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Asylum seekers seek more than asylum in Israel

Eritreans in Israel face discrimination, torture and other obstacles, as they work for a better future
Eritreans say they face institutionalized racism in Israel (MEE/Eduardo Soteras Jalil)

Ten years ago, I participated in a conference in Europe about peace education. Every morning, a different delegation described its conflicts.

When the delegates from Israel-Palestine spoke, one African rose from the audience and said: "We have a saying. When two elephants fight, it is the grass under their feet that suffers the most. When are you going to end your conflict so that, maybe, someone will notice our problems in Africa?"

I sat not far from him, and as an Israeli, I did not know where to bury myself from the embarrassment. That same evening, there was a massacre in a refugee camp in the Congo. 130 Rwandans were killed and some of the conference participants mourned the loss of family members. I quickly became aware of our interdependence. I also became aware of the arrogance that can come from being part of a "much talked about conflict" like ours. Since then, when Israelis complain that "the world is picking on us, and is obsessed with our conflict" I share this story with them. It is much worse to be forgotten.

When I began to write about the Eritrean community in Israel, my friend Ghirmay Berhane told me: "Please write that we have dreams and plans. The Israelis only see us working. They think we are passive."

There are 53,000 registered asylum seekers in Israel today. Most of them are from Eritrea and Sudan. The Eritreans have largely fled a harsh dictatorship. Some 35,000 Eritreans first started coming to Israel in 2005 when their other options in Europe, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt became unsafe. To help us understand their situation, they refer to Eritrea as the “North Korea of Africa.”

Asylum seekers are criminalized

Israel sees asylum seekers as a mass of unwanted illegal infiltrators. It seems as if it has forgotten that it signed the UN convention relating to the status of refugees. Local human rights activists struggle together with the human rights activists from the refugees' community to find humanitarian, legal and social solutions to the many challenges that migrants face. They have not been very successful in changing policy or in changing the atmosphere towards the community of asylum seekers. The government's overt policy is to make their lives unbearable so that they will "choose" to leave. Even campaigns that made the connection between the life of the refugees with Jewish history have not helped. Slogans such as: "Remember that you were a stranger in Egypt" or "Who are you calling an infiltrator? Your mother was an infiltrator," have not created a humane policy toward the asylum seekers or a popular movement which supports them.

Throughout the years, the policies toward this community have been ruthless, confusing and racist. Like many other Western countries, Israelis fear that if they are a bit generous, the country will be filled with foreigners from Africa. There is an inherent objection to residents who are not Jewish in Israel, but there is an added factor of racism when it comes to the African community.

When it comes to black people

In the last decade about 100,000 non-Jewish people entered the country from the former Soviet Union on tourist visas and over-stayed their visas illegally. Although officially, they too are subject to deportation, there is no government campaign, no measures taken, nor is there any popular movement calling to deport them.  When it comes to black people who entered the country illegally, the story is quite different.

Over the years, the regulations changed, but the strategy remained: to make the lives of the asylum seekers unbearable and unpredictable. As a result, Eritreans in Israel lack security, freedom and the ability to make plans for the future.

Group protection

The UN recommends that countries with asylum seekers grant refugee status to those who are eligible. The majority of Eritreans who apply in Europe receive refugee status. In Israel, this procedure exists only in theory. Instead, Israel grants group protection to the whole community. Eritreans cannot be deported as long as the UN continues to declare that it is unsafe for them to return to their country. Eritreans live in an in-between mode of existence. They cannot hope to ever become refugees and receive basic rights and protection. On the other hand, they will not be deported.

