To help or not to help: Eritrean refugees in Israel

To help or not to help: Eritrean refugees in Israel
By Nicholas Pope, Advocacy Research Intern in MCC’s Ottawa Office. Nicholas has a law degree from the University of Calgary. He has served with MCC in Palestine and also Alberta, where he has been the MCC Alberta Refugee Sponsorship Coordinator.  He continues in that role part-time, while serving in the Ottawa Office.

On January 1, Israel announced an ultimatum for the thousands of East African asylum seekers within its borders: take $3,500 USD and a one-way ticket to Africa or face indefinite imprisonment.

Map of Eritrea

There are around 34,700 East African asylum seekers in Israel. 27,000 of these are from Eritrea. Israel calls them “infiltrators,” claiming they are economic migrants who illegally entered Israel in search of work. However, this is far from the truth.

Eritrea is ruled by one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. The authoritarian government forces everyone between 18 and 50 to serve indefinitely in the military. There they endure abusive conditions, including being used as slave labour. Because of the horrendous human rights situation, Canada has recognized 97 percent of Eritrean refugee claims as valid. Israel, by contrast, has recognized less than 0.1 percent (10 persons to be exact).

For the past few years, Israel has periodically detained asylum seekers in Holot Detention Center, a special immigration detention centre in the Negev desert. The difference now is that Israel will send those refusing to be deported to a regular prison to live with convicted criminals in a much more restrictive environment.

Eritrea asylym seekers outside Holot detention facility in southern Isreal

Eritrean asylum seekers outside the Holot detention facility in southern Israel, January 29, 2018. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)


Since the announcement, Israel has issued 600 deportation notices to single male asylum seekers and it has jailed seven. According to Israeli human rights groups, at least two of the men imprisoned in the Saharonim prison are torture survivors.

Most asylum seekers will choose to remain in an Israeli prison rather than be deported. Those who have accepted Israel’s voluntary deportations in the past have paid a huge price. After arriving in Uganda or Rwanda, many have reported having their documents confiscated and basic rights denied. Feeling unsafe because they are known to have the $3,500 payment, many travel hundreds of kilometers, suffering abuse, torture, and extortion—sometimes even dying—in their quest to get to safety in Europe.

flyers distributed around South Tel Aviv by the Population Immigration and Border Authority

The flyers distributed around South Tel Aviv by the Population Immigration and Border Authority on February 2, 2018.

Israel is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and is thus legally obliged to provide protection for those with a well-founded fear of persecution. Why then is it ignoring its international legal obligations?

While I don’t know the mind of the Prime Minister, the probable answer comes down to the concept of “demographic balance.” Israel is extremely concerned with ensuring that a solid majority of its population is Jewish so as to preserve its identity as a Jewish state.

When I spent a year living in Jerusalem with MCC’s SALT program, I saw this concept enacted firsthand. Jerusalem is the most important city for Israelis and is often a microcosm in which you see all aspects of Israel collide. Thus, understanding policy related to Jerusalem can help us understand what is happening in the rest of the country.

For decades Israel has had official policies with target demographic ratios for the city. For example, in 1973 the Gafni Committee recommended a ratio of 73.5 percent Jews to 26.5 percent Arabs in Jerusalem. More recently, in 2009 the Jerusalem Master Plan stated a demographic goal of 60 percent Jews to 40 percent Arabs noting that more ambitious goals were unattainable due to a higher growth rate of the Palestinian population.

Over the years prominent Israeli politicians have affirmed this aim. In 1982 mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek proclaimed, “I am seeing to the Jewish majority.” And current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said “[T]here is a demographic problem” due to 20 percent of Israel’s population being non-Jewish Arabs (or Palestinian citizens of Israel).

This desire to maintain Jewish demographic superiority leads to all sorts of human rights abuses against Palestinians in Jerusalem and throughout Israel, including residency revocations, home demolitions, and unequal provision of municipal services. It is this same desire that motivates the violations of Eritrean refugees’ rights.

MCC has a long history of helping refugees. Because of this, we have the unique ability to give these vulnerable people a third option besides imprisonment or deportation: resettlement to Canada.

However, this is not without its tensions.

On the one hand, sponsoring these refugees assists Israel in its quest for Jewish demographic superiority. I believe that all people are equal no matter their ethnicity or background, and the state should not give preferential treatment to anyone based on race or religion. How then can we be complicit in aiding a state to achieve its distinctly anti-multicultural and discriminatory objectives?

On the other hand, there are innocent refugees being sent either to indefinite imprisonment or potential death or torture, and we can do something to help.

In the end, we must help these refugees caught between prison and deportation. I cannot, in good conscience, allow someone to be left in that situation no matter the larger political context. Each person has immeasurable value, and they do not deserve to be victims.

African asylum seekers and human rights activists protest against the deportation plan in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya, Israel

African asylum seekers and human rights activists protest against the deportation plan in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya, Israel on February 7, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)


At the same time as we help these refugees, I must raise my voice and say, “I protest!” I protest being an instrument in Israel’s demographic agenda that has hurt my Palestinian sisters and brothers and now hurts my Eritrean sisters and brothers as well.

We must help the individuals, but we must never stop speaking up about the greater systemic injustice that is behind it all.