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Is it the economy? Stupid!

Eritrea's brutally repressive regime -- not a money quest -- is what drove so many Africans to seek safety in Israel
African asylum seekers leaving the Saharonim prison in southern Israel where they had been imprisoned due to their refusal to leave the country, April 15, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
African asylum seekers leaving the Saharonim prison in southern Israel where they had been imprisoned due to their refusal to leave the country, April 15, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Yonatan Jakubowicz, spokesperson for the Israel Immigration Policy Center (IIPC) has been arguing for years that nearly all African asylum seekers in Israel are economic migrants rather than refugees. “It’s the economy, stupid,” he says. He has also been saying that it is safe to send our Eritrean asylum seekers back to Eritrea.

Jakubowicz and the IIPC echo the position of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, and four Israeli Interior Ministers stating that Israel has almost no “authentic” refugees. In fact, our government has granted refugee status to only ten Eritrean asylum seekers while often criminalizing and demonizing them and attacking Israeli NGOs and human rights organizations advocating for their recognition as refugees.

The IIPC provides little evidence to back their charge that Israeli human rights NGOs and biased UN agencies spread lies and misinformation to justify keeping African asylum seekers in Israel. Pro-migrant Israeli NGOs may have somewhat exaggerated how dangerous political conditions are in third African countries like Uganda and Rwanda for Israel’s asylum seekers. However, they have also produced well-documented reports depicting political conditions in Eritrea that made them flee and why it is still unsafe to return.

While pro-migrant groups have a liberal political agenda in advocating for refugee rights, they are not seeking to flood the country with African immigrants and destroy Israel’s efforts to remain a Jewish state. The Israel Immigration Policy Center has an ultra-nationalist political agenda based on refugee denial and expelling non-Jewish African asylum seekers.

Although Yonatan Jakubowicz may be a skillful lawyer and PR professional, he and his organization have demonstrated little expertise concerning their knowledge of political conditions on the ground in Africa and the complexity of immigration issues. Instead of doing their own studies and tapping the research of scholars and institutions specializing in immigration issues, the IIPC relies heavily on a small number of reports issued by European government agencies that confirm their position.

Like many Israelis, Jakubowicz assumes that because most Africans are poor, they all seek to go to richer countries in Europe, North America, and Israel. In fact, most African economic migrants move to other regions within their own country or to other African countries to find employment. Moreover, most African economic migrants working in Europe and North America eventually return to Africa.

Jakubowicz and the IIPC do not seem to know the difference between refugees fleeing violence, involuntary servitude, and political oppression and economic migrants seeking to improve their living standards coming from stable and democratic African countries. For example, hundreds of thousands of Senegalese economic migrants have gone to Europe and North America to improve their living to earn money and help their families back home. There is no need for IDP or refugee camps for Senegalese who live in a free country.

The primary cause pushing 50,000 young Eritreans to leave their country each year has been Eritrea’s National Service (ENS), a form of indefinite servitude imposed by the least free regime in Africa. Eritrea became a totalitarian state in 2001 under one-man rule when Isaias Afwerki imprisoned many of the leaders who fought for Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia for criticizing his failure to implement the democratic reforms called for in the 1997 constitution. Eritrea has no elections, independent judiciary, free press or independent civil society associations to check the power of an unstable dictator.

The new ENS system established in 2002 replaced the 18-month national service system created in 1994. This was justified to defend Eritrea in case of war with Ethiopia and the need to man government services and enterprises. Conscripts served from two to 20 years and received starvation wages which compelled them to reply on their families or food.

Since 2014, the IIPC has cited reports by Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland claiming that most Eritrean asylum seekers in their countries were economic migrants and could safely return home because political conditions were improving there because officials of the Afwerki regime hinted that the government was thinking about going back to an 18-month national service system and taking measures to implement the 1997 constitution. This never happened.

In 2017, the Population, Immigration, and Border Authority (PIBA) charged with managing immigration issues gave the Israel Immigration Policy Center a contract to do research concerning the situation in Eritrea to ascertain whether Eritrean asylum seekers should and could be expelled. Hiring the IIPC to do an independent and objective study was ludicrous since the outcome was predictable and in line with the government’s refugee denial policy and its need to find grounds to deport Eritrean asylum seekers.

Hope for ending indefinite ENS and major political reforms rose sharply after the signing of the peace treaty between Eritrea and Ethiopia in June 2018. Although a minority of Eritreans still support Afwerki, most Eritreans in the diaspora and many within the country believe that Afwerki must go if hopes for political change are to be realized.

Rather than releasing thousands of political prisoners and taking measures to implement the 1997 constitution, Afwerki ordered the arrest of former Finance Minister Berhane Arbrehe for publishing two volumes in September criticizing the Afwerki regime without making formal charges or disclosing where he was. Eritrea is still a totalitarian state whose people are subject to the whims of an unstable dictator.

To date, the Afwerkli regime has made no official declarations or shown any inclination to adapt any measures to liberalize the regime or end indefinite involuntary servitude. In October, the UK announced that it has no evidence of human rights reforms in Eritrea since the last session of the UN Human Rights Council in September.

Eritrea is not a safe place for anyone opposing its president, including returning asylum seekers. It’s the regime, stupid, not the economy.

About the Author
Sheldon Gellar is a Jerusalem-based Africanist scholar and international democracy and development consultant. His work is based on research and lessons learned from living in five different cultures, Metropolitan New York, the American Mid-West, France, Africa, and Israel.
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