the editor of the School of Public Health Magazine to discuss ways in which I could share the asylum seekers’ experiences with the wider public health community.

You originally went to Israel as part of your doctoral research to study access to family planning by Eritrean asylum-seeking women in Israel. How did you manage your research while also dealing with this human rights issue?

My research began as a study focused on barriers in Israel to the access to family planning and other forms of reproductive health care but, as a result of learning more about the hardships endured by the African asylum-seeking communities during their migration, my thesis has expanded to include the risks of sexual violence while crossing international borders and how it affected the reproductive health of Eritrean women in Israel.  

What’s the latest news on this situation?

Prior to September of this year when the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the detainment of asylum seekers for indefinite periods of time was unconstitutional and ordered all asylum-seeking detainees to be released within 90 days, Ministry of Interior officials had increased their efforts to detain asylum-seeking men who had lived in Israel for four years or more and to remove these men from Tel Aviv to a newly constructed Holot Detention Facility in the Negev Desert. In January of 2014, 30,000 asylum seekers took to the streets of Tel Aviv to protest the inaccessibility of a fair asylum seeking procedure and the detention of African asylum-seekers. Arguably in retaliation for the protests, the Ministry of the Interior decided to require asylum seekers renew their visas every two months. The changed Israeli policy also requires all asylum-seekers to renew their visas within a short-time frame - leading to long waits at the immigration office.

The day that I observed the visa renewal process there were over one thousand people waiting outside in the sun to have their visas renewed. Many had arrived as early as 4 a.m. and would not be guaranteed to have their renewal completed that day. In response to an increasingly hostile environment towards African asylum seekers, it is estimated that at least 7,000 people have left Israel in the past few months. A small minority risk returning to their home countries. The overwhelming majority seeks safety in Europe, North America or other places in Africa such as Uganda and Rwanda. While many countries acknowledge the challenges faced by asylum seekers in Israel and are willing to offer them refugee status, in spite of the fact that Israel as a main drafter and signatory of the Refugee Convention is responsible for their protection, it is difficult to reach these destinations safely. The dilemma posed by this situation has resulted in asylum seekers leaving Israel through unofficial routes, often orchestrated by the Ministry of the Interior, that forces many of them to rely again on human smugglers.   

On June 27, 2014, in another demonstration protesting Israeli treatment of asylum seekers, one thousand Eritrean and Sudanese detainees, marched out on foot from the Holot Detention Facility in the Negev Desert. This mass movement was a desperate attempt to call attention to the fact that Israel refused to review their cases for asylum and was holding them for an indefinite period time in a detention facility although they had committed no crime; if they could not receive asylum nor decent treatment in Israel, they would return the way that they entered the country. Those involved in the march were forcibly taken to Saharonim detention facility for an indefinite period of time where they began a two-week hunger strike. The leaders of the hunger strike were placed in solitary confinement. A week later, immigration police in South Tel Aviv began rounding up more asylum seekers for detention. Community activists claimed that all detainees that are in detention in Saharonim and Holot are suffering extreme psychological traumatization.

In response to the Israeli Supreme Court’s recent decision, the asylum-seeking community fears that the current government will pass a new, potentially harsher, amendment than those that preceded it.

What was the most difficult part of your interviews with the African asylum seekers in Israel?

The most difficult part was hearing the traumatic stories coming from people very similar to myself. My parents fled the civil war in Ethiopia and who were lucky enough to receive safety and protection in the United States. Despite their eventual resettlement in America, their migration narratives were also harrowing. I easily identified with the stories that I heard and related them directly to experiences faced by my immediate family. Thus, my translation work and my interviews were emotionally challenging on a personal level.

Are the kidnappings and torture of migrants still going on in the Sinai?

According to community activists, the kidnappings and torture of asylum seekers in the Sinai Peninsula has ended. Kidnappings, torture and extortion of asylum seekers continues on a smaller scale in Kassala, Sudan along the Eritrean and Sudanese border and in Libya.  

What will it take to stop this?

Trafficking chains often do not stop but simply switch routes to reflect migratory patterns. As long as there are migrants, including those with claims for asylum, who are crossing international borders without documentation, there will be smugglers to accommodate them and traffickers posed to kidnap them en route. Although the situation in the Sinai Peninsula has purported to have ended, human trafficking remains a significant tragedy in many parts of the world. Increasingly restrictive immigration regimes in the global north towards forced migrants is one of the major contributing factors towards the use of human smuggling networks to reach safety and the thriving of human trafficking.

It is also important to understand that those human smugglers and traffickers are often members of groups that have been historically marginalized by their governments and societies. While I do not know of an immediate solution, I want to encourage readers to think critically about the growing disparities between the economic and political stability of the global north and that of the global south and to become educated about the political, historical, economic and social contexts that people are fleeing and its impact on their individual lives.

What’s been the reaction to the story?

The responses have varied. In regards to the Eritrean community specifically, many people who left Eritrea during its struggle for independence still have faith in the current regime and did not like the description of the government as authoritarian and punitive towards dissenters. Members of the established Eritrean Diaspora that oppose the current government there, as well as those that have left the country more recently, reacted positively. Many readers empathized with the suffering of the asylum-seeking population and emailed me asking for ways that they can contribute.

In response, we are creating an emergency fund to support asylum seekers living in Israel. The funds will be distributed by the Eritrean Women’s Center and by Sister Azezet Kidane, an award-winning nun and a nurse who helped to uncover the trafficking chain in the Sinai through her research and work at the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel Open Clinic. Anyone who wishes to offer financial assistance, please send donations to the Eritrean Women’s Center.

Details on how to send wire transfers or to make tax-deductible donations for US citizens are detailed here.  

In the story, you talk about being transformed by the experience. How has it changed you?

I am less naïve about the harsh realities that confront many people for no other reason than being subject to the wrong government at the wrong time. I have become more keenly aware of the fragility of peace and comfort and the possibility that all of us are vulnerable to geopolitical changes. The unimaginable is very real indeed. Finally, I am reminded that the global north often has a hand in the creation of political and economic instability in the global south and that we should do our best to limit the personal fallout that has ensued.

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