Eritrean Refugees en Route to Israel

By Miri -

I ran away from Eritrea seven months ago to avoid the army service. I intended to find refuge in Sudan, but when I arrived in Sudan, crossing the border by foot, with several other Eritreans, some Bedouins arrived with a vehicle and kidnapped us. Some of us succeeded in running away but they managed to kidnap me along with others. They locked us up in a small house in Kassala, beating us daily with a stick. They threatened me "if you will not pay us $35,000, you will be our woman." I gave them phone numbers of my family members but they told the kidnappers that they don't have a possibility to raise such amount of money. I was locked there in a dark room for four months. I discovered that I got pregnant. We received very little food and I was beaten constantly. I had a miscarriage. It took my family long months to raise the money and I was taken with others to Sinai. There they requested $3,400 more. It took three more months for my family to raise the additional sum. We were released near the border of Israel with a group of 30 Eritreans. They Egyptian soldiers shot at us on the way. Some of us got frightened and returned back to the Egyptian side. We arrived to the giant new fence on the Israeli border and we were not able to cross it. We waited there in the sun for long days with no food and water. There were Israeli soldiers on the other side who kept on telling us to go back. There were several children with us who could not suffer it any longer and attempted to go back. The Egyptian soldiers shouted to the children "you cannot come back unless you bring us the women in your group." We refused to go back, knowing why they want us back.
At the end, the Israeli soldiers came to our side, forced many of us to go back to the Egyptian soldiers and let the women in. It was easy for them to push the people back since they were starved for many days and too weak to resist. In prison, where we are now, they treat us very well. A woman from the UNHCR came and told us that we can apply for asylum. I had a meeting with a judge and a translator to Tigrinya, Frowini. She asked me if I agree to go back to Eritrea and told me "You will be in this prison for three years. Didn't you hear about it?" I told her that if I go back I will be imprisoned for sunning away from the army service but she did not answer. The judge said that until there will be a solution, I will stay in prison.
Testimony of G., a 21 year old Eritrean woman, given to the Hotline for Migrant Workers activists, September 2012

Eritrean mourn the victims of the Lampedusa shipwreck, Tel Aviv, October 2013
According to the UNHCR the numbers of Eritreans crossing the border from Sinai into Israel has increased from 1,348 in 2006 to 17,175 in 2011. Due to the completion of the fence running alongside the Egyptian/Israeli border, as well as the implementation of the “Prevention of Infiltration Law”, these numbers have decreased considerably.

Eritreans in Israel, like other aslyum seekers and non-Jewish immigrants especially from African countries, are widely regarded as “parasites” taking advantage of the relative freedom and wealth of the Israeli state. Little does the Israeli public know about the circumstances that make Eritreans seek asylum and take on the risks involved in the journey from their home country to Israel. 

Background on Eritrea

According to the UNHCR the human rights situation in Eritrea has seriously deteriorated and most Eritreans fleeing their country should be considered refugees according to the criteria outlined in the 1951 Geneva Convention. The following is only a brief summary of three of the most common reasons for Eritreans to leave their country.

1. Lack of Freedom of Expression and Opinion

Eritrea used to be part of Ethiopia. After a war lasting about thirty years it formally became an independent nation state in 1993. Since then the state is ruled by the same man, Isaias Afewerki and his People's Front for Democracy and Justice. The one party state owns and controls all media. Activists, journalists and other people daring to express dissenting opinions face arbitrary arrests, and detention without charges. The majority of the opposition groups therefore only operate from exile.

2. Treatment of Draft Evaders

Territorial disputes over undemarcated borders with neighbouring states have led to high-level military mobilisation, making the Eritrean army one of the largest in Africa, with an estimated 35 percent of the Eritrean population being in active military service. Originally 18 months, military conscription was extended in 2012 to an indefinite amount of time. Women, who are also drafted, often report of sexual violence.
Draft evaders and deserters commonly face extra judicial punishment including execution, torture, forced labour, detention for long periods, and in some cases persecution of their families.

