Migrants from Ethiopia and Eritrea queue in line during a food distribution near the former "jungle" in Calais, France, August 23, 2017. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Deporting illegal immigrants: Israel’s unresolved challenge


The challenge of having to deal with illegal immigration is an international challenge. It is also an Israeli challenge that Israel’s Supreme Court addressed yesterday in a ruling that was as misunderstood by the angry Israelis responding to it, as it was controversial. Generally speaking, Israel under Prime Minister Netanyahu did a superb job in stopping the main route of illegal infiltration from Africa via Egypt. A fence was erected, tougher means were adopted, and the fence essentially halted all illegal entrance through the Sinai Peninsula.

But one challenge lingers: dealing with those who already entered the country. A large community of illegal immigrants resides in southern Tel Aviv, and this community turned several neighborhoods into slums. The government attempts to erode their numbers by various means, but there are hurdles making this goal more difficult than expected.

One problem is that many of these immigrants come from countries to which they cannot return (Eritrea, Sudan), countries that are likely to persecute them. To overcome this challenge the Israel government signed an agreement with other countries (Rwanda, Uganda) that are willing to take in the immigrants, but there is a caveat: these countries will only take them in if they come out of their own free will. The government needs to convince the infiltrators to leave and cannot force them out.

A remedy for this problem was found using a variety of means: financial compensation for those willing to leave was one of them; arrest of those unwilling to leave was another one. The court, in its controversial ruling, limited the second tool to an extent that makes it completely inefficient. The country, the court ruled, can only detain these stubborn residents for two months. After two months, they must to be released.

The government responded to the ruling with expected, and somewhat justified, fury. Telling the immigrants that after two months they will be released takes the bite out of this means of persuasion. It is like telling the government that it has the right to limit the speed of cars but is forbidden from fining the drivers who exceed that limit.

Naturally, the court sees things differently. If the terms signed with other countries are that the immigrants will be leaving willingly, arrest violates these terms. In other words, arresting a person until he is willing to leave violates the meaning of free will. The court did not tell the state that it cannot deport illegal immigrants forcibly. It can. But to do this it will have to find a country willing to take in these deportees.

So, there are two institutions tricking one another here: The government is gaming the condition of free will by putting pressure on the immigrants to leave willingly. The court is gaming the policy of the government by limiting it in a way that makes it null.

What can the government do when the court ties its hands? The immediate response was to argue for new legislation.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and PM Netanyahu all said on Aug. 28 new legislation is the option they will pursue. Israel has a three-pronged approach to halting the flow of infiltrators, Netanyahu said. They include the fence at the border, the deportation agreements and implementation of the policy of deportation.

“In light of today’s developments, we will have to legislate new laws so we can enforce our policy of removing these illegal infiltrators from our country’s borders,” the PM said. Whether the court accepts such a move or declares it unconstitutional is another matter. Whether the countries’ willing to accept deported infiltrators accept this move or accept the court’s interpretation is also another matter.

The larger issue is the delicate balance that needs to be maintained between the interest of the country –- not to have illegal immigrants stay -– and the rights of the infiltrators –- not to suffer from inhuman treatment even though their act of entering the country was illegal.

It is natural that the government is more interested in the policies and less in the rights of illegal immigrants. It is the role of the court to moderate this tendency. Thus, the controversy and frustration of Israelis following the court’s ruling is a sign of a functioning system.

David Siegel’s tachlis diplomacy


Teaching Eritrean soldiers drip-irrigation technology was not how David Siegel envisioned the start of his career in public diplomacy. But that’s exactly where he found himself in 1995, when he was assigned to be deputy chief of mission at the Israel Embassy in Eritrea in the heyday of the Oslo Accords.

“Israel was reaching out to African countries, and Eritrea was ending its civil war,” he told me over coffee last week at Factor’s Deli. “Growing their food supply through agriculture was a huge priority for them, so we offered our help, and they were very grateful.”

That lesson must have stuck, because two decades later, as Israel’s consul general to the Southwestern United States, Siegel is still offering Israel’s help.

At a time when the pro-Israel community is struggling to find effective responses to threats like the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, Siegel’s approach has been remarkably concrete and simple: Make Israel helpful.

“Israel has so much to offer to so many groups,” he said. “Why not take advantage of that?”

Since he began his tenure in 2011, he has indeed followed that practical approach — what he calls “tachlis diplomacy.” He rattled off a long list of agreements between Israel and local groups that have showcased Israel’s value to the region.

The biggest is the Israel-California Strategic Partnership, signed on March 5, 2014, by Gov. Jerry Brown and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Their memorandum of understanding has formalized a strategic partnership between California and Israel in areas such as water conservation, cybersecurity, biotechnology, education, innovation, agricultural technology and cultural exchanges.

But Siegel’s office has also been involved with partnerships more tailored to local needs.

In West Hollywood, for example, Siegel and his team reached out to neighborhood leaders and established an HIV/AIDS task force that has connected medical experts and groups in West Hollywood with their counterparts in Israel.

Siegel has taken this “How can Israel help?” approach to other municipalities throughout the region, as well as to ethnic groups such as the Latino and African-American communities. The idea is to further entrench Israel’s standing as an invaluable asset.

