Eritreans want recognition as refugees

"We live in constant fear of imprisonment or deportation," asylum seekers say.

Eritrean refugees 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Eritrean refugees 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Wearing white masks to conceal their identities, more than 500 Eritrean asylum seekers took to the streets of Tel Aviv Tuesday to protest what they describe as the Israeli government's refusal to recognize them as refugees and grant them certain rights under the United Nation's convention on the status of refugees, to which Israel is party. "We wore the masks because if we are identified by the Eritrean authorities then our families still living there could be persecuted," one of the protesters, Asmaram, told The Jerusalem Post following the demonstration. Preferring to use only his first name for fear of retribution, Asmaram, 24, who speaks perfect English, said the situation in his former homeland had reached extreme levels of oppression in every sphere of society, and that as a university student, he had no choice but to leave. He arrived in Israel via Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt last year. "I chose to come to Israel because out of all the countries I could have gone, it was the only one that was completely democratic," explained Asmaram, who is one of 11 Eritreans elected recently by the 5000-strong displaced community to represent them in Israel. "It was either Libya or Israel and I chose Israel, hoping that my chances of staying alive would be better." Along with his fellow countrymen, however, Asmaram said that living conditions in Israel were extremely difficult, with the government refusing to grant them official asylum and constantly issuing new regulations as to where they could live and whether they were allowed to work. Most recently, Eritrean community members who had settled in Eilat were told by the government that they had to leave and find a new location. "We do not have any status here," said Asmaram, who holds a degree in marine biology. "We live in constant fear that we will either be imprisoned or deported back to Eritrea." In addition, he said that more than 65 percent of the community was not eligible to work in Israel and as such living conditions for most of them were very poor. "Those of us who can work have to use our earnings to help out other members of our community who cannot work. In many cases there are between 10-15 Eritreans living in one apartment because the rent is too high for us to live alone," he said. According to Romm Lewkowicz, spokesman for the Hotline for Migrant Workers, a grass-roots organization that provides assistance to thousands of foreign workers living in Israel, the core of the problem was Israel's refusal to even check the status of the more than 10,000 refugees from around the world that are believed to be living here without any rights or recognizable status. "Israel has signed the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, yet it has no policy regarding these people or system to check their requests," he pointed out, adding that to absolve itself from responsibility, the Interior Ministry simply claimed that "they are not refugees." "While [the ministry] says they are not refugees, it does not make any attempt to deport them either," continued Lewkowicz. Responding to the Eritreans' claims, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabene Hadad said that the community "had a nerve protesting considering that Israel is much more welcoming than many other countries in the region." "It is not up to the Israeli government to appoint them refugee status," said Hadad, who claimed rather that it was the role of United Nations to make such a decision. "In an unusual move, however, which is based solely on humanitarian concerns, the Interior Ministry has decided to let them continue living here and will not deport them back to Eritrea," she added. Asmaram, however, maintained that the issue of status was the Israeli government's responsibility. "We asked the UN why it will not grant us asylum but they say it's up to the government and they don't have the power," he said. "All we are asking is that we are given the chance to prove our need for safe refuge until the situation in our country improves." Calls to the UN for a response were unreturned Tuesday.