A False Perception of Stability in Eritrea Could Risk Refugees’ Lives

This past year, Israelis fought and won a battle to protect asylum seekers in our borders. Now, it’s possible Eritrean asylum seekers could face a worse threat.

A few months earlier in July, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked began to make statements about the possibility of forcibly repatriating Eritreans back to their home country due to emerging news stories about a new peace treaty between Eritrea and Ethiopia. This was shrugged off as a scare tactic, but the sentiment was echoed again over the next month by a lower court judge in a non-binding court ruling.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is now making headlines with a strongly-worded statement where he openly boasted that “the peace treaty that was recently signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea can accelerate the continuation of the removal of infiltrators from Israel.” The presumption is that a cessation of hostilities means the country is now safe for Eritrean citizens to return home. However, evidence shows this is not the case. Eritreans did not flee as a result of war with Ethiopia, but because of the ruthless dictatorship that ruled their lives through fear. And with 10,000 Eritreans fleeing into Ethiopia to register as asylum seekers in the past month alone, it is clear that this fear remains palpable today.

What is the Current Status of Eritrean Asylum Seekers in Israel?

Just like the Congolese asylum seekers, the Eritrean community in Israel – a population of 26,000 – have been denied the right to have their individual asylum claims heard. The international standard for this process is based on the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)’s Refugee Status Determination (RSD) system. In Israel, the applicant must begin with a written RSD application which they then submit to the Israeli Ministry of Interior. This step alone can take weeks or even months, as they accept a limited number of individuals into the building each day. Then, the applicant returns for an interview which can range from a few hours to multiple days. If the applicant can establish a credible fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or belonging to a particular social group, and an inability or unwillingness to return home because of this fear, then the case is referred up to a higher review board and then approved by the Minister of the Interior.

In Israel, this system is broken. Only 9 Eritrean and 2 Sudanese asylum seekers have received refugee status in the decade since the communities first walked through the Sinai desert to reach Israel’s border. This is in stark contrast to the rest of the world, where over 80% of Eritrean and 60% of Sudanese asylum seekers are approved for refugee status and the rights that come with it.

Without refugee status, asylum seekers in Israel are not eligible for public health or welfare services. They are unable to apply for a checkbook to pay their rent, and their right to work is restricted. They and their employers are subjected to higher taxes, despite not being able to receive public assistance. They hold temporary visas which must be renewed every 2 weeks to 2 months, and those who have been held in immigration detention are banned from living in any major Israeli cities. Every asylum seeker also has 20% of their salaries forcibly deducted in the form of a “deposit” which they can only receive if they agree to “voluntarily” deport themselves.

With the New Peace Treaty Between Eritrea and Ethiopia, Why Can’t Eritreans Return Home?

At first glance, it may seem that the Israeli government is justified in sending Eritreans home if the more-than-40-year history of war and bloodshed with neighboring Ethiopia has come to an end. It has even been announced that Eritrea will be one of the newest members of the United Nations Human Rights Council. However, this dangerous assumption ignores the core reasons fueling the Eritrean exodus, and the complete absence of progress being made on the ground inside the country.

First, we must look at the history between these two countries. Until Eritrea’s independence in 1991, they were engaged in a 30-year war for independence. When Eritrea came out victorious over Ethiopia and declared an independent state, a charismatic man named Issayas Afwerki was selected by the new administration to serve as President. This decision would have long-lasting consequences, as Eritrea would never see its first elections. For the first decade following independence the country saw real growth. However, in 1998 a flare-up of fighting along the border turned into one of the fiercest battles in the region’s history, with some estimates putting the combined death toll at about 100,000 people in just two years. The devastating conflict ended in arbitration known as the the Algiers agreement which was signed in December, 2000 but neither country would implement its conditions. A protracted tension would remain for years to come.