Just like those Eritrean soldiers who appreciated learning about drip irrigation, the result of all these partnerships, he said, is plain old gratitude.

“It’s all about building relationships based on real needs,” he said.

And yet, so much of this positive activity has remained beneath the radar. Media coverage of Israel frequently revolves around the drama of conflict. Remember the incident a few years ago when a Jewish UCLA student running for office was asked if her Jewish identity would bias her performance? That one incident probably got more media coverage than all of the initiatives Siegel’s office has undertaken.

This is the nature of the media beast, and Siegel knows it. The BDS movement, in particular, is so loud and aggressive that it has become a nonstop media magnet. Siegel’s office has done its share to fight anti-Israel propaganda, and to become a resource center and unifying force for all pro-Israel groups. But his biggest contribution has been proactive, not reactive. “It’s not enough to fight back,” he said. “You also have to build things. And Israel is very good at building things.”

So, while Israel’s enemies have been screaming about boycotting Israel, Siegel and his team have quietly built a wide network of bipartisan partnerships that promote the exact opposite of boycotting.

Inside the Jewish community, Siegel has also been proactive, working to bridge differences with Israel on issues such as the Women of the Wall. 

Siegel is careful to give plenty of credit to his predecessors, whose efforts he said he’s building on.

In a way, the story of his five-year tenure, which ends this summer, has been the story of Israel itself: Focus on the concrete while the enemy focuses on PR. It’s clear that the ultimate PR victory for Israel will come only when its conflict with its Arab enemies ends. But who knows when that will happen?

Until then, local diplomats like Siegel will continue to make the case for Israel with everything at their disposal. They can’t influence the peace process, but they can influence how Israel contributes to local communities.

When we met, Siegel spoke of the need to “normalize” Israel. I knew what he was trying to say: Because of the way Israel is unfairly targeted by so much of the world, being seen as “normal” would be a wonderful upgrade.

But what I could have told him is this: When a tiny country surrounded by enemies can become so helpful to the rest of the world, well, there’s nothing normal about that.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

As Europe takes in migrants, Israel tries to keep them out


With hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring across the borders of the European Union, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced a landmark change in policy last month: Germany would begin to accept Syrian refugees, no matter how they got there.

Four days later, Israeli Interior Minister Silvan Shalom made a statement on the same topic, but with a different tone: Israel would do everything possible, he said, to remove migrants from its borders.

“I continue to fight, with all my effort, against the phenomenon of illegal infiltration, in light of the hundreds of thousands of infiltrators to Europe in these days and hours,” Shalom wrote Aug. 28 on Facebook, using the government’s term for migrants. “I will not relent until we reach a framework that will allow the removal of the infiltrators from Israel.”

As Europe struggles to handle the influx of migrants on its shores, the issue of illegal migrants again has risen in Israel, which has been grappling with the issue for nearly a decade. While EU policy is now being directed toward finding a way to absorb the migrants, the Israeli government is still focused on getting them out.

“Israel, in order to limit [migration], calls them infiltrators,” noted Karin Amit, head of the master’s program on immigration and social integration at Israel’s Ruppin Academic Center. “It doesn’t classify them as asylum seekers. It doesn’t expel them, but relates to them as people who aren’t supposed to be here.”

According to Israel’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, more than 60,000 African migrants crossed into Israel illegally from Egypt between 2006 and 2012. The migrants, mostly from Eritrea, say they’re seeking asylum from a brutal dictatorship. Some 45,000 remain in the country.

But the government has viewed them as economic migrants looking for work and, with rare exceptions, has not recognized them as refugees.

In 2012, Israel built a border fence with Egypt, all but blocking illegal migration. It is now extending the fence along its eastern border with Jordan. Since 2012, the Israeli government has requested that the migrants in the country leave, giving cash grants to those who depart for their homes or some other African country. The government also has detained thousands of migrants since 2013 in Holot, a detention facility adjacent to a prison on the Egyptian border. Last month, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that detainees must be released from Holot after a maximum stay of 12 months.

“The state has a duty to foreigners, including refugees and asylum seekers,” said the court decision, issued Aug. 11. “Basic human rights aren’t denied to a person even if he enters a country illegally.”

Europe is on pace to take in approximately 600,000 migrants this year, including those who came illegally, according to EU figures. Many are fleeing Syria’s civil war. The number — less than 0.2 percent of the EU population — is proportional to Israel’s absorption in 2011 of some 17,000 refugees in a population of nearly 8 million.

When Germany announced its policy change last month, it called on other European countries to accept their share of migrants, too.

“The people granted residence rights in the EU must be distributed fairly within the Union,” the Aug. 24 statement from the German government said. “This fair distribution of the burden is not currently assured.”

But anti-immigrant sentiment runs strong in many corners of Europe, evident in the growing support for far right, anti-immigrants parties like the National Front in France, Golden Dawn in Greece and the Independence Party in the United Kingdom. In addition, the EU has come under criticism for failing to formulate a coordinated, comprehensive response to the influx of migrants coming by sea via illegal smugglers. Many migrants have died en route after being placed on overloaded, rickety boats that capsize or are abandoned by smugglers in the waters of the Mediterranean.

