Haile Mengisteab, 31, cuts an impressive figure. Clad in what he says is his
trademark black leather jacket, he’s goodlooking and well-spoken, and seems to
have the leadership gene. He’s been in Israel less than three months, but has
already become a prominent figure among Israel’s Eritrean migrants, the largest
contingent from Africa.
RELATED:Police: Eritrean migrant tried to kill girlfriendFleeing to Freedom (Premium)Egypt arrests 34 African migrants trying to enter Israel
Twice during the interview, a young man comes in
to ask Mengisteab a question, and after a snap of his fingers and a whip-crack
phrase in Tigrinya, the visitor bolts from the room.
The son of an
Eritrean army colonel, Mengisteab arrived in Israel seeking asylum and has since
worked to establish Israel’s first grassroots organization for Eritrean
Eritrean Political Asylum Seekers in Israel is still in
its infancy. It has a five-member board of officers, but lacks an office of its
own and instead operates out of the headquarters of the African Refugees
Development Center in South Tel Aviv. Nonetheless, the group has clear goals and
what appears to be a motivated leader in Mengisteab.
“Upon my arrival in
Israel, I began to form the committee to stand up for our rights and make good
diplomatic relations with the state of Israel. People [in the Eritrean
community] are not able to come out and state what they want politically or
legally,” he says.
Over the past two weeks, Mengisteab relates, the group
has worked to explain to Eritreans in their native language what their rights
are, and to help them get work visas. The group has also held meetings in
Jerusalem and Eilat, speaking to Eritreans about their rights. In addition,
Mengisteab says the group works to prevent crime in the community, advising
those who are causing trouble that they will be responsible for their
JPOST VIDEOS THAT MIGHT INTEREST YOU:
According to Mengisteab, the group runs into some interference
from the Eritrean diplomatic mission in Israel, which he says operates agents
and informers within the community in Israel, threatening to have the families
of Eritrean migrants detained or blacklisted back home.
While such a
claim is unconfirmed, it would be in keeping with Mengisteab’s description of
Eritrea as an authoritarian country run by a Stalinist system of neighbor
informing on neighbor, and brother pitted against brother.
11,000 security personnel in Asmara [the Eritrean capital] alone; people won’t
trust even their own brothers. It’s just like Stalin’s system was in
He’s following the same principle,” says Mengisteab, adding that
“the past 20 years have been full of agony and suffering for Eritrea.”
an interview with the Israeli media recently, Eritrean Ambassador to Israel
Debbas Tesfamariam Tekeste stated that all Eritreans in Israel purporting to be
asylumseekers were in fact illegal migrant workers and that children growing up
in Eritrea dreamed about coming to Israel to make their lives better. Tekeste
faulted the government of Israel for the refugee problem, saying that all of the
illegal migrant workers should have been sent back to Eritrea instantly, but
that now it was too late; Eritrea wouldn’t take them back, with the argument
that they would be detrimental to the morale of the country.
Mengisteab says children in Eritrea “absolutely do not” dream of moving to
Israel when they grow up and that Tekeste “is completely detached from the
reality of what is really going on in Eritrea.”
He adds that Tekeste
should not be heeded because he “doesn’t represent us, he represents the
criminals running Eritrea. He can’t work to represent us; all he can do is work
on buying arms from Israel.”
Eritrea has a single-party political system
run by President Isaias Afwerki’s People’s Front for Democracy and Justice,
which closed down all privately owned media in 2001. Reporters without Borders
ranked Eritrea’s media environment at 175 out of 175 in its 2009 Press Freedom
Index, below North Korea at 174.
The country won its independence in 1993
following a 30-year war with Ethiopia, but has not held elections since. In May
2008, Afwerki said he would delay elections for at least a few more decades,
because they “polarize society.”
