‘Let my people stay’

January 29, 2014
By Suzanne Pollak
Senior Writer
About 35 Washington, D.C., residents gathered next to the Israeli Embassy last week in support of the Eritreans and Sudanese living in Israel who hope to obtain refugee status. Photo by Suzanne Pollak

About 35 Washington, D.C., residents gathered next to the Israeli Embassy last week in support of the Eritreans and Sudanese living in Israel who hope to obtain refugee status. Photo by Suzanne Pollak

The fate of the 53,000 Eritreans and Sudanese who entered Israel illegally rest on whether they are infiltrators, asylum seekers, illegal migrants, migrant workers or refugees.

To be granted the right to live and work freely in Israel, the government must rule that those entering its borders fled their homeland for fear of persecution. But the Eritreans and Sudanese more often than not came to Israel hoping to find work. They first passed through Egypt but did not choose to seek asylum there, hurting their plea for refugee status on humanitarian grounds.

And they are not Jews.

In an effort to make their plea heard throughout the world, a solidarity rally was held Jan. 22 in Israel and in front of about a dozen Israeli embassies throughout Europe and North America, including Washington, D.C. About 30 people braved the extreme cold here and joined what supporters said were thousands of people throughout the world.

Africans have been fleeing their homelands for many years hoping for a better life. They view Israel as a democracy in a sea of autocratic states, a land where they can start over.

The Israeli government has labeled these people infiltrators. They want to be considered asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are given a hearing and have their individual fate determined. Infiltrators are required to report to a detention center and are banned from working outside that facility.

“Infiltrators imply sinister intent, like illegal aliens here. Asylum seekers want protection from the country” they fled, explained Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS.

According to The Israel Project, anyone seeking asylum must request that status at the first country they arrive at, which in these cases is usually Egypt. They must state they are asking to stay for humanitarian reasons, but most of those entering Israel talk mostly of seeking work.

Therefore, Israel has no legal obligation to grant asylum, a spokesperson for the Israel Project explained.

Still, unlike the policies of many neighboring countries, they are not sent back, and they are given an allowance, room, board and health care.

Elinor K. Tesfamariam, an immigration attorney and one of the chief organizers of the D.C protest, said she believed Israel would be more willing to welcome these Africans if those who made it to Israel had the chance to present their facts.

“It is very disappointing. We do not expect Israel to take these kinds of measures,” said Tesfamariam, who was born in Eritrea. “Most of them are individuals who left their country because of genocide. Most of them have been trafficked. They suffered a lot before getting to Israel.”

About 15 American University students attended last week’s D.C. protest across the street from the Israeli embassy. They held their signs high as they spoke of the African’s misery they saw while in Israel participating in their college’s alternative break program.

“I am upset, because they can’t help where they were born. All they want is a fresh start in life, and I am upset that Israel is an immigrant state and they want to be a democratic state, and they won’t let these people in,” said one sophomore who didn’t want her name used.

“It’s a complicated situation in a complicated country,” added classmate Jes Walton of D.C.

Also attending the solidarity rally was Rabbi Charles Feinberg of Adas Israel Congregation. “I feel strongly about the Sudanese and Eritrean refugees who came across the border. They shouldn’t be treated as terrorists or enemies,” he said.

“This is a problem for the whole region. They need a process to handle this. Israel shouldn’t walk away from it,” Feinberg said.

Although the Israeli Embassy refused to comment on the actual protest held outside its building, it did release a statement on what it referred to as the illegal migrant’s issue.

Since 2006, about 64,000 people have entered Israel unlawfully and some have since voluntarily returned to their homeland, leaving 53,600 in Israel, according to the embassy statement.

“The Population and Immigration Authority, through its RSD (Refugee Status Determination) unit, has been examining hundreds of demands for asylum,” according to the embassy. “All applications are given thorough treatment.”

The embassy noted that “the sheer numbers and the range of issues raised present a significant challenge for the economic and social services of Israel – whose population is 8 million.”

It is difficult to work out a solution, the embassy noted. “Due to Israel’s unique geostrategic situation and the current political instability surrounding its borders, it becomes practically impossible to develop regional cooperative solutions with countries of origin and transit, as done by other developed countries, such as European countries and the U.S.”

Of the 53,600 mostly male Africans in Israel, about 67 percent are from Eritrea and 25 percent come from Sudan, Hetfield said. They had been flooding the border at the rate of about 2,000 to 3,000 a month, but the flow has all but halted following Israel’s erection of a fence along the Sinai. During the first 10 months of last year, only 36 people made it through to Israel.

“Basically, it’s down to a trickle. Israel really has gotten the problem under control,” Hetfield said. That is why he believes now would be a great time to re-evaluate the policy rather than continue to create what Hetfield described as a purposefully unwelcome atmosphere in hopes the Africans will choose on their own to leave Israel.
But according to many people at the protest, those coming into Israel cannot return to their homeland for fear of death.

Last month, the Knesset passed an amendment to its Anti-Infiltration Law that allows for detention without trial for up to a year of African asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally. The new, less-restrictive amendment replaces one that permitted the detention of asylum seekers without trial for a three-year period. That was ruled unconstitutional by the country’s court as it ruled the old law disproportionately impinged on a person’s right to liberty and was in conflict with Israel’s basic law regarding freedom and dignity.

Discussion among citizens and Knesset members continues as Israelis strive to come up with a solution for dealing with these generally unwelcome residents who represent slightly more than one-half a percent of the country’s population.

spollak@washingtonjewishweek.com

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