Thus far, southern European countries like Italy, Greece and the Balkan nations have borne much of the load of absorbing immigrants. Harrowing scenes of refugee boats capsizing in the Mediterranean Sea have pushed EU officials to address the issue and reexamine the EU’s immigration laws, which say migrants can claim asylum only in the first EU country they enter.

Advocates for asylum seekers in Israel long have called on the Jewish state to adopt the approach Germany is taking. Aid groups want the Israeli government to determine migrants’ status and allow them to live and work in Israel as long as they face danger in their home states.

“In Europe, they understand the difference between migrants and refugees,” said Sigal Rozen, the public policy coordinator for the aid group Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. “In Israel, they just define refugees as labor infiltrators. As soon as that term was established, not just with [government] decision makers but with the court system, it’s hard to convince the public that we should give room to all these labor infiltrators.”

Israel has not absorbed any refugees from Syria — a country with which it has technically been at war for decades. On Saturday, Knesset opposition leader Issac Herzog called on Israel to take in Syrian refugees. But speaking to his cabinet on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the notion that Israel could be a safe haven for refugees from either Syria or Africa.

“Israel is not indifferent to the human tragedy of the refugees from Syria and Africa,” Netanyahu said. “But Israel is a small country, a very small country, that lacks demographic and geographic depth. Therefore, we must control our borders, against both illegal migrants and terrorism.”

Israel has set up a field hospital on the Syrian border whose staff has treated some 1,000 Syrian wounded.

Israelis, according to polls, agree with their prime minister. In 2012, some 86 percent of Israelis said they viewed African migrants as “a danger to Israel.” European citizens, too, don’t appear to have much appetite for absorbing asylum seekers. A 2014 Pew Research Center poll showed that vast majorities in Italy, Greece, France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Poland and Germany want immigration to decrease or stay the same.

Migrants draw little support in Israel because of Israel’s concern with maintaining an overwhelmingly Jewish majority and due to security concerns. Migrants, although they comprise less than 1 percent of Israel’s population, are portrayed as adding to the demographic problem.

Anti-migrant protests have been especially strong in south Tel Aviv, where many migrants live and where longtime residents — often poor themselves — say their way of life has been upset. And Israelis fear that a porous border could bring terrorists as well as asylum seekers.

Amit of the Ruppin Center says that as the European Union continues to struggle with migrant absorption, it may move closer to Israel’s approach. On Thursday, Israeli news sites reported that Hungary and Bulgaria were in talks with an Israeli company about possibly building a border fence like Israel’s, though Amit says she doubts that countries four times Israel’s size can “hermetically seal” their borders.

“Now there’s a feeling of a flood,” Amit said. “There are voices in Europe of ‘If we let them in, more will come.’”

But she said a cultural difference may separate the German response from Israel’s. While Israel, born after the Holocaust, has remained vigilant about maintaining a Jewish majority, Germany may see the Holocaust as a reason to open its borders to victims of tragedy.

“There’s a desire to atone for what had been done,” she said. “Because of what happened before, they feel that they’re repaying a debt and they can take in foreigners. Israeli immigration policy is for people with Jewish origins.”

Leaving Israel, Africans face detention, possibly death


“When the conflict started in the Darfur region and we came to Israel, all the people knew why,” said Yeman Adam, a 30-year-old Sudanese asylum seeker who fled to Israel in 2008. “The media was making comparisons between the Holocaust and Darfur genocide, and the Israeli government accepted us.”

As he spoke, Adam sat in the underground headquarters for the group he founded, the Dakaraw Termenan Organization: a freshly painted white room in South Tel Aviv lined in shut-down computers and fringed in royal-blue curtains. The room was empty except for Adam and two friends. They all come from the Masalit tribe, one of various Darfuri tribes targeted by the Sudanese government.

“We used to have hundreds of people in this office. You couldn’t find a chair to sit here,” Adam continued. But now, thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers are being pushed out of Tel Aviv — some returning to Africa, and others moving to the Holot detention facility in southern Israel, the new prison complex constructed near the border with the Sinai desert.

Adam and the handful of Masalit tribe members still living in Tel Aviv have been trying to get in touch with seven men in their tribe, all of whom departed Israel for Sudan’s Khartoum International Airport within the last few weeks.

They’ve all gone missing.

Those seven missing Masalit are part of a growing crisis. Since the exodus began in December, almost 3,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers, of approximately 55,000 who had settled in Israel and are now facing prison, have chosen instead to depart to either Sudan, Eritrea or a third African country — namely, Uganda or Rwanda.

From left: Feisel Adam, Hassan Rahima and Yeman Adam, Sudanese community organizers, met at their office in South Tel Aviv.

Abdulmalik Abdalla, a dimply 30-year-old who worked at hotels across Israel for the last few years, is on the Masalit tribe’s disappearance list. On Feb. 18, the day before he left for Sudan, he and his friends shared a bottle of whiskey and a giant platter of chicken wings in a closet-sized apartment in the run-down Neve Sha’anan neighborhood of South Tel Aviv. A cloth hanging over the room’s small window fluttered on an unusually warm winter breeze. Abdalla’s eyes watered some as he talked about how excited he was to see his family, from which he had been separated for more than a decade.