The journey from Egypt to Israel

Eritreans came by land via Sudan and Egypt. On the Egyptian side, the border is controlled by the Egyptian army. When I first met Ghirmay Berhane in 2008, he came to stay with us while recovering from a gun-shot injury. He was shot by the Egyptians. It seemed strange to me that soldiers would bother shooting people who are leaving Egyptian territory. All we knew back then was that Ghirmay was picked up and cared for by Israeli soldiers. Today I know that the Egyptian army cooperated with the Israeli army, and since 2006, it has helped the Israelis stop the flow of asylum seekers into the country. In return, Egypt was permitted to deploy more forces into the area than the peace agreements between the two countries initially agreed to. There was an understanding between the two countries. Israeli soldiers were ordered to alert the Egyptians when they noticed that a group of asylum seekers were reaching the border and the Egyptians "dealt" with them (we know of shootings and rape). The Israeli army then found those who managed to cross over and took them to the hospital. This helped Israel decrease the number of people who entered while at the same time appear to be humane. In the first years, soldiers did not arrest anyone and those who were able to cross over found refuge in Tel Aviv. Later on, when the numbers were higher, the Israelis adopted the forced return policy. People who had already entered the country illegally, were sent back to the Egyptian side, although there was no guarantee for their safety. The High Court ruled that forced returns are illegal. The next step was to let asylum seekers in and immediately arrest them. In prison they were interviewed, documented and released to Tel Aviv. In 2013, the government finished the monumental project of yet another fence, this time on its border with Egypt, and the asylum seekers stopped making their way to Israel.

Torture camps near the border

All that time, human smugglers abducted Eritreans who were fleeing their country. Most of them were smuggled to the Sinai Desert, where they were tortured as a means to pressure their families for ransom money for their release. It is estimated that over 4,000 people died from the torture.

Egypt has never attacked the camps. Israel never tried to intervene with the torture camps located just across its border. It did not even file a complaint about these camps to the UN.  However, considering that there is a camp of UN peace-keeping forces (MFO) 300 meters from one of the torture camps in the Sinai, they appear to be equally useless. There are between 5,000-7,000 survivors of the torture camps in Israel. The Eritrean communities in the diaspora are trapped. They have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years in order to release their loved ones. They are aware that by paying, they are maintaining the industry of human trafficking, but no one is willing to risk the life of their relative by refusing to pay. The Eritrean community has shown an amazing ability to support and assist each other through this horrible plight.

The community has been struggling to survive, again in an in-between mode of existence. Their visas are extended every three months, but those do not include a working permit. They work without permits, but no Israeli employer has ever been convicted for employing asylum seekers. They do not receive medical services other than emergency treatment. Their children are provided with public education while their parents are considered criminals. In 2006, a special force responsible for dealing with illegal immigrants was established. The force takes pride in the number of people it deports. In the words of one inspector: "Our work is a mitzvah (a religious good deed). We safeguard the Jewish and democratic character of the state, no less and no more."

The rich are off the hook

Without any governmental plan over the years, most of the asylum seekers found themselves in the big cities where there is work. The majority live in the southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. Suspicion of the newcomers gradually became a huge social problem. The poorest areas of the city became over-crowded. The facilities were insufficient and racial tensions grew. These tensions were escalated by right-wing politicians. The tensions led to riots and violence toward the asylum seekers. The government came up with yet another plan: to “clean up” the city and lock up those who do not want to go back to their countries. After South Sudan received independence, all of the South Sudanese were deported. The other Sudanese and the Eritreans who could not be deported were exposed to the threat of imprisonment.  After the High Court ruled that indefinite imprisonment is out of the question, an "open detention center" was built in the desert. It is not called a prison yet. It is operated by the prison system.  It is now running at full capacity with 3,000 Eritreans and Sudanese held there indefinitely.

The "open camp" was the carrot. It was supposed to make underprivileged citizens feel that the government is doing something, although no major investment was made in the poor neighborhoods to accommodate the population. The majority of the community is still living in the southern parts of Tel Aviv, and the Jewish residents are as poor as they were before. The only difference is that these poor Jews who protested, often using racist slogans, have been labeled racists by the rich and middle class who continue living in homogeneous areas. The latter enjoy a lifestyle that exploits illegal workers. This middle class enjoys the fruits of cheap labor. Eritreans work in the back rooms and kitchens of restaurants that are visited by the middle class and they clean their fancy offices at night. 

