End the negotiations on expelling Eritrean asylum-seekers!

A single party and president have ruled Eritrea since independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

July 1, 2012 22:57
Eritreans gather in Ramat Gan

Eritreans protest homeland regime 370. (photo credit: Ben Hartman)

Eritrean community activists are highly concerned about the recent invitation of Eritrean Ambassador Tesfamariam Tekeste to the Knesset Foreign Workers Committee, where possible return of Eritreans to Eritrea was discussed.

Eritreans came to Israel with the expectation to find protection and safety from the dictatorship in Eritrea and are therefore extremely bothered and disappointed that a so-called democratic state invites a representative of a dictatorial regime to discuss the option of deportation.

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These negotiations leave us Eritrean asylum-seekers in a state of fear and insecurity.

In addition, Eritrean asylumseekers are concerned about the current political atmosphere against what the State of Israel calls “infiltrators” and the violent and inciting response by the Israeli society. The measures taken, such as expanding the Saharonim detention facility to over 12,000 places; to prolong imprisonment of asylum-seekers; to discuss the possibility of a “tent city” without basic necessities; and enforce fines against employers that hire “infiltrators” violate Israel’s obligations under international law.

We would like to pose the following questions: is it a crime to flee dictatorship? Are asylumseekers criminals, on par with, for example, arms dealers? Eritrean asylum-seekers forcibly returned to Eritrea face and will continue to face serious risk of arbitrary detention, torture and death. Persecution has become a reality for those forcibly returned from countries such as Malta, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Egypt, Yemen and Djibouti. Does the State of Israel want to join a list of countries that deported Eritreans to imprisonment and torture? Will the State of Israel take responsibility for the death of deportees from Israel? A SINGLE party and president have ruled Eritrea since independence from Ethiopia in 1993.

Our country is ruled by an extremely repressive regime that forces all citizens – until the age of 65 – to serve in the military for indefinite periods of time.

Anyone of draft age leaving the country without permission is perceived as a traitor, risking imprisonment in inhumane conditions, as well as forced labor and torture.

In a recent press release United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay said that credible sources indicate that “violations of human rights include arbitrary detention, torture, summary executions, forced labor, forced conscription, and restrictions to freedom of movement, expression, assembly and religion.”

In addition we would like to recall the words of the Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who last year said that, “Eritrea is known in the international community as a country that does not safeguard human rights, and anyone who returns there is in danger, including danger of death.”

According to figures of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of January 2011, 236,000 Eritreans have fled imprisonment, torture and murder in Eritrea and are currently living as refugees and asylum seekers outside of Eritrea. The UNHCR estimated that 3,000 Eritreans fled the country every month, mostly to Ethiopia or Sudan, despite a “shoot to kill” policy for anyone caught attempting to cross the border.

Many of those fleeing were young people escaping indefinite national service conscription.

Families of those who fled faced reprisals, including harassment, fines and imprisonment. Because of a global understanding of the human rights abuses that occur in Eritrea, the UN has insisted on a moratorium on all deportations back to Eritrea.

ERITREANS HAVE been granted refugee status in high numbers in most of the Western world.

According to UNHCR data, in 2010, the United Kingdom granted 66 percent of Eritreans applicants refugee status, Germany 83%, Switzerland 72% and Canada 96%.

Under international refugee law, asylum seekers have a right to claim asylum, which applies regardless of how they enter a country or whether they have identity documents. International law forbids countries from deporting asylum seekers without first allowing them to apply for asylum and considering their cases. Since the State of Israel refuses to grant Eritreans access to the Refugee Status Determination process and Eritreans are therefore not eligible to explain why they left Eritrea, the following is an outline of the dictatorial regime and its impact on Eritreans based on our own experience and a compilation of human rights reports by the United Nations, US State Department, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

THE MAJORITY of Eritrean asylum seekers in Israel fled forced military conscription, as national service is compulsory for all men and women over the age of 18. Our schoolchildren are required to complete their last year of secondary education at Sawa military training camp.

Children as young as 15 are caught in round-ups and taken to Sawa for military training.

National service for many means forced labor in state projects. We are used as slaves to build roads, or working for companies owned and operated by the military or ruling party elites. Although the initial national service period is 18 months, this period is commonly extended indefinitely.

We are paid minimal salaries that do not meet our families’ basic needs. Punishment for desertion and draft evasion include torture and detention without trial.

There were between 5,000 and 10,000 political prisoners in Eritrea including political activists, journalists, religious practitioners and draft evaders.

The whereabouts of most are unknown and they have never been charged or tried for any offense, as the rule of law is non-operative.

There is no freedom of religion in Eritrea; members of faiths other than Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches, and Islam are arrested, arbitrarily detained and illtreated.

For example, believers in Pentecostalism, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are arbitrarily detained for practicing an unregistered faith.

Eritrea has more prison centers than hospitals. The conditions in these prisons are horrendous, and in many cases amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Many prisoners are held in underground cells or metal shipping containers, often in desert locations, and therefore suffer extremes of heat and cold. Prisoners are given inadequate food and water.

Many prisoners are held in severely overcrowded and unhygienic conditions. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees are frequent. These conditions remind us all of those suffered by Eritrean hostages imprisoned in trafficking compounds in the Northern Sinai desert. Prisoners are forced to undertake painful and degrading activities, and were tied with ropes in painful positions for long periods. We, Eritreans in Israel, are all too used to this treatment since we escaped from persecution. We cannot be returned to such persecution.

One of the outcomes of the Knesset meeting was to send an Israeli delegation to Eritrea. We urge the delegation to take into consideration the above-mentioned human rights abuses when visiting Eritrea and be critical of the picture the Eritrean regime will paint.

We would like to remind the government of Israel of its obligations under the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol which states that: “No Contracting State shall expel or return (refouler) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

UNHCR’s official Guidelines to States on the protection needs of Eritrean asylum seekers that states that “individuals of draft age who left Eritrea illegally may be perceived as draft evaders upon return, irrespective of whether they have completed active national service or have been demobilized” and that “the punishment for desertion or evasion is so severe and disproportionate such as to amount to persecution.”

We would like to remind the Israeli government to work on our case with care and responsibility and we demand protection and safety until the political situation of Eritrea changes.

Once a political prisoner in Eritrea, Kidane Isaac is now an Eritrean community activist and the co-founder of the Refugee Voice in Israel

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