Abdalla still hasn’t gotten that chance. Sudanese security officials told a friend who came to meet Abdalla at the airport that Abdalla had been taken into custody.

No one has heard from Abdalla since he departed Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport on Feb. 19.

“We’re hearing about hundreds of people being arrested” upon arrival to Sudan, said Rami Gudovitch, a longtime advocate for African refugees in Israel who also teaches philosophy at Haifa University and the Interdisciplinary Center. Gudovitch has been compiling data based on testimony from his hundreds of contacts in the refugee community; he estimates that a minimum of 500 asylum seekers who returned to Sudan from Israel are behind bars.

Seven of those Sudanese men, he said, are believed to be dead.

Hundreds of African asylum seekers waited outside an extension office for the Israeli Ministry of Interior, hoping to renew their visas, on March 4.

This botched African exodus from Israel is the result of a plan revealed by Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar last August. According to Israeli news site Ynet.com, Sa’ar said in a government meeting that “a wide-scale deportation campaign will begin following the coming holidays,” starting with a period of “willing deportation” and ending with the mass cancellation of visas and forced expulsion.

Come December 2013, as promised, the plan entered its first stage, and the Ministry of Interior began offering $3,500 to any asylum seeker who agreed to relocate.

In accordance with United Nations guidelines, Israel is not forcibly deporting any Eritrean or Sudanese nationals back to their volatile home countries. At a press conference on March 4, Sa’ar stressed that “everyone who leaves, whether to his country of origin or a third country, leaves of his own free will.”

But according to dozens of asylum seekers who spoke to the Jewish Journal, the decision to depart to Sudan and Eritrea, as well as Uganda and Rwanda, is made under intense pressure.

“The fact that they’re taking the money and going back does not make them less of refugees,” said Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator for Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Israel’s oldest nonprofit assisting the Africans. “It only means that the life here is so horrible that they will take the risk with the hope of finding another country that will protect them.”

Sudanese and Eritrean nationals staying in Israel face two options: indefinite detention at Holot, the remote desert prison, or life under constant fear of losing their visas (and therefore their livelihood). Thousands are turning in applications for asylum, but the Ministry of Interior has only reported three approvals. As reporter Michael Omer-Man pointed out in Israel’s liberal +972 Magazine, government authorities have provided asylum seekers “the most basic protection — against deportation to their home countries — but in all other ways treated them like infiltrators.”

Filmon Ghide, 20, was forced to sleep in South Tel Aviv's central Levinsky Park when the Ministry of Interior wouldn't renew his visa so he could work.

Since the Holot detention facility was unveiled in early December, around 3,500 asylum seekers, seemingly the ones who’ve been in Israel the longest, have been summoned to the prison without trial for the crime of illegally crossing the border.

Food and medicine at the prison are severely lacking, as evidenced by cellphone photos snapped by prisoners inside. “If we complain, [prison staffers] tell us, 'Then why don't you go home?’ ” Muhamad Musa, formerly a jewelry shop owner in Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station, told the Journal. Other prisoners said jail officials constantly pressure them to accept the government’s offer of $3,500 and a flight out.

Life isn’t much easier for those who remain in the city. On a recent Tuesday, what looked to be about 800 Africans, including women and children, crowded around the gates to a newly opened Ministry of Interior building especially for African migrants. The offices, tucked between warehouses and office buildings on a hidden alley in North Tel Aviv, opened just last week — an alternative to the much more visible Ministry of Interior building nearby, situated at a major intersection across from the Azrieli Center mall.

“Why did they change places? Because there are 700 people in line, and everybody will pass by and see the problem,” said Eritrean asylum seeker Filmon Ghide. (The ministry did not respond to a request for comment.)

“They are kicking me like a soccer ball from office to office,” he said.

Approximately 1,000 asylum seekers protested outside the Holot detention facility for “illegal infiltrators” in the Israeli desert on Feb. 17.

On that Tuesday, a cluster of asylum seekers quickly formed around a reporter who had come to check out the new location. “Every day I come here [to the Ministry of Interior]. I am not yet sleeping here, but some are,” said Fitsum Tesfasilase, 36, who has been attempting — unsuccessfully — to renew his visa for more than a month. “We can’t make our rent. We can’t feed ourselves. Before, I worked cleaning the streets — black work. But now I can’t support my wife and my child.” Because Tesfasilase escaped forced, indefinite military service in Eritrea after 13 years as a soldier, he said he would likely face life in prison, or worse, if he returned to Eritrea.

Semere Abraham, 24, another Eritrean waiting in the line-turned-mob, said that a close friend of his named Merhawe had accepted Israel’s offer to fly to Uganda about two weeks ago. However, he said, the plan went terribly wrong: Merhawe was detained at the Uganda airport, flown to Egypt, detained again, and then sent against his wishes to Eritrea. “I was calling to his house [in Eritrea], and his mother was crying,” Abraham said. “He’s in the prison now.”

Last summer, Israeli officials announced that Uganda had agreed to accept some of Israel’s unwanted Africans. Ugandan officials, however, quickly denied the deal — and have denied it ever since. Musa Ecweru, who heads refugee affairs at Uganda’s Ministry for Relief and Disaster Preparedness, told the Journal: “I have not been formally informed of this. I just heard in the news.”

