An Interview with Meron Estefanos

Meron Estefanos is a Swedish-Eritrean radio journalist, human rights activist, and mother.  She speaks to Eritreans around the world through her weekly program Radio Erena and for Eritreans around the world through her ongoing engagement with some of the most powerful political figures in the U.S. and Europe.  Meron and I met last week while she was in Washington D.C. to screen “Sound of Torture,” a documentary film about her efforts to aid asylum seekers in Sinai Desert hostage camps.

I asked Meron about the current situation in the hostage camps, where Bedouin smugglers have kept tens of thousands of Eritrean asylum seekers captive.  These smugglers demand up to $40,000 for the release of each captive near the Egyptian-Israeli border.  Meron explained that while the media coverage of the hostage situation is almost non-existent these days, asylum seekers in the Sinai still face grave treats.  “They are crying; they are begging,” said Meron, describing how her recent conversations with Eritrean hostages revealed the same degree of physical and psychological abuse as that experienced by earlier hostage groups.  But, Meron is limited in what she can do these days.  With media attention dwindling so too are the funds that she has been raising to pay for the hostages’ release.  Now, Meron provides more moral than financial support to the hostages and their families.

Meron visited Israel a month ago and found that little has changed there either.  Asylum seekers continue to live in fear that they could be deported at any moment.  Meron had hoped that the current war between Israel and Hamas might have the singular, positive effect of distracting Israeli officials from their campaign to detain asylum seekers en masse without due process.  But, this hasn’t happened.  Meron said that many asylum seekers have received summons to the detention centers in the past few weeks, despite the raging war.

In contrast to the grimness of these situations in Egypt and Israel, Meron said that there is reason to be positive about the Swedish government’s approach to refugees.  In Sweden, refugees and asylum seekers make up about 1.7% of the general population.  This is quite significant compared to the United States, where refugees and asylum seekers make up about .1% of the general population, and compared to Israel, where they account for about .7%.  When Meron began to speak about Sweden, I heard a change in her tone.  Her pitch rose, evincing vitality, and her speech appeared more effortless.  She seemed proud of her adopted country and of what she has achieved for Eritreans in partnership with it.

Meron has plenty of reasons to be proud.  Largely in response to Meron’s advocacy, Sweden succeeded in relocating dozens of asylum seekers (mostly single mothers) from Israel to Sweden earlier this year.  Meron told me that these women are receiving excellent support from Sweden’s social services and are gradually integrating into Swedish society.

Additionally, last month, a Swedish law firm reported Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki and several Eritrean ministers to the police for crimes against humanity.  These reports followed the passage of a legal code that enables judges to prosecute crimes regardless of where they have been committed or by whom.  Meron explained that there have been some hold ups with this case and the implementation of the code. These Swedish legal maneuvers will not have a highly visible impact on the behavior of the Eritrean government.  Still, Meron said that they will discourage Eritrean officials from traveling, make it more difficult for these officials to disseminate their propaganda internationally, and “at least, it’s justice for the victims.”

Meron encouraged activists around the world to put pressure on their governments to resettle asylum seekers who are living in Israel and to institute legal codes that would prohibit Eritrean officials from crossing into their borders.  I told Meron that some non-Eritrean activists are hesitant about becoming involved with this issue, because they are discouraged by the many conflicts—between perceived supporters and perceived opponents of the Eritrean government—within Eritrean diaspora communities.  These conflicts often impede organizing efforts.  Meron responded that activists cannot be afraid to engage in Eritrean politics. “Be involved in the Eritrean political situation,” she said, “because, if you want to help Eritreans, that’s the only way.”

Meron is the paragon of a fearless activist.  She receives threats from Eritrean officials and is accused by loyalists of the Eritrean government of “collaborating” with the Bedouin smugglers, but she is not discouraged.  “I don’t really pay attention to such kind of things,” said Meron, “because I know who I am; the survivors know who I am.”

About the Author
Anna Rose Siegel currently lives in Washington, D.C. and is the D.C. Coordinator for Right Now: Advocates for African Asylum Seekers in Israel. She previously lived in Tel Aviv and worked at the African Refugee Development Center and the Negev Coexistence Forum.