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Asylum Elusive for Africans in Israel Print E-mail

By Jay Bushinsky
March 20, 2009

More than 17,000 Africans who risked their lives to get to Israel in the past two years are finding it harder than they anticipated to settle down in the proverbial Promised Land.

They entered illegally, slipping across the southern border from the Sinai Peninsula, usually with the help of Bedouin Arab smugglers and by dodging Egyptian border police, only to discover that the asylum they seek is as ephemeral as a desert mirage.

Asmerom and Benjamin, two Eritreans age 25 and 38, respectively, who asked that their family names not be disclosed lest relatives left behind be endangered, arrived a year and five months ago after hitchhiking and walking nearly 2,000 miles across Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. They expected to be granted refugee rights and to be allowed to work, albeit at menial jobs.

However, they remain in limbo.

Under Israel's right of return, Jews receive automatic citizenship.

Benjamin said he is an orthodox Christian, while Asmerom said he is Muslim.

Asmerom said that once he reached Sudan, he had to choose between Libya and Israel as prospective countries of refuge. "I picked Israel," he said, "because I believed it was a strong country." He had no idea of the problems that awaited him here.

"We have no status and therefore cannot work," said Asmerom, a marine biologist by profession.

Benjamin's wife, who accompanied her husband on the 2,000-mile trek, found employment surreptitiously at a local hotel. Asmerom, a bachelor, receives a modest stipend for doing "community service." He is a member of the Eritrean Asylum Seekers in Israel, an organization that represents the 7,000-strong Eritrean community. It is the largest component of Israel's sub-Saharan African population, next to the 115,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, of whom 35,000 were born here since the original immigrants arrived.

Citing Israeli and U.N. bureaucracy, Asmerom said the Eritreans simply "have not been given the opportunity to apply for refugee status." The Eritrean Embassy in Tel Aviv does not provide any advice or counsel, he said.

Eritrea's ambassador to Israel, Debbas Tessamariam Tereste, said the embassy does not provide assistance because those coming here illegally "are not political refugees. They are economic refugees who came here for a better life."

Mr. Tereste defined their presence in Israel as a "political issue" and said "only those who volunteer to go back to Eritrea will be repatriated." He added, however, "There will be no problem if Israel gives them work or asylum."

Michael Bavly, the local representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), said the Israeli government is the sole authority for granting asylum but that the U.N. handles preliminary verification and recommendations. He said a special committee composed of officials from the Foreign, Interior and Justice ministries determines eligibility for asylum.

Israeli Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad told The Washington Times that UNHCR is phasing out its activity in Israel and that the Interior Ministry will deal with the issue in the future.

"A special unit is being set up for this matter," she said.

Mr. Bavly said, "We are training Interior Ministry personnel to do the screening, and they should be ready to take over in eight months."

In the meantime, Tel Aviv's older neighborhoods on the city's south side are teaming with thousands of Africans who have escaped civil war, totalitarian rule, poverty and the denial of basic human rights. In addition to Eritrea, they have come from Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Congo, Sudan and several other African countries.

Among them there are 1,400 Sudanese who escaped Darfur, 600 of whom have been granted asylum.

Seen from the outside, the buildings in which the Africans live look no different than those inhabited by Israelis. Inside, however, it is a different story.

The apartments are shared by the women and children of a dozen families in some cases. Israeli immigration police have housed their spouses elsewhere. Every woman, it seems, has a heart-rending story to tell.

After infiltrating from Sinai, an Eritrean woman who asked not to be named was detained with hundreds of other asylum seekers in a makeshift tent camp adjacent to the Ketziot prison in southern Israel.

Another woman who spoke in her native Tigrit, a language spoken in the Horn of Africa, said she spent several months trekking across East Africa en route to Israel. "I left with nothing except the clothes on my back," she said. Her tale was translated into Arabic so that a Jewish neighbor from Morocco could tell it in Hebrew.

Not everything about their situation is bleak. Israel insists that all children go to school despite their parents' status. As the Tigrit-speaking woman told her tale, her 8-year-old daughter, Azmy, beamed throughout. Azmy speaks fluent Hebrew and attends a nearby elementary school named for Israel's national poet, Haim Nahman Bialik.

WhileIsraeli policy appears to discourage the Africans from settling down in the central part of the country, the attractions of life in a big city, as well as practical help from the Tel Aviv municipality, have turned this city into a magnet for the migrants.

Thousands also work illegally on Israeli collective farms and in hotels in the resort city of Eilat.

According to the Refugees Rights Forum, a local organization that campaigns on refugees' behalf, asylum seekers are not eligible for work permits until they have undergone an in-depth interview at the office of UNHCR.

Due to the agency's small staff and heavy workload, it takes "well more than a year" for such interviews to be granted, Asmerom said. In the meantime, asylum seekers "are forced to work illegally in order to provide for themselves."


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