Eritreans desire to migrate to Israel stifled

Visiting Eritrean dissident activist says Egypt border fence, threat of detention has deterred migrants from coming to Israel.

May 11, 2013 21:09
2 minute read.
Eritrean migrants protest Negev detention facility

Eritrean migrants protest Negev detention center 370. (photo credit: Ben Hartman)


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There is a diminished desire among Eritrean asylum-seekers to migrate to Israel, largely due to the new border fence with Egypt and the threat of incarceration under the “Infiltrators Law,” a visiting Eritrean dissident activist said in Tel Aviv on Friday.

“From what I see recently people don’t have the appetite to come to Israel, much less than they used to. They know the reality here much better than before,” said Tesfu Atsbha, a leader of the organization The Eritrean Youth Solidarity for National Salvation.

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He came to Israel on Wednesday from the organizations headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The 32-year-old is a native of Asmara. He fled Eritrea in 2002 and gained asylum in Colorado in the United States.

Atsbha said that in meetings with Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, including in the refugee camps near the border, people are aware of the new Sinai fence and of the Infiltrator’s Law – which allows the state to jail an illegal entrant into Israel for up to three years without trial – discouraging them in emigrating to Israel.

Although people are continuing to come, he said, mainly ones who have been kidnapped by smugglers and taken to camps in Sinai, where they are often tortured and held for ransom.

Speaking in an Eritrean basement bar and club in south Tel Aviv, Atsbha said that he is familiar with the problems facing Eritrean asylum-seekers in Israel, including the lack of legal status and the threat of imprisonment, as he has been briefed on these issues by members of his group who have themselves migrated to Israel in recent years.

The issues facing Eritreans in Israel stand out in the Eritrean diaspora, he said, in part because they typically receive amnesty in Europe and the US, but face the threat of detention in Israel.


“It’s hard to believe when you hear about a government that has rule of law and democracy and liberty to make the decision to detain refugees. I would hope the Israeli government would rethink this,” he said.

When asked if Eritrea, a country ruled by a repressive regime, could see upheaval without a massive armed bloodletting, he said organizations like his are drawing inspiration from events in the Middle East over the past two years as a way forward.

“We see the Arab spring and we think that if people get informed and organized, they can bring the change they need,” Atsbha said, adding that his organization and others like it try to encourage Eritreans in the diaspora to work together to put international pressure on the regime ruled by President Isaias Afewerki.

Regardless of whether such efforts could bear fruit, he said in the meantime he has been impressed by how the community of around 40,000 Eritrean migrants in Israel have gotten along in the country, even with the difficulties they face, including the lack of a common language or culture with Israelis.

“They are people who have crossed deserts and escaped the Beduin and you would think would be incapable emotionally and psychologically of becoming economically empowered, but you see they’ve opened businesses, are working, forming a community and building their lives up from scratch. It’s actually unbelievable,” he said.

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