Israel’s new migration policy has been met with strong condemnation from the international community, and from Israeli citizens themselves. I recently attended the event, ‘Refugee Crisis in Israel: Live Witness Accounts’ to find out more about this issue.
That night at the ReDI School of Digital Integration, the room was packed, and a slight smell of cheese balls filled the air. I took a seat near the back, and looked around. Six people were sat on the stage, with another woman sitting just off-stage- she was the Tigrinya/English translator, and asked not to be included in any media footage.
Her reluctance to be filmed was shared by Said O, a man sitting on the far left-hand side of the stage. Said was sitting in a row next to Tesfalem F and Berihu A, all three of whom, are refugees from Eritrea, invited by the ReDI School, in partnership with the creative consulting agency, Good Point, to share their experience of Israel's new "Voluntary Departure" policy.
As we waited for the discussion to start, I watched the three men- their eyes moving across the room, their body-language protective, their expressions closed-off. These signs, in addition to their wish for anonymity, made me wonder what they must have experienced prior to, and during their journey to Germany- and what they must be thinking now, staring around at our predominantly light-skinned faces, all of us eager to glean some knowledge of their past.
Joining them on the stage were academic researchers, Liat Boltzman and Lior Birger, co-writers of the refugee testimonial report, "A Better Prison In Israel Than Dying on the Way", and Itay Mashiach, the presenter and coordinator of tonight's event.
Embarrassingly, as I sat down and waited for the discussion to begin, I realised that I knew very little about Israel's refugee policy, and for that matter, had only a vague idea of where Eritrea is on the world map! Once the talk began, and I listened to Itay's introductory speech about the treatment of African migrants, predominantly of Eritrean nationality, currently being expelled from Israel, I was shocked I hadn't heard more.
In around 2006, refugees started travelling to Israel, mainly from neighbouring countries, Sudan and Eritrea- roughly 8,000 from Sudan and 27,000 from Eritrea. These people had decided to flee their home countries due to unstable and dangerous dictatorships- in the case of Eritrea, a brutal police-state which arrests, imprisons and tortures citizens without just cause; forces young men into military service and labour camps; and applies a shoot-to-kill policy along its borders, effectively holding their citizens hostage. Said explains that the system is not balanced- they are forced to obey, but receive no rights in return. These actions constitute "systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations", said the UN in their recent Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea.
(torture method used in Eritrea- drawn by an Eritrean, and provided to the UN Commission of Inquiry)
The Eritrean refugee community, along with other African minority groups have been living peacefully in Israel for many years under "temporary protection"- they can speak Hebrew, they work, and some have started families of their own. They have applied for asylum, but their applications have either been ignored, or declined. Despite asylum acceptance rates for Eritreans in the EU resting at 91.4%, only 10 Eritreans and 1 Sudanese have been accepted as refugees in Israel- this is despite Israel being one of the first countries to sign the 1961 UN Refugee Declaration.
After explaining the history of migrants in Israel, Itay Mashiach initiates the first round of Q&A's in which he asks the speakers about their experience living in Israel. Halfway through speaking, Itay decides to switch to Hebrew, as it makes talking easier and, "their Hebrew is perfect!", he explains. Although Said, Tesfalem and Berihu were quite reticent, at one point when discussing Israel's migrant policy, Tesfalem became animated, and explained in fast Hebrew that if the African migrant community had posed any risk to Israel then forced expulsions would be more understandable, however, there have been no attacks- no reason to suddenly begin deportation: 'the prime minister says we are dangerous- but then, why has he let us stay for so long?'
Since late 2013, Israel introduced their new "Voluntary Departure" policy, declaring that all migrant groups living in Israel without refugee status are now 'illegal', and must leave within 3 months or face deportation. They are rounded-up and imprisoned in detention centers, such as the Holot Detention Facility and Sahoronim Prison, and given an ultimatum: Stay in Israel, detained indefinitely, or, take $3,500 and a plane ticket, and start a "dignified" new life in Rwanda, or Uganda.