Ecweru added: “I don’t know why they would even want to come here and not relocate to Eritrea.”

And Yolande Makolo, a spokeswoman in Rwanda’s Office of the President, said: “That’s really interesting. This is the first I’m hearing of this. Let me get back to you.” Makolo did not respond to multiple attempts to follow up.

Israel’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority has become equally tight-lipped. “The only thing we can confirm is that there are some of them who are flying to another country and not their homeland,” a spokeswoman said via e-mail.

A waiting room on the seventh floor of the Population, Immigration and Border Authority building in South Tel Aviv is plastered with dozens of signs that say “No Exit Through Window.”

However, according to multiple Eritrean and Sudanese men who have been trying to renew their visas at the Israeli Ministry of Interior, government staffers are telling them that they have the option to be relocated not only to Uganda but also to next-door Rwanda.

This is incredibly distressing, said Dismas Nkunda of the International Refugee Rights Initiative — not to mention, he said, “absolutely illegal by both Israel” and the other countries.

Uganda and Rwanda are still dealing with their own refugee crises, and without a formal relocation overseen by the United Nations, according to Nkunda and other human-rights experts, there is no guarantee that Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers will receive the protection they need.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has yet to intervene. However, a UNHCR spokesman issued a statement to the Journal demanding that any state, including Israel, “refrain from any future measure that could directly or indirectly lead to the return of a person to a country where his or her life or freedom would be threatened.”

In a series of interviews, Eritrean asylum seeker Ghide, 20, said five of his friends received $3,500 each from the Israeli government to board a plane to Rwanda in the past three weeks. Over the phone from Rwanda, his friends now tell him that around 30 asylum seekers from Israel are in the Central African country; in addition, according to Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a plane carrying more of them to Rwanda departed Tuesday night.

Ghide said he would never accept the deal. His own father has been imprisoned for years under the current dictator, Isaias Afewerki, for worshipping and preaching as a Protestant Christian, and he’s afraid that Eritrean government would kidnap him from Uganda or Rwanda and shut him, too, in an underground jail. Nevertheless, the young Eritrean said, he understands his friends’ decision.

“Jail in your own country can be better than living in another country as a prisoner,” he said, “because maybe you will find a guard or something to send a message to your mother or father. And after six or seven years, maybe they will release you.”

Hundreds of African asylum seekers waited outside an extension office for the Israeli Ministry of Interior, hoping to renew their visas, on March 4.

Ghide said his friends in Rwanda also told him by phone that an anonymous official met them at the airport and gave them money to stay at a hotel for a couple of nights. But now they’re panicking, he said, because “they cannot get work and nobody is helping them. They are so worried about it.”

Another group of seven asylum seekers from Sudan spoke to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz from Uganda after leaving Israel in mid-February.

NGOs are having trouble keeping up with this chaotic scattering of Israel’s asylum seekers across Africa. Rozen at Hotline for Refugees and Migrants said she received information from the UNHCR that one Eritrean man whom Israel tried to relocate to Rwanda was immediately put on a plane to Eritrea by Rwandan authorities.

“There are a lot of weird stories — there’s one story about a group that ended up finding themselves in Chad,” said Gudovitch. The Israeli activist is scrambling to compile a comprehensive list of the departed by early April, when the Supreme Court of Israel is set to review a petition against the law allowing indefinite detention at Holot.

According to those tracking the departures, Eritrea has seen the fewest voluntary returns. Although the nation is not as globally infamous as, say, Darfur, asylum seekers say life under authoritarian rule has become intolerable. In December 2010, the U.S. ambassador to Asmara, Eritrea’s capital city, wrote in a leaked embassy cable: “Young Eritreans are fleeing their country in droves, the economy appears to be in a death spiral, Eritrea's prisons are overflowing, and the country's unhinged dictator remains cruel and defiant.” Every year since 2007, Eritrea has placed dead last on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index; the organization writes that “the few journalists who dare to criticize the regime are thrown in prison.” Swedish-Eritrean journalist Meron Estefanos has called it “the North Korea of Africa.”

Meanwhile, Israeli government officials have boasted about the thousands of 2014 departures without acknowledging the dangers facing refugees. “Every week now, there are fewer infiltrators in Israel,” Sa’ar announced at his March 4 press conference.

Filmon Ghide, far right, helped translate for fellow Eritrean asylum seeker Fitsum Tesfasilase outside Tel Aviv's new visa office. “I was forced to serve in the military for 13 years as a slave, and I ran away in the night,” Tesfasilase said in his native language of Tegrinyia.

Massive asylum-seeker rallies against Sa’ar’s policies in January and February have dwindled in recent weeks. “The government of Israel has done a tremendous job convincing the Israeli public that all these people are work infiltrators, and that we should keep them away as quickly as possible,” said Rozen with Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. “This is actually our main problem.”

A skit staged by three asylum seekers in Holot’s front parking lot on March 8, with two busloads of Tel Aviv visitors as audience, poked fun at Israel’s deportation tactics. One Sudanese actor, pretending to be an Israeli government worker, whispered temptations into community leader Anwar Suliman’s ear — telling him how peaceful Sudan had become and how great it would be to see his family. After a few minutes of these sweet lies, to wild laughter, Suliman scribbled his signature onto the voluntary return form and threw his hands up in defeat.