Issayas Afwerki and his ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PJFD) used this tension to tighten his control over the country and consolidate his own dictatorial power. By stoking fears, he was able to implement a total lock-down of the free press (leading the country to earn its nickname as the North Korea of Africa). The mandatory 3-year army draft became lifelong servitude in slave-like conditions. Imports and exports were banned, leading to a lack of income opportunities that forced people to become totally dependent on government-issued food rations for survival. Freedom of movement was restricted, and permit papers were required for any citizen to travel between villages. The university was closed, and those who spoke out were sent to one of over 300 underground prisons. Sexual abuse, rape and torture remain rampant in these prisons, and deaths due to lack of food and unsanitary conditions are widespread. Those who practice banned religions such as Pentecostals faced immediate imprisonment without trial. The head of the Orthodox Church, Abune Antonios, was imprisoned as a dissident and his followers rounded up as well.

Now that Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has extended the olive branch, the international community has begun to praise the two countries for their progress. Yet, as Prime Minister Ahmed released waves of political prisoners from Ethiopian jails, Eritreans continued to wonder if their loved ones who disappeared years ago even remained alive. Referendums and open hall sessions were held inside Ethiopia and abroad, giving Ethiopian citizens the chance to voice their opinions and be heard by their elected representatives. Eritreans sat in anticipation and were met with silence. Ethiopia’s government represented its people while Eritrea’s government represented one despotic man. Even the Pentecostal prisoners who were released from Eritrea’s jails to welcome the first Ethiopian plane to land in Asmara were rounded up immediately after their photo-op and returned to underground prisons. Ethiopian merchants were granted free and open access to Eritrean roads, while Eritreans are still forced to apply for permit papers simply to visit family a few villages away. Eritreans face poverty in their own homes while Ethiopian businessmen fill their pockets thanks to their new access to Eritrea’s ports along the Red Sea.

For Ethiopia, the peace deal has brought new opportunities for prosperity and hope. For Eritreans, they have lost what little autonomy they may have had within their own country. Without any reconciliation measures to address the still-fresh wounds from the war, they have found the despotic regime who has controlled their lives for decades has no intention of granting them the rights for which they yearn, and has instead handed these rights over to a foreign power. And with no democracy or systems to hold the government accountable, and dissidents disappearing in the night, there is nothing they can do to stop it.

If Israel were to forcibly repatriate Eritrean asylum seekers back to their home country, they would be sending them back to the same slave-like military service, rampant underground prisons, and total lack of freedom from which they fled. And because those who flee Eritrea are deemed political traitors, they face the harshest of punishments including torture and sometimes death upon return.

What Can We Expect Now, and What Can Be Done to Help?

There is no way to know exactly what is coming, but with the timing of Netanyahu’s comments about Eritrean deportations immediately following the announcement of Congolese deportations there is reason for cautious concern.

Last week, Israel’s Population Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA) announced that they are revoking group protection for asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC. According to a notice posted on the PIBA website these Congolese nationals have 90 days to leave the country or they will face forcible deportation. There are just over 200 asylum seekers from the DRC in Israel, and they have been living with group protection like the larger Eritrean and Sudanese communities.

Thanks to the Convention Against Torture, all people regardless of race, religion or country of origin are protected from being sent to a country where they will likely face torture. Therefore, there is reason to believe that Israel simply cannot take this step without facing immense international backlash.

However, Israel continues to distance itself from international human rights bodies. As a result, there is a chance that that this newest step against the Congolese asylum seekers could be a pilot to see whether or not the international community will act.

Either way, our response must be united and strong. Israelis must stand up to their elected officials against this injustice, and people around the world should contact their local Israeli consulate to echo these concerns. As Israel continues to push the line for what is acceptable under international law, we must push back and reaffirm our commitment to honoring human rights.

About the Author
Andrea Gagne is a U.S.-based aid worker who has worked for several years with Eritrean refugees in Israel. She has worked in multiple refugee community centers in south Tel Aviv, including the Eritrean Women’s Community Center. Andrea is a graduate of Hampshire College, has a master’s degree from Tel Aviv University, and also studied at the University of Ghana.
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