Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel unite
“I didn’t feel my country as my country. Every day my life was disturbed, I was suppressed. I could not live my life in such a way”. These are the words of Isaac who was caught attempting to flee Eritrea by the border police and sent to military prison in 2007. After four months, he and six others managed to escape from prison and make it to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. It was then that Isaac realised he could no longer stay in Eritrea, for if he was caught he would not be assured his life. The second time he crossed the Eritrean border he made it through to Sudan. Isaac then spent a year in Sudan, two and a half years in Libya and eventually made his way through Egypt to the Sinai. His ticket to Israel was a steep price for a seat in a cattle truck supplied by Bedouin smugglers.
Isaac describes watching people dying of dehydration in the desert heat, “there was nothing we could do, there was so little water even for ourselves; we sent a prayer to God and moved on”. Sadly, Isaac’s journey is not unique. This is the typical journey, this is the reality. The estimated 18,000 Eritrean asylum-seekers currently residing in Israel have fled from one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. In 2009 Eritrea was ranked last in the World Press Freedom Index, even more oppressive than North Korea.
Even fleeing Eritrea does not necessarily result in escaping the corruption of the regime, Isaac explains. “The Israeli Ministry of Interior demands Eritrean identification cards...we don’t have them, they are not important in Eritrea or the smugglers steal them from us”. To obtain an identification card, the people must go to the Eritrean embassy in Israel and pay $1,500 USD, which goes directly to supporting the very regime from which they just escaped. How do they afford this? Isaac explains: “you either suffer for a year or you borrow from someone; we suffer a lot”.
Furthermore, upon receiving the ID card, the asylum seeker must provide personal details to the embassy. This information is relayed back to Eritrea where it is viewed as betrayal and opposition to the regime, and can result in reprisals for the family remaining in Eritrea.To add further anguish, the asylum seeker must then sign a declaration stating that if they return to Eritrea they will accept any punishment the government deems necessary. Obtaining this document is not only a financial burden—it can mean a life sentence.
This month prominent members of the Eritrean community exercised one of the freedoms denied to them by the tyrannical Eritrean regime: the freedom of speech, or more specifically, the freedom to protest.The protest on March 11, 2011 saw some 250 members of the community (plus a small number of Israeli and European protestors) gather in front of the Eritrean embassy in Ramat Gan. The protest called for democracy in Eritrea.“We are tired, we want change; we want to get rid of the dictatorship”. The community is hopeful the toppling of many North African dictatorships in the past year will have an overflow effect on Eritrea and result in global condemnation of such regimes.
This protest is one of many developments amongst the Eritrean community. Three months ago, with the support of the ARDC, a five-member strong committee was formed in order to support the broader Eritrean population living in Israel. The Eritrean committee aims to promote advocacy and awareness amongst the Israeli population regarding the plight of refugees, as well as to strengthen unity within the Eritrean community. The five members were elected by the Eritrean community and report to a group of three elders, who settle any disputes that may arise and ensure accountability. The committee has been generously given two rooms in the ARDC office where they can meet and conduct their business.
The newly formed Eritrean committee acts as an intermediary between the community and the ARDC, the UNHCR and the media. The committee provides advice to new comers whilst the ARDC navigates them through the convoluted process of applying for asylum. They also generously help with translation during the interview process.
Isaac explains that it is not always easy for asylum seekers, particularly Eritreans, to trust NGO workers. “Trust doesn’t come easily, even in the committee, we are friends, but the [Eritrean] regime has traumatised people”. It is for these reasons that the ARDC recognises this partnership as a unique opportunity to build trust and encourage open dialogue, while providing a strong voice for the large Eritrean population here in Israel.
The five members of the Eritrean committee are: Haile Mergisteab, Mehari Okbay, Kidane Isaac, Kebedom Mengistu and Tesfai Hadsu. Each month we will attempt to share the story of one of these brave community leaders.