In reality, Sudan is still incredibly dangerous, said 38-year-old Hassan Rahima, a widely respected community leader and head of the Organization of Sudanese Refugees in Israel, an umbrella organization for various tribal groups. “I cannot go back. I lost before my whole family: I was in my area in the Nuba Mountains, and my mother, my brother and my sister were all killed in front of my eyes. I was in jail for three months. Then the boss of the jail took me to where he lived and kept me as his slave for three years. I was cleaning the house and washing the clothes. I brought water to the house from the river on my back. All the time, they sent me to get water.”

The government that would meet him at the Khartoum International Airport, Rahima said, “is the same government who committed these crimes in the Nuba Mountains.”

‘You’ll be free. Welcome!’: Seeking asylum


Daniel Angosom was just 18 when he escaped a lifetime of compulsory army service in Eritrea, fleeing to Sudan through his country’s northern border. It was in Sudan, while working as a cattle herder, that Angosom — like thousands of African asylum seekers before him — was kidnapped and sold to Bedouin gangs in the Sinai desert.

“They covered my eyes with a cloth and burned my head and neck with metal rods,” Angosom, now a lanky 21-year-old with a shadow of a mustache, remembered of his time as a Bedouin captive.

After months of torture and near-starvation, his family back in Eritrea was able to scrape together $35,000 for his ransom: “My mother sold her gold, and we sold all our cattle,” he said. So his captors dumped him at the Israeli border fence, where he expected to be taken in as a refugee. (About three-quarters of Eritreans and Sudanese who apply for asylum in countries that signed the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, like Israel, are approved.)

Instead, Angosom was jailed for entering the country illegally. He is now being held at the Holot detention facility, the newest jail within Israel’s expanding desert prison compound for “illegal infiltrators.” He spoke to the Journal while sitting at a freshly painted red picnic bench just outside prison grounds; the desert stretched for miles in every direction, cold and silent.

“When I first entered inside Israel, I was very happy because it’s a democratic country,” said Filmon Mengstab, 27, Angosom’s closest friend at Holot. Long, spindly scars mark his arms and legs where bandits branded him with red-hot iron and extinguished their cigarettes into his flesh. Mengstab said his Bedouin captors also forced him to have sex with other prisoners and raped Eritrean women in front of him.

When he got to Israel, Mengstab said, “The army told me, ‘You will be free. Welcome.’ ”

Yet, Mengstab and Angosom have been behind bars in Israel’s desolate south for over a year now, alongside thousands of their peers. First, they were held at Saharonim, a closed jail with a capacity of about 3,000 prisoners, including women and children. But under a new Israeli law passed in December, male prisoners are now transferred to Holot after a year of good behavior at Saharonim — and can be held there indefinitely.

The Israel Prison Service has labeled Holot an “open facility” because prisoners can walk freely in- and outside the barbed prison fence. They can’t go far, though, because they must check in with guards three times per day.

“I don’t do anything — I just eat and sleep,” said Haspel Karim Youssef, 22, of Darfur. He’s been in prison for 15 months. “Every day, every hour, the same.”

Migrants living in Tel Aviv can also be sent to the prison complex, without trial, after any run-in with the cops. Micky Rosenfeld, foreign press spokesman for the Israel Police, said that if, during questioning, police find out that an African migrant has no residency papers or refugee status, he will be arrested and “transferred down south to Holot.”

Darfuri theater troupe actor and barbershop worker Babi Ibrahim, for example, was reportedly arrested in July when he couldn’t provide a receipt for a bicycle parked outside his shop. And according to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, another woman was detained when she reported being raped.

Since December, some 500 to 1,000 asylum seekers living in Israel have been summoned to Holot while trying to reapply for visas, a spokeswoman for the Hotline said. (The Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration did not respond to multiple requests for confirmation of this statistic.)

“Israeli authorities have detained and invited our husbands, fathers and sons to go to Holot,” Sudanese activist Sumaya Nedey said at a recent protest. “They put us in detention in order to break our minds.”

Afraid of running into immigration police, she said, “We fear to go to work and meet with friends. Fear has taken the streets of Tel Aviv.”

The majority of African asylum seekers in Israel come from Eritrea. “Eritrea is known as the North Korea of Africa,” Sweden-based Eritrean activist and journalist Meron Estefanos said. “Every kid knows that you are the property of the state. By the time you’re 17, you know you’re going to go to the military camp … and you will be stuck doing national service for the rest of your life. The only way to get out is by leaving the country.” Temesghen Haile, 34, another prisoner at Holot, confirmed this, saying he served more than 10 years as a guard along the Ethiopian border before escaping Eritrea. Haile was under orders to shoot any Ethiopian on sight.

After helping a group of Eritrean captives round up ransom money to pay their Bedouin kidnappers in 2011, Estefanos became the go-to contact for desperate victims and their families; to this day, she fields innumerable panicked phone calls.

“The torture gets worse and worse and worse,” she said. “[The captors] sit all day and night trying to think what’s the worst thing they could do. They’re sadistic.”

