Eritrean 'economic' migrants seek refugee status

The mayor of Tel Aviv fears violence will ensue if African asylum-seekers in Israel are not granted asylum in an increasingly tense environment. The Netanyahu government promises that the rule of law will be observed.

Israel is being challenged by three days of protests launched by thousands of Africans who are seeking to be granted asylum by the Jewish State and are angered by the incarceration of thousands of fellow Africans in open detention facilities located in the Negev desert region far from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. On January 6, thousands rallied outside of several foreign embassies in Israel in a protest against Israeli immigration policy. Interviewed on Israel’s Channel 2 television on the morning of the protests, Dawit – an Eritrean who is among the leaders of the exile community – said “We don’t want to live here for the rest of our lives. We want basic rights until we can return.” He added, “ love my country, the land I grew up in. My family is in Eritrea. But I can’t live there now…Until I can, I only want Israel to treat me like a human being.”
 
Eritrea is a one-party state that has long been criticized for violating human rights. Religious groups, for example, that are not recognized by the government are persecuted. Lifelong military service is expected from all Eritrean males, legislative elections are routinely postponed, and political dissidents are imprisoned. The country is divided nearly evenly between Muslims and Christians. Many Eritreans flee to Sudan and neighboring countries, as well as Israel, seeking asylum there or in the EU. No independent human rights groups are allowed in Eritrea, which is regularly excoriated for human rights abuses.
 
Rallies were held by protesters outside the embassies and diplomatic offices of the African Union, Canada, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, United Kingdom, and the United States.  They also held a protest outside the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. However, the biggest rally was held outside of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv where thousands gathered.  Protesters said that they delivered a letter to U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro demanding that he request that Israel amend a law that permits imprisonment of asylum seekers in the Negev facilities. 
 
Israeli law does not allow for the issuance of work permits unless asylum status is acquired by foreign applicants. However, getting the required designation for asylum is not an easy process. The Israeli government has claimed that most of the migrants have come for economic reasons and therefore will not be allowed to remain. There are approximately 60,000 of them currently in Israel. For his part, Israeli premier  Benjamin Netanyahu said on the day of the protests that most of the people concerned were “not refugees.” He said that they are “economic migrants” who entered Israel illegally before the barrier at the border shared with Egypt had been reinforced. He gave assurances that the “full weight of the law” would be used to remove them. Protests and demonstrations will not avail them, said Netanyahu. 
Speaking at a meeting of his Likud party, Netanyahu said “I would like to clarify that these are not refugees, whom we handle according to international treaties, but rather infiltrators in search of work who are illegal, and we will fully bring them to justice.”
 
“In 2013, we expelled 2,600 infiltrators from here, six times more than we did in the preceding year. This year we will remove more — that is our commitment and we’ve been conducting ourselves accordingly,” said Netanyahu.
 
On January 5, about 30,000 protesters marched from a park in Tel Aviv to the city’s Rabin Square where they shouted “No more prison, no more deportation. We are refugees, we need asylum.”
 
(Negev detention center for asylum seekers in Israel)
 
In a statement announcing that they would continue their protest on the next day, the protesters released a statement saying “We know the situation isn’t ideal in any country,…It’s clear to us that all nations have difficulty absorbing masses of people, survivors of genocide and war, but with that, the nations of the world must honor international conventions and respect human rights.”
 
 “We will call on the international community to support our struggle against Israel’s violations of basic human rights,” continued the statement added. They called for sympathizers “to help us in the face of Israel’s harsh policies against us.”  The protesters claim that Israel does not afford them proper adjudication of their requests for asylum and instead views them as a threat. They also claim that they are arrested and treated like criminals, incarcerated indefinitely, and left without access to basic rights.
 
Speaking in December 2013, Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar said that his government is responding to asylum requests on a case-by-case basis that is “showing results. We’re seeing a sharp rise in the number of infiltrators who are leaving Israel. They understand that the government is serious, that we are serious.” He added that most of them “are labor migrants, and the state of Israel is not their home.” However, Sa'ar has also said that the children of migrants enrolled in school might remain in Israel.
 