A 2009 Amnesty International report
states that as well as staggering poverty and undernourishment affecting half
the population, the country’s government is known for “the jailing of thousands
of political prisoners and army dissenters, and the regular use of torture
The report also says the country suffers from “a
government prohibition on independent journalism, opposition parties,
unregistered religious organizations, and virtually all civil society
Eritreans make up the largest population of African migrants
in Israel. Over 90 percent are men, mostly between the ages of 22 and 40. Many
of them come to Israel saying that they are fleeing not only political
persecution, but also compulsory military conscription, which can be extended
indefinitely by the government.
In November, Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu approved the construction of two sections of a fence on Israel’s
border with Egypt – one section near Rafah and the other near Eilat. Also in
November, Netanyahu approved the construction of a detention facility for
illegal migrants in the Negev. The number of illegal African migrants to Israel
is now climbing to around 10,000 to 15,000 per year, rivaling the number of Jews
who immigrate to the country annually.
Even by the standards of Israel’s
African migrants, Mengisteab’s journey to the country was an odyssey of
impressive trial and distance.
He fled Eritrea in September 2004 after
graduating law school and was assigned to work at a naval training center on the
coast, some 60 km.
from Asmara. Mengisteab says that shortly after being
posted there, he began organizing a union for workers.
according to Mengisteab, he would be sent to detention following the union’s
meetings and let out only after a day or two. He says the only reason he wasn’t
disappeared or jailed permanently was that his father is a colonel in the
Eritrean Armed Forces.
“If I was from the lower class, or a family of
farmers, they would have just let me die,” he adds.
Eventually, an army
commander sentenced him to three years’ detention in Eritrean prison, a virtual
life sentence in a prison system that he says “is like hell; it makes the jail
in Israel look like a hotel.”
After fleeing Eritrea, Mengisteab lived in
Ethiopia for over three years, where he joined the Eritrean People’s Movement,
an Eritrean opposition group founded by Adhanom Gebremariam.
gained hundreds of members and tried to get weapons from the Ethiopian
government, but according to Mengisteab, it was only able to receive 21
Eventually, Mengisteab left the country for Sudan after his
housemates feared his political activities would complicate things for them in
He lived in Khartoum for two years, working as a cab driver
and a cleaner before making his way to Libya, where he spent a year and a half
working and saving money to pay his way onto a migrant raft setting off on the
perilous journey to Sicily.
His goal was eventually to make it to the
United Kingdom, where he could apply for asylum and continue studying. However,
the Libyan government enacted a sea blockade following pressure from the Italian
government to better patrol the waters, and Mengisteab instead made his way to
Egypt and, eventually, Israel.
Like all migrants, he describes the
journey from Sinai as beyond perilous, spent crammed inside a truck with over
two dozen other migrants for several days and nights. For the privilege of
risking life and limb on a sweltering trip across the Sinai desert, Mengisteab
and the rest of the migrants paid the Beduin smugglers $2,800 each.
asked why he continued on to Israel after fleeing Eritrea, the only country
where he was facing political persecution, Mengisteab says that for Eritreans,
Israel is the closest democracy they can reach. Even though they escape the
persecution by the Eritrean regime the second they leave the borders of the
country, and are often able to find comfortable lives and reliable work in
neighboring countries, they say their ordeal is not over.
Mengisteab, Eritreans can still be sent back by the governments of Sudan,
Ethiopia, Egypt and Libya, and only in Israel, a democracy that has signed the
1951 UN Convention on Refugees, do they feel assured that they won’t be sent
back home at any moment to face persecution.
“We have no long-term plan
to stay in Israel; we need protection until there is a change of policy [in
Eritrea], until there is the establishment of parties in Eritrea,” Mengisteab
Regardless of what he says he’s been through inside Eritrea and in
exile, and no matter how dire the situation is in his country, Mengisteab
remains optimistic that the current government’s days are numbered.
believe that the Eritrean regime will step down someday,” he asserts. “The
people of Eritrea will continue to suffer in the meantime, but someday, we will
The Embassy of Eritrea in Israel postponed an interview
scheduled for this article, and will issue a response in the near future.
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>