Israel, “We are not criminals”! The migrants global call | Stefano Nanni, Osservatorio Iraq, Refugees, Levinsky Park, Tel Aviv, Eritrean community, Migrants
Israel, “We are not criminals”! The migrants global call Print
Stefano Nanni   

//Protestors in front of the American embassy in Tel Aviv, on January 6. (Foto di O.M.)Protestors in front of the American embassy in Tel Aviv, on January 6. (Foto di O.M.)

Rights, freedom, respect. This is what the asylum seekers community continues to claim in Israel. After nearly two months of protests (suspended only for a few days following the death of Ariel Sharon), on Wednesday, January 22nd thousands of people gathered again in Levinsky Park, Tel Aviv. Then they headed toward the main powers’ embassies (including the USA, Great Britain, Italy and France) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) seat.

As it occurred on January 6th , also this time asylum seekers have delivered letters to embassy officers in order to complain against their condition. After all, they had promised : "We will continue to protest until the institutions will meet our demands."

Of course, as days passed, the turnout has declined, partly because of the pressures received from police and employers, who have threatened the immediate arrest or dismissal from work. This is also a reason for which asylum seekers had launched a few days ago a call for an international mobilization to support them.

A request that has been positively received, with solidarity demonstrations that took place on Wednesday in major American and European capitals (including Washington , New York, Toronto, Berlin and London). Italy has also responded to the call, with the Eritrean community which met in Rome, in Piazza San Giovanni, to reclaim the rights of their brothers and sisters in Israel.

//More than 30,000 thousands African asylum seekers participate in a protest calling to free all African refugees imprisoned in Israeli prisons and detention centers and calling for the recognition of all refugees rights, Tel Aviv, Israel, on January 5, 2014. The protest was the first event in a 3-day general strike of African asylum seekers in Israel, and is the biggest African refugees protest in Israel’s history.More than 30,000 thousands African asylum seekers participate in a protest calling to free all African refugees imprisoned in Israeli prisons and detention centers and calling for the recognition of all refugees rights, Tel Aviv, Israel, on January 5, 2014. The protest was the first event in a 3-day general strike of African asylum seekers in Israel, and is the biggest African refugees protest in Israel’s history. 


Osservatorio Iraq met some of the participants, who told us the reasons why the protest does not concern only Israel, but also Europe and the West in general.


Escape from Eritrea

Ribka , a cultural mediator, has been living in Rome for many years. She is part of the Eritrean Youth Solidarity for National Salvation (EYSNS ), a group that brings together young Eritreans around the world in opposition to the dictatorial regime that has been ruling the country since 1993. Most of the people who run away from Eritrea, in fact, are young men who run away from the so-called 'military service' , "that is really just another way to call slavery", says Ribka .

"All the young Eritrean men and women, and sometime also children, are forced to respond to this 'service', which consists of a miserable salary of 30€ per month to perform any type of work for the highest officials of state , including the 5 generals who rule the country together with the President Afewerki ". In addition, this 'service' can last "even a lifetime, at the discretion of the person you work for."

"There are people," says Ribka "that have been subjected to this slavery service, even today, since 1994". This is one of the reasons that lead people to run away". In Israel there are 35,000 of our brothers and sisters (for a total of about 55,000 asylum seekers, ed) that in any other Western country, such as Italy, would be considered as refugees. But the Netanyahu government says that we are economic migrants, who arrived in Israel illegally in search for a job. The reality is that we come from one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world, and Israel” – she said with emphasis – “is obliged to recognize us as political refugees, not only because it is a signatory to the Geneva Convention on Refugees, but mainly because of its history".

"A people that has suffered so much in the past cannot ignore the tragedies of other peoples."

Even Melake , who came from Bologna, where he’s been living for 8 years , bluntly defines the Eritrean military service a form of real bondage. “I myself have done it, for two years, and I cannot define it otherwise: you can’t see your family, you have no right to speak, you can’t write, you can’t do anything, just obey ". It is s a condition that spares no one: "it does not matter if you studied, if you have your own business, or even if you're a woman or an adult: it is a scary thing, you can’t refuse to do it. Who tried to has disappeared, no one ever knew anything about him or her ".

The alternative way, a very risky one, is running away. But at this point there is another path that begins, and it is not less tortuous: the search for freedom.

"When I arrived in Italy I thought things would be easier, but I was wrong. The beginnings were difficult, I arrived in Lampedusa and there I ended up in prison, where I immediately applied for asylum , because there is no other choice: if you do not present it they send you back where you came from. Then they gave me a residence permit for subsidiary protection ( ), with whom I live in Italy even today".


Infiltration in Israel  

The story of Melake is similar to that of many Eritreans who daily try to leave their country, not to "go and steal work elsewhere, but looking for freedom”. The same freedom that his countrymen are seeking in Israel.

But in vain, because the domestic law insists considering them as “infiltrators” from the moment of their arrival, when they are locked up (since a little more than a month) in the new "open centers".