The UNHCR - United Nations’ refugee agency  - has urged Israel to reform its policy towards the asylum seekers. The international agency criticized the conditions at the Holot detention center in the Negev region and asked the Israeli government to consider other measures. The UNHCR said that Israel should not define refugees as “asylum seekers’ and instead grant them protection. In a January 6 statement, protesters demanded UNHCR's involvement in asylum requests and that the international community should hold Israel to its commitments, saying “Don’t allow the government of Israel to repeatedly violate our basic human rights, its own commitment under international law, and basic standards of human decency.”
 
The status of the migrants has caused considerable controversy in Israel, a country that enjoys open discussion and democratic process sorely lacking elsewhere in the Mideast. Also, Israel is no stranger to accepting refugees from Africa: in the 1980s, thousands of Ethiopians were granted asylum and have become fully assimilated into Israeli society. Also, migrant workers come from the surrounding Palestinian-controlled areas, and from as far away as Thailand, to work on Israeli farms and industries.
 Some prominent Israelis are calling for a softer approach to the current asylum seekers than has been seen heretofore. For example, writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz, Bradley Burston issued the following plea: “Let my people stay.  In Israel.  Even if they're Africans.  Or Arabs. The prime minister says the protests and strikes will do no good, we're going to get rid of all of the Africans. But the prime minister works for me. He's my employee. And I say let my people stay.” David Grossman, an Israeli author, joined the protesters and said “'I feel embarrassed and ashamed that we have reached this situation.” In addition, three members of Israel’s parliament sought a meeting with representatives of the African asylum-seekers, but were denied entry by the speaker of the legislative body.
 
In an interview with Spero News, author Edwin Black – an investigative journalist and author who has written extensively about the Mideast said, “This is another demographic weapon designed to undermine Israel, using economic migrants. If these so-called asylum seekers protest their countries policies, then where are the international calls against those countries.” Based in the U.S., Black is the author of numerous books, including ‘Banking on Baghdad’ and ‘War Against the Weak.’ His most recent book is ‘Financing the Flames,’ which shines a light on the illegal funding of Palestinian terrorism by ostensibly charitable organizations in the United States with funds from American taxpayers.
 
There are currently about 60,000 African asylum-seekers now in Israel. Of the 1,800 asylum requests received, said the report, only 250 have been examined, according to a report in Haaretz. No Sudanese or Eritreans have been granted asylum, said the report. 
 
However, in recent weeks, dozens of Eritreans have been sent to Sweden. In a deal arranged by Sweden and UNHCR, the resettlement is part of an “ongoing process of willful deportation to Sweden,” according to Israel’s Interior Ministry in a January 7 announcement. As many as 54 women were among those resettled. Each Eritrean migrant was given a payment of  $3,500. The Israeli government reports that of the total 2,612 migrants who voluntarily depart Israel in 2013, 1,955 were from Sudan and 461 from Eritrea. The Interior Ministry said that this was a significant increase over 2012, when the total was 461 voluntary returnees out of approximately 54,000 African migrants in Israel, according to an official count. An Israeli non-governmental organization, ASSAF, played a part in the resettlement to Sweden and said  that the Israeli government was not part of the deal.
 
The executive director of ASSAF, Michal Pinchuk, told an Israeli newspaper that the women who were resettled to Sweden had been trafficked to Israel and tortured by traffickers in the Sinai desert before arriving in Israel. She said that they were later held at Israel’s Saharonim prison and that Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar had given the green light for their departure. Said Pinchuk, “As an Israeli I am embarrassed that my country avoided providing support to the victims of torture. The Swedish Representatives heard of the difficult situation the victims were under in Israel and turned to the UNHCR in order to absorb a number who were given refugee status immediately.” Pinchuk said on January 7.


Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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