On the assurance of safety, and a fair and functioning asylum procedure once they reach their destination, thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees have been flown back to West Africa. But, once they arrive, their documents are taken away from them (effectively making them illegal), and they are housed for one night in a hotel, before being left alone, with no identification papers. They are left vulnerable to attacks and violence from the local population, who are aware that they have large amounts of cash on them, and also prey to people smugglers, who take their money and promise them safe passage to Europe. Left alone, desperate, and stateless, they have no choice other than to make their second journey all the way from Rwanda, through Uganda and Sudan, across the Sahara desert into Libya, and across the Mediterranean. Many are murdered, or die from drowning, starvation or dehydration, and some are imprisoned in camps in South Sudan. Many others have just disappeared.
From the reports gathered, it is also suggested that Rwanda and Uganda are forcibly pushing these groups out of their country, across their borders- this is supported by the astonishing statistic that out of the 4,000 people who voluntarily left for Rwanda, only 9 now remain.
Throughout the discussion, Itay tried to bring the three Eritreans into the conversation, aware that they were sitting listening to some of what was being said, but unable to understand a lot of the English dialogue. Liat and Lior provided much of the legal analysis, and refugee testimonies taken from their research, however, the other stage members remained silent during this part- unwilling, or perhaps simply unable to begin to describe the horrors of their journey.
(Eritrean refugee migration path incl. journeys 1 & 2. Via The Nation )
At one moment, whilst discussing "Journey 2", the second migration path to Libya, Itay delicately tried to ask Tesfalem about his journey in the back of a Jeep through the Sahara desert- a story which Tesfalem had previously recounted to Itay and which had clearly moved him. He tentatively said to the audience that Tasfalem had witnessed a friend's death, and the translator asked Tesfalem about this- but no- Tesfalem did not want to speak about it, and remained very quiet, eyes cast down.
Said explained that crossing the Sahara normally takes 5 days; there are many accidents, and sometimes people fall off the cars, and are simply left in the desert to die. If you are still alive by the time you reach Sudan and Libya, you are then detained and kept in camps, which are basically prisons where sometimes there are 500 people in one room. They are given one bowl of pasta a day to live on, and never enough water. The people that guard them in Libya are violent, says Behiru, and their treatment is a reminder of the horrors experienced in the torture camps of Senai. The reason for their long journey is simple: they are trying to find is a place that is safe- a place where they can find democracy, says Said.
Despite the already draconian deportation procedures, Israel is amplifying these measures further by enforcing non-consensual deportation, "abandoning the fig-leaf of "voluntary" departure". They recently announced the closure of their detention facilities, which means that all remaining Eritrean, Sudanese and other migrant groups will be forcibly deported within the next 60 days.
(Picture of Israeli police arresting African asylum-seeker- via The Electronic Intifada)
Whilst this has been strongly condemned by the U.N, the secretive nature of the "Third Country Deal" with Uganda and Rwanda, makes it difficult to legally analyse, and therefore obstruct these measures. Rwanda and Uganda maintain their strenuous denial that a deal even exists! However, the hundreds of testimonies gathered from these expelled peoples tell a story of militaristic efficiency on the part of Israel- of manipulation, of brutality, and a disregard for their basic human rights.
"The problem is our skin!", exclaims Liat, as we discuss the possible reasons for why Israel has suddenly decided to protect its borders, "The problem is with the black ones, not the white ones." Liat is referring to the view, held by certain groups within Israel, that African migrants are 'infiltrators', and could fatally weaken Israel's Jewish cultural identity.
These words triggered a slight change in the atmosphere of the debate. The implicit disappointment and criticism of Israeli governmental policy became slightly more generalized, and explicit. One comment, which certainly ruffled some feathers was: "There are lots of Israeli's living in Germany who have, it could be said, 'escaped' Israel- who are refugees of sorts themselves. How is this different!?" But, it was elegantly dismissed by Itay, who quipped, "We fly Easyjet."
The floor round section sparked a number of strong expressions of opinion, includi