The glass people

Some Eritrean families deserve the status of political refugees, at least temporarily, their peace of mind is more than a human rights issue.

African migrants walk on a road in December 2013 after choosing to leave the Holot open detention facility (photo credit: REUTERS)
African migrants walk on a road in December 2013 after choosing to leave the Holot open detention facility
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21) On June 20, on the occasion of World Refugee Day, the UN released a dramatic figure: For the first time since World War II, the number of refugees in the world exceeded 50 million.
In Israel, around 64,000 Africans claim the status of “refugees,” with approximately 50 percent from Eritrea.
In Jerusalem, some 2,500 Eritreans live and work among us, but they aren’t seen.
J. arrived from the capital, Asmara, in 2006. On the Friday evening I visited, the traditional Eritrean dish of injera was surprisingly made with chicken. Usually, the lack of financial resources obliges the family – grandparents, wife and young children – to follow a vegetarian diet. But they made an exception for their guest and sacrificed some savings to add poultry to the East African spongy flatbread. The smell of cardamom and paprika softened the fermentation emanating from the teff flour.
J. escaped from one of the worst dictatorships existing on earth today, one registered on the infamous US list of eight “countries of particular concern” – without political opposition, religious freedom or free media; with persecution of regime opponents, torture, cruelty, detention without trial, and abduction and disappearance of citizens. Since 1993, Isaias Afwerki has been holding the Eritrean presidency with an iron fist.
In Eritrea, the draft is compulsory for all nationals, males and females, with no time limit. J., for his part, deserted his military unit after a few years of conscription.
In March, The Economist selected the title “Miserable and useless” to describe Eritrean military service, transforming conscripts into hostages and slaves. Soldiers are subject to the capricious desires of camp commanders, and sexual slavery is common for female soldiers.
The regime is maintained through terror. Governmental spies are found everywhere and even hide within diaspora communities. I met one at a clandestine Jerusalem meeting point for Africans; he assured me Eritrea is a democracy and Afwerki a figure akin to Mother Teresa.
Following J.’s meal, the traditionally roasted Ethiopian coffee released a sweet fragrance in the room.
Yet the stories of Eritrean journeys in Sinai give one a bitter taste that no sugar could palliate. Today, the atrocities endured by African migrants, kidnapped by barbarous hordes of Beduin on their way to Israel, are well-known. Escaping from the pandemonium inflicted by Afwerki on his people, many became prisoners of hell in the Sinai desert.
In Jerusalem, around 2,500 Eritreans work for the municipality, hotels, cleaning companies and private houses. Their national insurance is usually paid.
They work, play with their children, pray in Christian churches, and eat injera – with or without meat.
They love Israel, its land and people. Some are highly skilled. They try to maintain a normal life, like every Israeli. But despite their proximity, living among us, they are not seen – almost like glass – and have no formal status.
Like his compatriots, J. met with difficulties when trying to get his visa in order; after hours of waiting outside the Interior Ministry, he was sent from Jerusalem to other cities by confused and indifferent bureaucrats.
J. is not even recognized as the father of his latest baby, and a previous child, born in Hadassah University Medical Center, did not receive a birth certificate – as J. could not pay the hospital bill. The family’s payment of national insurance did not translate into the right to free medical care. For some basic needs, parents and children do not exist.
For refugees without rights, civil society must step in. Extraordinary people have organized and been providing assistance to families. On a national level, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants in Tel Aviv has been dealing with legal assistance, and Kav LaOved – Worker’s Hotline has been coaching them on labor rights.
In Jerusalem, the Aid Program for Refugees and Asylum- Seekers is actualizing the Jewish value of giving priority to the poor people of the city, via translation of documents, bridging gaps with institutions and employers, fund-raising for medical assistance, and offering English and Hebrew classes, babysitting and aid to pregnant women. Kol Haneshama, a congregation in the capital with a progressive agenda, has also been doing admirable work; its next step is to engage in public advocacy and lobbying to educate policymakers about the lives of these unrecognized refugees.
Recently, Jerusalemites and “glass people” organized against the Holot detention center, a de facto open prison pending deportation. The “Holot stick” is perceived as very stressful, and has also shown its limited efficiency; despite the incentive package of a few thousand dollars for “volunteer departure” from Israel, only some hundreds have left.
More importantly, it has changed a paradigm. Before Holot, despite the bureaucracy of visa renewals, some Eritreans were regaining some dignity and finding moments of happiness in Jerusalem. It was not a perfect world, but at least they were alive and free. The new reality brought back the specter of Afwerki’s jails from which they had escaped.
Understandably, Israel has issues with integrating around 65,000 African refugees and migrants. However, the situation needs to be addressed with more professionalism and sensitivity. The current visa policy needs urgent improvement, and three methodologies – at least – should be considered.
Firstly, Israel must distinguish between the 65,000 refugees, by introducing parameters such as country of origin, religion, age and family status. Even some Eritrean refugees admit that many Africans came in to Israel for purely economic reasons. Looking for a better future does not entitle anyone to the automatic status of “political refugee.” Those who pretend to come for political reasons harm the entire community of African migrants to Israel, including the true political refugees.
Israel, therefore, should ensure that a married Christian father with children, belonging to a church forbidden by the Asmara tyrant, is not categorized in the same way as a 20-year-old South Sudanese or Nigerian who migrated to Israel just as he would have to Kenya, Europe or America – for a better life.
Secondly, the lack of clear policies about issuing visas, the administrative harassment, and the attempt to rip the dignity from the migrants might convince some to leave. But it makes everyone bitter, Israelis and Eritreans alike. Moreover, employing people on a minimum wage and denying them basic social rights contradicts Jewish and Zionist values.
The Jerusalemite Israelis assisting the Jerusalemite Africans are all clear about this: Coming from across the political and religious spectrum, they perceive their humanitarian actions as Jewish and Zionist in essence.
Lastly, from a purely Machiavellian perspective, Israel would do better to consider the glass people as “black diamonds,” and invest in them: The 68-year-old dictator of Asmara is sick, and his days are numbered. The West, including Israel, cooperates with his apparatus for security and strategic reasons, as many interests are currently at stake in the Horn of Africa, from Sudan to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait. One day, though, when Afwerki’s regime disintegrates, the Eritrean diaspora, politically well-organized, will hopefully be back home and contribute to the democratization process in East Africa.
When the glass people create a democracy in Eritrea and become carbonados again, will they remember the good heart of the Israelis, or the stress they went through via the absurd mechanisms of the Interior Ministry? The current Israeli administration, along with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, has indicated its strong connection with Africa. It would be wise to foresee the post-Afwerki period on the horizon.
Certainly some Eritrean families deserve the status of political refugees, at least temporarily. Their peace of mind is more than a human rights issue; it is a potential long-term strategic investment by the State of Israel in a mine of precious gems, fallen on its territory by luck.
They live among us, and they reflect us. One day in a better future, on the shores of the Red Sea, far away in East Africa, they could be us.
The writer is an international political analyst who has taught political science and international relations for the LSE via the University of London’s International Programs at DEI College, Greece.