3. Freedom of Religion

The UNHCR reports of widespread and systematic persecution of members of non-registered religions, who only for the reason of worshipping risk punitive measures, such as confiscation of church property, arrests, detention, torture and other abuses, sometimes resulting in death.

The route to Israel

After leaving Eritrea clandestinely, most refugees first cross into Sudan or Ethiopia where a lot of them stay. According to the UNHCR, Sudan is hosting 125,000 Eritreans and Ethiopia nearly 128,000. 

Those who want to continue their journey have to pay ransom money of up to $16,000. They are then smuggled into Egypt, through the Sinai until they reach the Egyptian/Israeli border. While some are lucky and reach the border to Israel without being subjected to abuse, others report that already during their journey to Egypt, they had to face severe forms of harassment and torture. Women frequently report that they became victims of rape and sexual assault through the smugglers. Many women embarking on the journey to Israel reportedly take contraceptive injections in case they will be raped on the way. 

An increasing number of refugees report about having gotten deceived and extorted for ransom money while being subjected to abuse. Others, like G. from the above testimony, never even intended to go to Israel but were kidnapped and taken there against their will.

While it seems to be true that the smugglers and traffickers are most often Bedouin, Sudanese and Egyptian authorities, as well as Eritrean collaborators also form part of the transnational trafficking network.

If refugees are caught by Egyptian authorities they are usually detained for months and are eventually deported back to Eritrea or Ethiopia. Those who are forcibly returned to Eritrea often face arrest without charges, detention, ill-treatment, torture, or sometimes death at the hands of the authorities.

Eritreans stranded at the border for a week, September 2012
On the Israeli side of the border many asylum seekers are detained and returned back to Egypt where they most likely face deportation to their homeland. Those so called "hot returns", the expulsion of a person seeking asylum without any legal proceedings, constitute a clear violation of the non-refoulement principle, and as such of international law.

According to testimonies of Israeli soldiers stationed at the border, the IDF actively prevents asylum seekers from entering, using crowd dispersal methods, such as tear gas and stun grenades and sometimes even operate on Egyptian soil. Considering how many of those trying to cross into Israel are survivors of torture camps and slavery, in addition to the persecution that they face in their home country, they are entitled to certain rights also according to Israeli law.

In Israel

In 2012 Israel began implementing the Prevention of Infiltration Law, which stipulated the automatic detention for a minimum of three years of everyone who irregularly crosses the borders into Israel, whether refugee, unauthorised immigrant, or "infiltrator". In addition, Israel completed the construction of the Egypt border fence and implements harsher border management policies, all of which has decreased the number of refugees attempting to enter the country. Some argue that due to this decrease of refugees seeking asylum in Israel, traffickers resorted to the above mentioned kidnappings.

Saharonim detention facility
Due to the law Until most of those asylum seekers who managed to survive and to pass all the obstacles were taken to the newly built Saharonim prison in the Negev. The conditions within those camps were described as substandard, overcrowded and unsanitary. The medical help and rehabilitation services that many of the detained people, many of who have undergone severe forms of torture, necessitate, is rarely provided.

Finally in September 2013, the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that the Prevention of Infiltration Law was violating the Basic Laws of Israel and that the cases of the nearly 2,000 migrants who are being held in the internment camps in the Negev should be reviewed individually.
The government is however already working towards a new legislation in order to bypass the court ruling, to keep the migrants locked up, and to ensure the continuation of the detention of unwanted migrants and refugees in the future. 

Homeless refugees in Levinsky Park, South Tel Aviv
An approximate number of 55,000 Eritreans succeeded and crossed into Israel before the government crackdown, with most of them living in the south of Tel Aviv. Not being recognised as refugees they are accorded limited rights and services by the state, yet only have temporary IDs which have to be renewed through the Ministry of Interior every few months. In addition to the constant insecurity regarding their status in Israel, local authorities are said to be "united in their harassment of asylum seekers, in an effort to fulfil [former Interior Minister] Eli Yishai's wish to make their lives so miserable that they will leave" as one Israeli NGO worker recently stated.


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