Eritrean asylum seekers in captivity have phoned Estefanos with stories of being chained together in a puddle of cold water, then electrocuted until they pass out. “They will rape you to make you feel ashamed, and force you to rape each other,” she said. “They will call your parents and make them listen while they are burning you. They will hang you and make everyone eat for three or four days with your dead body hanging next to them.”

Estefanos added that if escapees are sent back to Eritrea, they are sure to be imprisoned for life. So even though Israeli authorities have offered $3,500 to any African who returns to his country voluntarily, prisoners at Holot said they would rather remain, holding out hope that Israel will change its mind or the U.N. will intervene.

Now, Estefanos is also taking calls from Eritreans stuck at Israel’s Holot and Saharonim detention centers.

“In Eritrea, it’s a dictatorship, so it’s expected. There’s no way out,” Estefanos said. But, in Israel, “You have convinced yourself that you’re in a democratic country where you have rights. Not knowing [your fate] is what’s worst.”

Thousands of African migrants protest outside Israeli parliament


More than 10,000 African migrants demonstrated outside Israel's parliament on Wednesday, extending protests into a fourth consecutive day in a quest for recognition as refugees and freedom to work legally without fear of incarceration.

Their presence in a Jewish state that took in survivors of the Nazi Holocaust of World War Two has stoked an emotional political debate over whether they should be allowed to stay as a humane gesture.

“I want to say to them that they should not fear us, we are human beings too,” a tall, slim 25-year-old man from Eritrea, who gave his name only as Mulugieta, told Reuters.

Some 60,000 migrants, largely from Eritrea and Sudan, have entered Israel without authorization across a once-porous border with Egypt since 2006. Many hope for asylum and say they cannot return home without risking their lives.

Israel says most are illegal job-seekers. It passed a law three weeks ago allowing for indefinite detention of migrants without valid visas while it pursues efforts to persuade them to leave or enlist other countries to take them in.

Mulugieta said he fled Eritrea six years ago, fearing that his criticism of its rulers had put him in danger.

“We asked for shelter, we do not deserve jail,” read one of many large banners in a park opposite the Israeli Knesset as the crowd demonstrated against Israel's refusal to grant them refugee status.

“Being black is not a crime,” another sign said.

Many of the migrants live in impoverished neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial centre, and work as cleaners and dish-washers. They have gone on strike at restaurants as part of a protest campaign that included a large demonstration in the Mediterranean seaside city on Sunday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this week he views the African influx – since stemmed by an Israeli fence along the Egyptian frontier – as a threat to Israel's Jewish social fabric.

Miri Regev, a member of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, said it was time to send the migrants, whom she dubbed “infiltrators”, away.

“Stop being bleeding-hearts,” Regev said on Israel Radio, referring to Israeli activists seeking to help the Africans.

FOUR DAYS OF PROTESTS

It was the fourth straight day of protests by the migrants, who on Monday marched to foreign embassies in Tel Aviv to appeal for international intervention.

Protester Mulugieta said: “Everyone has come across the border, we escaped the war but they fear us (here) … we are not the enemy of the Israeli public.”

Dozens of migrants have been summoned for detention at a specially-built centre in Israel's Negev desert, where they are allowed to leave for brief periods during the day but must return at nightfall, activists said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said Israel's detention policy towards the migrants caused “hardship and suffering” and was not in line with a 1951 world treaty on the treatment of refugees.

Outside parliament, several left-wing legislators addressed the crowd. Erel Margalit of the opposition Labour Party apologized to the protesters after Parliament Speaker Yuli Edelstein refused to allow a delegation in to meet lawmakers.

David Grossman, a writer identified with the Israeli left-wing, told the protesters that the Jewish state's treatment of the migrants was shameful.

“I look at you now … I feel embarrassed and ashamed,” Grossman said in English. “Israel has not created this problem, but there is a problem now (and) we have to struggle with it and to solve it in the most humane way.”

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich

NGO: Eritrean asylum seekers pressured to leave Israel


Israel attempted to deport 25 Eritrean asylum seekers in violation of international conventions, according to an Israeli NGO supporting the rights of migrants.

A group of some 25 Eritrean refugees were pressured by Israeli immigration officials to sign a declaration saying they would agree to be deported to Uganda and then discovered that they were scheduled to fly to Eritrea, the Hotline for Migrant Workers charged. The Eritreans refused to get on the plane.

A spokeswoman for the Population, Immigration, and Borders Authority, Sabine Haddad, told JTA that she did not know about a group of Eritreans facing possible return, but did say that hundreds of north Sudanese have agreed to be repatriated in recent months, as well as a small number of Eritreans.

Haddad added that her office is checking this particular incident, and said that in no case does Israel deport migrants against their will.

The Hotline for Migrant Workers told Haaretz that the asylum seekers were told they either can be repatriated to Eritrea or remain in prison in Israel for at least three years.

As a signatory of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Israel cannot deport asylum seekers. Israel grants Eritreans protection, but does not recognize them as refugees.

Eritreans make up more than 60 percent of the more than 60,000 illegal African migrants are who are believed to be in Israel, according to Haaretz.

