Eritrean refugee Dawit Demoz was granted residency in Canada but says he must help asylum seekers who live in dire conditions in Israel
TORONTO, Canada – “No more prison! We are refugees!” the crowd chanted outside the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem this week, as more than 1,000 African asylum seekers rallied to demand that their asylum requests be fairly heard.
The refugees, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have been fighting for years for Israel to ease its harsh restrictions on their daily lives and put an end to indefinite detention and threats of deportation.
“You, the justices of the High Court, are the only ones who have the authority to save Israel from committing the injustice of deporting vulnerable asylum seekers in violation of all international agreements,” March for Freedom, the group that organised the protest this week, said in a statement, according to the Jerusalem Post.
“Our fate is completely in your hands,” the group said.
The protest comes only a few weeks after an Eritrean refugee, who is now living thousands of kilometres away in Canada, began working once more to expose the harsh treatment African asylum seekers are subjected to in Israel.
Dawit Demoz left Israel last March after more than six years in Tel Aviv, where he became a leading activist in the struggle to protect the rights of the country’s marginalised and maligned African asylum seekers.
Now a Canadian permanent resident, the 30-year-old is studying psychology at York University in Toronto and working part-time at a local grocery store.
But he can’t forget the tens of thousands of African asylum seekers still in Israel.
“I can’t just come here, and forget everything I left behind. It’s hard. I think about it all the time,” Demoz told Middle East Eye from a café in Toronto’s west end earlier this month.
“I cannot forget about the people that I left behind. The situation is getting worse there, there’s no hope that the situation in Israel will change. I said to myself, ‘I have to do something.’”
Human rights abuses
The dire living conditions of African asylum seekers in Israel have been widely reported since tens of thousands of mainly Eritrean and Sudanese refugees began making the journey to Israel in the last decade.
More than 40,000 asylum seekers currently live in Israel, the vast majority of whom are originally from Eritrea and Sudan. Many refugees reached Israel after a dangerous journey across the Egyptian Sinai desert.
In its history, Israel has recognised less than one percent of all asylum claims. Last year, it granted refugee status for the first time to a Sudanese national, Mutasim Ali, a young activist and protest leader.
For years, the government gave asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan “temporary protection” in the form of short-term visas, which allowed the government to avoid actually processing their asylum claims.
Today, most African asylum seekers must renew temporary visas to remain in the country, and they live under a risk of being summoned to Holot, a detention facility built in the southern Negev desert.
Israel also signed a secretive deal to deport asylum seekers to third countries. The Israeli government says the agreement poses no risk to the deportees; a representative for the Israeli Justice Ministry said last year that at least 3,000 people had been sent to Rwanda and Uganda.
But it’s a policy that refugee advocates say puts the asylum seekers in danger and leaves them in a state of legal limbo. Some asylum seekers have reported being repatriated to their home countries after their deportation from Israel, where they may face imprisonment, torture and other abuses.
‘Expedited’ immigration process
Demoz, who recently organised a film screening and fundraiser in Toronto to benefit the Eritrean Women’s Centre in Tel Aviv, said he is encouraged by Canadians’ desire to help Eritreans.
The first goal of the event was to raise awareness, and provide information for how Eritreans can be sponsored to come to Canada, he said.
“I want you to know about the situation of Eritreans, but at the same time, there are things that you can do now. If you are ready or if you’re interested to help, you can sponsor Eritreans,” said Demoz, who was privately sponsored by a Canadian group.
Canada’s unique private sponsorship programme allows community groups (known as private sponsorship agreement holders) to sponsor individuals in need of resettlement. These groups are then financially responsible for the refugees’ first year in Canada.
"If you are ready or if you’re interested to help, you can sponsor Eritreans” - Dawit Demoz
Officially, the Refugee Protection Division within the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada is tasked with holding hearings and investigating claims for refugee protection made in the country.
It recently gave Eritreans access to an “expedited process” to make their claims. Syrian and Iraqi nationals are the only others to have access to this process in Canada.
This means that the IRB has recognised a “pattern of human rights abuses” and can grant refugee status to individuals from these countries more quickly, said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
“An expedited process is good for them to try to move [through] obvious claims quickly,” Dench told Middle East Eye. “From the claimants’ point of view, it can [mean] you are saved what can be a very traumatising hearing process. It makes it an easier and friendlier and potentially a slightly faster process.”
Between January and August last year, 3,081 Eritreans received permanent residency in Canada: 2,773 were privately-sponsored refugees, while the remaining 308 people were sponsored by the government. That’s an increase from 2015, during which 1,648 Eritreans received Canadian permanent residency.
But Dench said Canada should also put a suspension of removals in place for Eritrean nationals, given the dire human rights situation in their home country.
In 2015, United Nations said the Eritrean government was responsible for “systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations” that may amount to crimes against humanity.
Eritreans are forced into indefinite conscription, where they are subjected to hard labour, torture, physical and sexual abuse. Dissent is stifled, imprisonment and enforced disappearances are widespread, and hundreds of thousands have fled the country.
“It is not law that rules Eritreans – but fear,” the UN reported.
Having a clear policy that blocks deportations to Eritrea would allow the refugees to get work permits and be in a better position than simply waiting for Ottawa to deport them.
“It’s well established that there are massive human rights abuses going on, and yet there is very little international coverage of it,” Dench said. “I think that’s one of the reasons why we don’t have a temporary suspension. If people have been paying more attention, it would have been in place long ago.”
Can Canada help Eritreans in Israel?
Individuals cannot apply directly for resettlement in Canada, but they must instead be referred, either by the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR) or other organisation, or a private sponsor, explained Rémi Larivière, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).
In the case of Eritreans living in Israel, Larivière said Canada has no specific agreement with Israel to resettle them, and the IRCC department has not requested referrals from UNHCR for refugees in Israel.
“However, Canada always remains open to considering urgent or vulnerable cases the UNHCR may identify as being in need of resettlement anywhere in the world,” Larivière said.
Since 2012, Canada has instituted caps on the number of new applications it will accept each year from sponsorship agreement holders.
"Canada always remains open to considering urgent or vulnerable cases" - Rémi Larivière
Last year, a cap of 350 new applications was put in place in Tel Aviv “due to a growing backlog of applications and concerns over long wait times,” he said.
This year, the cap on private sponsorship applications is set at 7,500 people globally, and Canada expects to resettle 40,000 refugees and protected persons.
Larivière added that Canada has committed to welcoming 4,000 government-sponsored Eritrean refugees currently in Sudan and Ethiopia before the end of 2018.
According to Dench, there are political considerations involved in how Canada approaches the possible resettlement of Eritreans currently living in Israel.
“If you resettle somebody out of their country, then you are indirectly acknowledging that the country is not providing appropriate protection and a durable solution to the refugees that are there, and a country like Israel might not take well to that,” she said.
Meanwhile, Demoz said that his new life in Canada has showed him just how unjust the situation in Israel really is.
“Canada is a country of immigrants and both the Canadian government and the Canadian public see this as an asset… They say diversity is our strength,” he said.
“In Israel, it’s completely different. [They say], ‘You’re not part of us; you’re a different colour, you’re a different ethnicity, you’re a different culture so you’re not part of us. We don’t want you.’
“Forget about refugee status… where is the humanity?”