‘We are here because of the persecution we suffered’

Thousands of Africans in Tel Aviv demand refugee status and decry plans for detention center.

December 24, 2010 17:14
4 minute read.
Eritrean asylum seeker Haile Mengistab at rally

eritrean protester 311. (photo credit: Ben Hartman)


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Amid a growing wave of protests and racially motivated violence against their presence, thousands of African citizens, and their Israeli supporters, demonstrated in Tel Aviv on Friday to demand the government give them refugee status and to decry plans to build a detention center for illegal migrants in the South.

At Gan Meir, a Darfurian named Mubarak told the crowd why he fled his country.

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“When I was in Sudan, they came to my village, they burned the village and killed people, they raped the women, and took property.

My parents told me I should escape, and after a long way, I came to Israel with nothing.”

Mubarak added: “I say to the Israeli government: Enough! We are fed up with people calling us terrorists, telling us that we are sick and brought with us diseases. We are fed up with people telling us we came here just to work, to take money with us and then go home.

“It’s not true! We thought we came to Israel, a democratic country and the only one that can help us and allow us to be here until peace is restored in our countries.”

Another speaker, 31-yearold Haile Mengistab, told the crowd that the Eritreans in Israel want to receive recognition as political refugees, and are not after Israeli jobs or looking to chase Israeli girls.

Mengistab fled Eritrea after finishing law school six years ago and arrived in Israel a little over a month ago. Shortly thereafter, he founded Eritrean Political Asylum Seekers in Israel, a grassroots organization working to push for refugee status and protection for Eritreans in Israel.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post after the rally, Mengistab said he had taken part in order to push the message that “while the government is building a prison camp in the Negev, we are asking them to normalize the refugees in Israel, because we need protection right now.

We need to be recognized as political asylum-seekers. We are not criminals.”

When asked about claims that Eritreans are coming to Israel as economic migrants, he said, “We absolutely are not coming here for work. We are here because of the persecution we suffered by the administration in Eritrea.”

Mengistab described the Eritrean government as a dictatorship with no freedom of movement, speech or press.

Citizens are treated “like the slaves of the country,” he said.

He said it is understandable that Israelis feel some sort of threat from their presence, but they should know “that we are very hardworking people.

We are not here to make Israeli people suffer, but to get protection from the government.”

Friday’s protest came three days after a raucous, racially tinged demonstration was held in south Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood against the large number of African refugees and migrant workers who have made the district their home in recent years. It also came less than a week after unidentified assailants threw a burning tire at an apartment full of Sudanese in Ashdod last Saturday.

Five of the seven residents of the apartment suffered smoke inhalation before they were able to break a window and flee.

That same night, three teenage girls born in Israel to African migrant workers were beaten by a mob of youths near the entrance to the Hatikva neighborhood, the Hotline for Migrant Workers reported.

The detention facility, which is expected to be opened in the coming months, will house up to 10,000 people, who will be kept there until they can be deported. The facility will be built in the Negev, near the border with Egypt, and will be run by the Prisons Service.

Israel is a signatory of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which states that the country to which a refugee has arrived must ensure his (or her) freedom of movement and right to work, as well be responsible for the refugee’s health and welfare.

If the African migrants are considered refugees, then the detention facility would be a violation of the 1951 convention.

During the cabinet meeting in late November where the facility’s construction was approved, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said: “For years, people have spoken about stopping the wave of illegal infiltrators who are entering the country. There has been talk for years, but now we are not talking.

“We do not intend to arrest refugees from war. We allow them to enter and will continue to do so.

But we must stop the mass entry of illegal infiltrators who are looking for work due to the very harsh repercussions that this wave will have on the character and future of the State of Israel.”

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