In the winter of 2014 the Eritreans and Sudanese organized an impressive three-day strike. At the risk of losing their jobs they did not show up for work and they demonstrated together, regardless of nationality, political or religious affiliations.  They protested against their criminalisation and transparency. They wanted to show how much the economy was dependent on them. New regulations made it impossible to get visas, and anyone without a visa was being hunted by the immigration police and sent to the "open camp."  Many people in Israel supported the strike, especially their employers. The strike was widely covered by mainstream media and most of the demonstrators managed to keep their jobs. The strike made them visible. They became agents, responsible for their lives. One indication of the strike's success was that until that moment mainstream media had interviewed white human rights activists who spoke on the Africans' behalf. Since the strike, news networks began to interview the leaders of the community themselves. As a result, some of the leaders are now detained.

Many Israelis see the Eritreans as young people who are a threat to the demographics and to the job market. There is some generosity and support toward the community, but it is usually limited to humanitarian help. It is not so easy to imagine that these young men and women have collective aspirations and plans that exceed their daily demands for security, welfare and freedom.

During their time in Israel, the Eritrean community built institutions and organizations. There are churches that serve the community, an impressive women's center, small businesses, an elaborate banking system that helps send money home without the high commissions of Western Union, restaurants, grocery stores, wedding halls, music groups and political organizations. All of this is seen by Israelis as proof that they are here to stay and that they are taking over all of the neighborhoods. I set out to get to know the political aspirations of the community.

HIDRI means legacy in Tigrinya. SMRET means unity

SMRET and HIDRI are two political organizations who are preparing the return of Eritreans to Eritrea. Both want to overthrow the dictatorship. The two have developed separately, and today they are working together.

I met Tuamzghi Tesfalem, the elected leader of HIDRI in their modest center in Tel Aviv. The center is located in a run-down building above an Eritrean Orthodox church. On the hot summer evening when I visited, the church attracted more members than the newly formed organizations. When I asked the church leaders what they thought of these initiatives, they said that they prefer to keep silent about it. It is hard to leave the dictatorship. It is even harder for the dictatorship to leave you.  People are scared. Tuamzghi has made it his mission to stop being scared. He is 28-years old. He studied marine management in the only university in Eritrea.  He was active with other students against the government, but they never formed an organization because it is against the law to organize: “We suffered from the government, from hunger and from indefinite military conscription.”  In 2005, after the government identified the university as a center for political activity, it was shut down. Tuamzghi was sent back to continue his indefinite army service. That is when he decided to leave and continue his studies in Europe. Since 2002, young people are fleeing Eritrea at a rate of about 3,000 a month. One out of three Eritreans is living in the diaspora. Tuamzghi's first stops were at refugee camps in Ethiopia, where he met rebels who were preparing to overthrow the dictatorship. Since there was no free press in his country, it was only in Ethiopia that he realized how big the flow of migrants from his country was. At that moment, he understood that Europe could not be a solution. He changed his plans, and joined the struggle for a new Eritrea. 

Tuamzghi has been in Israel since 2009. He was captured on the way and held in the torture camps for one month. He was not tortured. His family bought his freedom for $3,000.

HIDRI's base is in Ethiopia where they have two military training camps. In Israel, they met for over a year in secrecy before going public with their three step strategy: The first step is diplomatic and political pressure on Eritrea. The 2009 UN sanctions on the dictatorship have been a ray of hope for them. The second step is empowerment and education of Eritreans. This includes communicating with those who are still in Eritrea with little hope and information. The third step is overthrowing the dictatorship.

