Eritrean migrant leader to 'Post': We need protection

Haile Mengisteab, who made perilous journey to escape persecution, says children in his home country ‘absolutely do not’ dream of moving here.

Eritrean migrant 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Eritrean migrant 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
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.
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.
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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 asylumseekers.
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 crimes.
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.
“There are 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 Russia.
He’s following the same principle,” says Mengisteab, adding that “the past 20 years have been full of agony and suffering for Eritrea.”
In 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.
In response, 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 against prisoners.”
The report also says the country suffers from “a government prohibition on independent journalism, opposition parties, unregistered religious organizations, and virtually all civil society activity.”
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.
Every week, 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.
The group gained hundreds of members and tried to get weapons from the Ethiopian government, but according to Mengisteab, it was only able to receive 21 firearms.
Eventually, Mengisteab left the country for Sudan after his housemates feared his political activities would complicate things for them in the country.
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.
When 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.
According to 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 says.
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.
“I 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 be free.”
The Embassy of Eritrea in Israel postponed an interview scheduled for this article, and will issue a response in the near future.