By Andrea Barron
On Sept. 2, violence erupted between rival groups of Eritreans outside Eritrea’s embassy in Tel Aviv. On one side were Eritrean refugees who came to protest a propaganda “party” the embassy was holding to celebrate 30 years of Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia and the rise to power of President Afwerki. On the other side were a small number of pro-regime agents hired to spy on the refugees, extort money from them and threaten their families back home if they criticize the Eritrean regime on social media.
At least 170 people were injured during the protests, including some 30 Israeli policemen. Police shot tear gas, grenades and live ammunition to quell the protests. The police had not used live ammunition inside the pre-1967 borders since Oct. 2000, when they killed 13 Palestinian citizens of Israel at the beginning of the second intifada.
I have been following the Eritrean protests in Israel and the status of African refugees there because I work with torture survivors from Eritrea now living in the Washington DC area. My organization, the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC), also collaborates with the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF) located in Tel Aviv.
Eritrea is a small country in the Horn of Africa which has one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world. It has no functioning legislature, no independent judiciary, and no free expression of any kind. What it does have is a brutal dictator, Isaias Afwerki, who has controlled the country since Eritrea won its independence. It forces all its citizens, men and women, to attend SAWA, a military boot camp, during their last year of high school. Many of them have to remain under military control their entire lives. A 2016 UN Commission called Eritrea’s indefinite military conscription a type of “enslavement.”
Thousands of the over 17,500 Eritrean refugees in Israel are torture survivors just like the people I work with who are seeking asylum in the United States. One TASSC survivor told me how she was caught by a spy after she blamed the Eritrean government for all the refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean while escaping their country. She was taken to a police station where a major held a gun to her head and raped her, then threatened to have her killed if she told anyone what he did. The rape was especially painful because she was also a victim of female genital mutilation/cutting. Another survivor I know was tortured for refusing to spy on customers in his Internet café who might be looking at “dangerous” websites like Amnesty International.
Hadera Ziraei is an Eritrean refugee who has lived in Israel for 14 years and works at the Israeli refugee organization ASSAF. He says that the Sept. 2 violence could have been avoided if police had been willing to cancel the embassy “party” as Eritrean community leaders had asked them to do.
Similar festivals at Eritrean embassies in the Netherlands, the UK and Canada were canceled after authorities heard from their local Eritrean communities. Hadera wants Israelis to understand why the protests turned violent. He explained that Eritrean refugees live in constant fear of a government that is thousands of miles away but still holds family members who remained there under its control. He said it is difficult to explain the intensity of frustration felt by Eritreans living so many years in Israel in limbo without any rights.
Eritrean asylum seekers in the United States usually must wait as long as eight or even nine years before getting an asylum interview with USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) if they entered the U.S. legally with a visa. But at least they are allowed to apply for asylum.
This is not the case in Israel, which does not have a functioning asylum system for non-Jewish refugees. It brands Eritreans and other African refugees as “infiltrators.” These “infiltrators” all arrived before 2013, when Israel completed a wall along the Israeli-Egyptian border to keep the refugees out.
Israel does not deport the refugees either. Instead, it tries to make their lives as miserable as possible so they will voluntarily deport themselves. Refugees are denied health care except in emergencies. Only those who are particularly vulnerable, such as domestic violence victims and people with disabilities, can access social welfare services. Refugees cannot officially work but neither are employers prosecuted for hiring them. They end up working for low wages in cleaning, construction, hotels and restaurants.
The Sept. 2 violence should be a wake-up call to Israel of the need to build a functioning asylum system where Eritreans and other refugees have the opportunity to present their cases. It’s outrageous that the country established as a sanctuary for Jewish refugees refuses to allow non-Jewish Eritreans and other African refugees to have an official right to work, access health care and attend university. This needs to change.
Andrea Barron is the Advocacy Program Manager at the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC), based in Washington DC. In 2018, she spent several days in Eritrea secretly interviewing torture survivors and wandering the streets of Asmara, the capital city.