Building a culture of freedom

In Israel, HIDRI and SMRET are engaged mainly in the second step, building awareness and preparing the community through political education. Every Friday evening they meet for a session. When I was there, the evening began with some live music and the topic was personal freedom. The first speaker introduced some ideas and invited others to contribute their thoughts. One after the other, people began to raise their hands and come up to the microphone and speak. It struck me that they were not only adding ideas and thoughts about the subject, but were practicing freedom of speech. They were training themselves to speak about what is on their mind. This is an extremely important experience for people who have lived all their life in a culture of silence. The act involves personal risk. I asked one speaker if he thought there might be a spy there that evening. He said that they work under the assumption that there are spies at every meeting who report back to the embassy. I asked again and again if it is OK to mention names and take photos. I was told that after a long time in secrecy they decided to stop being scared. They are out in the open. "If we had had free speech in Eritrea we would not have left. We would have spoken up. We would not have been so scared. We fled out of fear and now we need to stop being afraid." Together, HIDRI and SMRET have over 4,000 supporters in Israel now. Most of the supporters joined in 2011, after the two organisations facilitated a demonstration in front of the Eritrean Embassy in Tel Aviv and people saw that nothing bad happened to them as a result.

Suli (Suliman) got up to speak. My friend and translator whispered: "We should listen closely.  He is one of those who studied in the university."  Suli declared, "We are no different from anyone else. You don't have to think that we are different just because we are black, African or from Eritrea. We have to overcome our sense of inferiority."

He was very determined and clear, continuing: "We are forming solidarity between us and we need to understand that the foundation is personal liberation. But we also need to remember that freedom does not mean anarchy. We are building a democracy. We have a constitution and we will respect it. Not like the current government." When he finished his short lecture the music began and we stepped outside to speak.  Suliman explained that their fear is that they would succeed to overthrow the existing dictatorship and replace it with another. That is why in their political education they are emphasizing global and universal values. "We want to go back and develop a democracy.  We have learned a lot from what we saw in Israel about freedom of speech and freedom of the press. These are things that cannot be unlearned."

What Ethiopia and Israel have to gain

The Eritrean rebels have two training camps in Ethiopia and they receive some support and weapons. Over the last five years, they conducted small attacks in Eritrea.  They said that they killed some soldiers. The main aim of these attacks is to let the people back home know that something is going on. They try and make contact with people in Eritrea so that they don't despair and lose hope. The assumption is that Ethiopia hopes that in return for its support, it will gain much needed access to the Red Sea.

Israel supports the dictatorship and in return has built a navel base and a military intelligence base in Eritrea. The dictator has been to Israel twice for medical treatment. It is no wonder that Israel rejects the asylum seekers' demand to recognize them as refugees. Israel has sided with the dictatorship and claims that all is fine in Eritrea.

My own limitations to imagine

In my encounter with the members of HIDRI, I learned about my whiteness. I learned about their strength to envision the future even when the present is so grim. I saw their ability to take what is good in Israel and still be critical about the bad. I kept asking them who is Muslim and who is Christian, and again and again they said that they work together. It was so hard for me to believe that I continued to ask. Another question that I kept asking in my white ways was: Who are they learning from and where do they get their inspiration? Some did not even understand my question.   "Che Guevara?"  I suggested, "perhaps Fanon?" That did not help either. It was hard for me to believe that they are developing their own form of democracy. This reminds me of a paragraph I read once about a meeting with the Zapatistas, when the North American said: "but this Zapatista education all sounds like what Paulo Freire did in Brazil. Aren’t you reinventing the wheel?” He was told, "No, you don't get the point.  This is Zapatista education, not Freirean education. If we are inventing the wheel, at least it is our wheel!"

I will end with an anecdote from the conference in Europe. One morning we discussed our work and some of the European women asked some students from Rwanda who were studying in Europe what they would like to adopt from European culture. 

"We came to acquire technical and scientific skills," they said.

 "And what about our values and our culture?" the women asked.

 "No thanks, we have our own culture and values."

The women were so shocked and offended.  They could not believe that their values were being rejected.  It was a good point to start a dialogue.

(Ghirmay Barhane inspired me to write this article and helped me understand.)