||Eritreans want recognition as refugees in Israel
Ruth Eglash , THE JERUSALEM POST / December 16, 2008
Wearing white masks to conceal
their identities, more than 500
Eritrean asylum seekers took to
the streets of Tel Aviv Tuesday
to protest what they describe as
the Israeli government’s refusal
to recognize them as refugees
and grant them certain rights
under the United Nation’s
convention on the status of
refugees, to which Israel is party.
“We wore the masks because if we are identified by the Eritrean authorities
then our families still living there could be persecuted,” one of the
protesters, Asmaram, told The Jerusalem Post following the demonstration.
Preferring to use only his first name for fear of retribution, Asmaram, 24,
who speaks perfect English, said the situation in his former homeland had
reached extreme levels of oppression in every sphere of society, and that
as a university student, he had no choice but to leave. He arrived in Israel
via Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt last year.
“I chose to come to Israel because out of all the countries I could have
gone, it was the only one that was completely democratic,” explained
Asmaram, who is one of 11 Eritreans elected recently by the 5000-strong
displaced community to represent them in Israel. “It was either Libya or
Israel and I chose Israel, hoping that my chances of staying alive would be
Along with his fellow countrymen, however, Asmaram said that living
conditions in Israel were extremely difficult, with the government refusing
to grant them official asylum and constantly issuing new regulations as to
where they could live and whether they were allowed to work.
Most recently, Eritrean community members who had settled in Eilat were
told by the government that they had to leave and find a new location.
“We do not have any status here,” said Asmaram, who holds a degree in
marine biology. “We live in constant fear that we will either be imprisoned
or deported back to Eritrea.” In addition, he said that more than 65 percent
of the community was not eligible to work in Israel and as such living
conditions for most of them were very poor.
“Those of us who can work have to use our earnings to help out other
members of our community who cannot work. In many cases there are
between 10-15 Eritreans living in one apartment because the rent is too
high for us to live alone,” he said.
According to Romm Lewkowicz, spokesman for the Hotline for Migrant
Workers, a grass-roots organization that provides assistance to thousands
of foreign workers living in Israel, the core of the problem was Israel’s
refusal to even check the status of the more than 10,000 refugees from
around the world that are believed to be living here without any rights or
“Israel has signed the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, yet it has
no policy regarding these people or system to check their requests,” he
pointed out, adding that to absolve itself from responsibility, the Interior
Ministry simply claimed that “they are not refugees.”
“While [the ministry] says they are not refugees, it does not make any
attempt to deport them either,” continued Lewkowicz.
Responding to the Eritreans’ claims, Interior Ministry spokeswoman
Sabene Hadad said that the community “had a nerve protesting
considering that Israel is much more welcoming than many other countries
in the region.”
“It is not up to the Israeli government to appoint them refugee status,” said
Hadad, who claimed rather that it was the role of United Nations to make
such a decision.
“In an unusual move, however, which is based solely on humanitarian
concerns, the Interior Ministry has decided to let them continue living here
and will not deport them back to Eritrea,” she added.
Asmaram, however, maintained that the issue of status was the Israeli
government’s responsibility. “We asked the UN why it will not grant us
asylum but they say it’s up to the government and they don’t have the
power,” he said. “All we are asking is that we are given the chance to prove
our need for safe refuge until the situation in our country improves.”
Calls to the UN for a response were unreturned Tuesday.