Unpromised land: Eritrean refugees in Israel

P.J. Tobia writes: In 2006, 1,348 Eritreans who fled their government crossed the border from Egypt’s Sinai into Israel. By 2011, that number had grown to 17,175, with nearly a thousand crossing the Sinai to Israel every month, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Israeli government. Today, there are roughly 35,895 Eritreans living in Israel, as well as 15,210 Sudanese. Since 2006, some 60,000 African refugees from these countries and others have come to Israel in this way.

Rhuba arrived in Israel as many migrants do, after having fled Eritrea because of its despotic leadership, universal conscription and endemic poverty. The journey is a perilous gamble. Eritrean migrants travel hundreds of miles over land, some on foot. The threat of kidnap and torture at the hands of Bedouins who control the Sinai — which most refugees cross to get to Israel from Africa — is ever present.

According to the U.N., many do not survive the journey. Those who do are not always looking to reside permanently in the Jewish state, according to Israeli NGOs and the refugees themselves. But upon arrival in Israel, instead of refuge, many face antagonism, bitterness and a government policy that makes life closer to prison than the promised land.

They are rarely granted work permits. They have little access to health care, and few can afford decent housing. There are few schools for their children. And now, due to an immigration law effective on June 3, 2012, every migrant who crosses the border is imprisoned for a minimum of three years. Some may be held indefinitely.

Many of the migrants say they mistrust the police, while the lack of work visas forces residents such as Rhuba into unfortunate arrangements with landlords who gouge, and employers who sometimes take advantage.

“We are free,” one Eritrean in Tel Aviv told me, “but only to breathe.”

Those who arrived here before last summer believe that it is only a matter of time before they, too, are imprisoned under the new law. For a time, the government offered those who voluntarily turn themselves into immigration authorities 1,000 Euros and a plane ticket out of Israel.

Those who don’t want to leave, are worried.

“We don’t know what will happen tomorrow for us,” says Zebib Sultan, 30. “We are at risk. We are suspended like oil on the water.”

At a protest rally last May, Miri Regev, a member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, said that the immigrants were “a cancer” on Israeli society. Another parliament member called them “a plague.” Protesters waved signs reading “Tel Aviv — a Refugee camp,” while yelling “Blacks out!” [Continue reading…]

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