Eritrean migrants, Sinai_311.
(photo credit: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)
The public discourse that deals with the issue of infiltrators and migrants from
Africa is missing one central fact: Nearly two-thirds of them come from one
country adjacent to the Red Sea: Eritrea.
Most people remember the
Sudanese, often the Darfuris. But although the word “Eritrea” is mentioned
repeatedly in connection with the phenomenon of infiltration from Africa, we
haven’t stopped for a moment to think outside the box and focus on Eritrea as a
national goal, to solve the problem and deal with the whole
For years, we have been accepting the argument that the
migrants from Eritrea deserve protection as refugees and that they can not be
returned to their country. And I have been saying, for several years now, in
cabinet meetings and to several Israeli prime ministers, that we have to check
these assumptions and challenge them. I also presented my position to
representatives of the UNHCR and to the Foreign Ministry. Unfortunately, so far
I have run into an absolute objection on the part of the Foreign Ministry, which
believes there is nothing that can be done in the current situation. I wish to
challenge this perception and state that at least the issue should be reexamined
from top to bottom.
Eritrea is not far off. It is just two hours’ flight
from here. A country of six million people, composed of different ethnic groups
and religions, situated on the Red Sea on the Horn of Africa. Eritrea gained its
independence in 1993 after its disengagement from Ethiopia, which is still its
Israel has full diplomatic relations with Eritrea, including the
exchange of embassies. The founding president of Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki, was
treated in Israeli hospitals. During Yitzhak Rabin’s government, then-health
minister Dr. Ephraim Sneh inaugurated a hospital established with Israeli
assistance in Eritrea. It is a† poor country in international terms,
although recently deposits of precious metals were discovered that slightly
improve the situation.
In the history of our people. Eritrea is
remembered for the British detention camps holding hundreds of Jewish
underground prisoners, including great names such as Yitzhak Shamir and Meir
In Israel today, there are also Jews from Yemen, particularly
from the British colony of Aden, who got to the other side of the Red Sea to
Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, and later immigrated to Israel after the
establishment of the state. I personally know some who still maintain a
connection with their old homeland.
Eritrea is not a democracy and it is
at the bottom of the ladder in terms of human rights. For this reason and due to
other circumstances, it has lost its charm in the eyes of the United States in
recent years, despite its strategic location.
The United Nations
commissioner for human rights has criticized Eritrea repeatedly while asserting
that if Israel returns the migrants to Eritrea, they will be badly harmed
because they are draft-dodgers. Another problem with Eritrea is the long
dispute with its rival, Ethiopia.
These are convincing arguments and I do
not make light of them at all. But given the dimensions of the national problem
we are facing, they are not enough to justify a complete denial when searching
for an alternative path such as dialogue with Eritrea. I believe that a thorough
study was not carried out to test the veracity of the claims and the real risk
there may be to the lives of the migrants from Eritrea sent back to their
I think we have not examined the various interests and the
relevant levers that could lead to a change in the situation and to establishing
an understanding with the leaders of this country. In short, Israel’s policy
toward Eritrea has not been tested in terms of the current crisis, as a result
of which tens of thousands of Eritreans have infiltrated Israel and hundreds of
thousands more may be on their way.
The necessary data have not been
relayed to the political echelon, nor has the problem been formulated in a way
that we can think creatively about how to use the right political and economic
tools to change the basic humanitarian situation with regard to Eritrean
Certainly, there has not been a formal interface with the
president of Eritrea, and no meaningful political steps have been taken to
change the trend from the bottom, which would satisfy the UNHCR and the rights
organizations in Israel that feed primarily on information provided to them by
the infiltrators themselves.
Moreover, when Israel has such a significant
strategic objective, we cannot demonstrate ignorance and a lack of basic
knowledge of a country that has provided us with tens of thousands of
job-seekers or refugees who come here in roundabout ways.
The time has
come for the prime minister to appoint a team of experts which should include
professionals relevant to all aspects of this target country, and offer an
appropriate outline for diplomatic, political, economic and legal action that
would totally change the direction of that which exists today.
for example, offer a really unorthodox proposal – that Israel negotiate with the
government of Eritrea to establish a treaty that would allow legal employment of
some infiltrators, in nursing and agriculture, as it does with the Philippines
and Sri Lanka, for a limited, defined period of employment at the end of which
the employees would return to their country of origin with their money and would
be welcomed back.
We are in an emergency situation with regard to the
dimensions of the illegal migration from Africa. In such a situation, we
must think outside the box. We must focus our attention on Eritrea
diplomatically and economically, and fundamentally change our perception and
policy regarding infiltrators from the country. The government and the Knesset
Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee must address this problem
urgently.The writer is a Labor MK.