Asylum seekers who return to Eritrea are in danger of persecution or even death at the hands of the Eritrean regime, rights groups say.

Israel’s refugee crisis: How about a Jewish response?


What shall be done about the large number of non-citizens who dwell in Israel?  This question is no longer merely vexing; it is urgent, inflammatory, sometimes violent, often vulgar.

The ger has a long and detailed history in Jewish texts and thought.  Its conventional translation is “stranger” but you don’t have to search hard to find alternatives: sojourner, foreigner, alien. 

Who are today’s aliens? There are some 14,000 migrant workers who entered the country legally but whose visas have expired or otherwise become void.  There are a number of Palestinians and Jordanians who work in Israel, some illegally.  There are more from other population groups.  And there’s the heart of the current matter, nearly 60,000 irregular immigrants, defined by the Ministry of the Interior as “infiltrators.”  They have arrived in Israel from Eritrea (60%), Sudan (25%), the balance from the Democratic Republic of Congo and other African countries; they come via Sinai, where many experience brutality from Bedouin gangs who guide them to the Israeli border.  Once in Israel, if identified as Sudanese or Eritrean, they are detained for a few weeks and then given a document that is, in effect, a deferred deportation order that must be periodically renewed and that explicitly states that it is not a work permit, plus a one-way bus ticket to Tel Aviv, where they are dropped at a park near the Central Bus Station.  And it is typically in that same neighborhood that they find shelter, work, and some social and medical services provided by volunteers.

These days, they also find rampant hostility from others in the neighborhood, hostility that has lately been marked by violence and by unambiguously racist slogans, hostility that has been encouraged by a number of Israeli politicians, most notably Eli Yishai, Minister of the Interior.  It is Yishai’s ministry that has formal responsibility for handling immigration issues, and the currently operative policy includes a law that was passed last January, holding that a camp shall be built near Saharonim, in the Negev, for these “illegals” (including their children), with buildings to house 13,600 of them and tents for the others.  The law provides that they may be detained there for three years or more.

The plan bumps head-on into two bodies of law.  First, there is the clear and repeated Biblical statement: “You shall not oppress a stranger, because you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt [Exodus 23:9]”  More proactively, in Deuteronomy [10:19]: “You are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.”  And still more: “There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you [Exodus 12:49]”.  It is difficult, to say the least, to square current Israeli policy with these precepts.

Still, the practical utility of such precepts is arguable.  Less arguable are the requirements of the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees, adopted in 1951 with Israel’s intense involvement and enthusiastic endorsement.  (Back then, the urgent problem was Europe’s displaced persons.) 

Who is a refugee?  The Convention, amended in a 1967 Protocol, defines the word: “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” 

No one reasonably argues that according to that language, the 60,000 irregular immigrants in Israel are not refugees.  But: Since 1948, Israel has awarded refugee status to exactly 166 people.  In recent years, Israel has categorically denied Eritreans and Sudanese access to refugee status determination, which leaves them in a legal limbo. And therein lies the outrage as also the plain violation of international law. 

The Convention also forbids the arbitrary detention of illegal immigrants – i.e., in this context, people who have entered Israel via Egypt.  Hence the plans for a massive detention center are also a violation of Israel’s legal obligations.

The Forward reports (June 17) growing recognition of these issues by Israel’s leadership.  Whereas Prime Minister Netanyahu said on May 29, in the immediate aftermath of the anti-immigrant rioting, “My policy on the matter of the illegal foreign workers is clear: First, stop their entry through the fence, while at the same time, expel all infiltrators from Israel,” by June 4 he admitted that Israel cannot consider deporting the vast majority of African immigrants, due to the poor political or humanitarian situation in their countries.  “It’s clear that we cannot return Sudanese and Eritreans to their countries,” Netanyahu said.

Presumably, that means that Israel now intends to finish the fence under construction along the Sinai border and to proceed with the development of the detention center near Saharonim. 

The truth is that any alternative policy is enormously complicated.  Making asylum a reality and enabling refugees to live in dignity raises endless problems.  But here’s another truth: We who were slaves – strangers, aliens – unto Pharaoh in Egypt, we who therefore know the heart of the stranger – ought we not insist that plausible claims for asylum be processed?  Or: If we expect others to acknowledge that Israel is a Jewish state, is it wrong to expect that it will behave as one?

Fire at apartment of Eritrean migrants called arson


A Jerusalem apartment home to migrant workers from Eritrea was set on fire.

Ten Eritreans were rescued from the burning apartment early Monday morning; four were injured in the blaze.

An initial investigation by the Jerusalem Fire Department found that the fire was the result of arson.

Investigators found on one of the apartment walls spray-painted graffiti that read “Get out of the neighborhood.”

The fire reportedly was set near the door of the apartment, making it nearly impossible for the occupants to escape.

More than a month ago, firebombs were thrown at several apartments in Tel Aviv that are home to African migrants.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Monday condemned violence against African migrants, calling the Jerusalem attack a “heinous crime.”

“No person has the right to violate the law and resort to violence against others, certainly not to endanger lives, for any reason whatsoever. Law and ethics prohibit any injury to the other, the guest and the foreigner. Jewish history compels us to take exceptional caution on these matters,” the ministry said in a statement.

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