One of these is the Holot center, where a month ago started the extraordinary "March for Freedom" They may well present a formal request for asylum, but hopes to get a response are zero.

Of the 1,800 applications submitted last year until now only 250 were examined, of which 155 have already been officially denied. Meanwhile, the Israeli Interior Ministry announced that its policies of "voluntary repatriation" (which provides the sum of $ 3,500 for those who agree to be part of it) should result in 560 asylum seekers to leave the country by the end of the month. In 2013 about 2,600 people joined the program, which was criticized among others by the same UNHCR and other prominent human rights international organizations.

The attitude from the Israeli government is totally changing the image that the Eritreans had until a few years ago of Israel.

"When we were young ", says Ribka, "our mothers told us about the Holy Land as a wonderful place, a place of peace for all, for us Christians, but also for Muslims and Jews. And when someone came back from a pilgrimage always brought a bit of land, that we used to melt in water that we adopted as a remedy against the 'evil eye'. "

A close and significant connection that, however, still maintains its strength thanks "to the profound friendship of the Israeli people", as demonstrated also in Rome (as well as during the protests in Israel) by the presence of an Israeli citizen.

In San Giovanni square, in Rome, there were also some Italian, activists or simply passers-by, who were attracted by the songs and slogans shouted by the protesters.

"Freedom and justice for our sisters and brothers in Israel", "They are refugees , not criminals", "Respect the Geneva Convention" : these are the messages sent from Rome (and worldwide) to Tel Aviv, together with an appeal to the international community (attached below) in which the Eritrean Community repeats the requests to: cancel the recent amendments to the Law on Prevention of infiltration; stop the arrests and release all refugees; examine transparently the asylum requests under the supervision of UNHCR.

These are demands that the asylum seekers community in Israel continues to submit to the government in several ways: marching in silence in front of the Knesset and the embassies, or protesting directly from Saharonim prison in southern Negev desert, where 50 Sudanese (initially 150) are going on with a hunger strike , which is today at its 19th day.

Peaceful and non-violent actions against which, however, the Israeli authorities continue to respond with force. Especially against people on hunger strike who have been separated from other prisoners and deprived of the possibility to make phone calls, watch TV and even to eat in the canteen. In addition, 4 of the organizers of the strike were transferred from Saharonim to a secret criminal prison near Beersheva - in violation of the Israeli law, according to the Israeli NGO Hotline for Refugees and Migrants .


The new errants through Mediterranean

"For all these reasons the international day of solidarity with refugees in Israel is very important ," says Ribka. "The peaceful demonstrations that are carrying out our brothers and sisters are extraordinary, and give strength and courage to all of us, not only Eritreans and Sudanese , but all Africans ."

"This” - she continues – “is also another opportunity for the West to understand that, in addition to oil and coltan, we also have rights".

A perfect as concise analysis of a general situation – that concerning migrants throughout the Mediterranean - that is not just about Israel. In Piazza San Giovanni are also remembered the victims of the shipwreck occurred last October 3rd, when at least 366 people died off the coast of Lampedusa.

"Those deaths have occurred because of the Bossi-Fini law, which is very similar to the Law of Prevention of Infiltration in Israel: in common they have the rejection of the immigrant, the stranger ", cries touched the Eritrean woman. "Europe is falling apart, where are human rights? Support at least the UNHCR, which is the only institutional reality close to us. "

The connection with what happened in Lampedusa is echoed in the words of Lula Teclehaimanot , also present in the square. Lula is the spokesman of the NGO Gandhi and a member of the group SOS Sinai, that, among other realities in which it operates, is also active in the Sinai.

Among the victims of that tragic October 3rd there were 15 people who had managed to escape from that area, often called a "stateless zones" , in which criminal, political and economic interests are mixed, with the negative consequences dumped mainly on migrants .

"Who flees from the Horn of Africa," says Lula , "has started to head to Israel few years ago, after that the awareness of the risks involved in crossing the Mediterranean to reach Italy spread. But things did not go any better. We are here today to demonstrate for our countrymen who have managed to arrive in Israel, but we must not forget the many people who are unlikely to leave the Sinai. Also because once arrived at the Israeli border there is a high-voltage electric iron barrier".

"Many of them end their journey in the hands of criminals and human traffickers asking for a ransom for their release, which can reach up to 50 - 60 thousand dollars. And those who can’t afford to pay by cash can undergo illegal organ surgery ".

This fact alone should suffice as a reason to welcome a stranger in a humane manner within a society. But the reality says it is not so, since in the Mediterranean who seeks to be welcomed receives instead a rejection , or results to be trapped .

"The fact of being immediately arrested, as happens in Israel", says Lula, "and having little choice but to go back, in the Sinai or in Eritrea, it is very serious. Even more because there is no distinction between men , women and children. All of this is profoundly inhuman and the world must do something. "


The appeal of the Eritrean community in Italy spread on Wednesday:



Stefano Nanni for Osservatorio