Infiltrators. Asylum seekers. Illegal migrants. Migrant Workers. Refugees.
The fate of the 53,000 Eritreans and Sudanese who have entered Israel illegally rest on these words. To be granted the right to live and work freely in Israel, the government must rule that those entering its borders left their homeland for fear of persecution and cannot return.
But the Eritreans and Sudanese more often than not came to Israel hoping to find work. They passed through Egypt and did not choose to seek asylum there, hurting their plea for refugee status on humanitarian grounds. And they are not Jews.
In an effort to make their voices heard throughout the world, a solidarity rally was held Jan. 22 in Israel and in front of about a dozen Israeli embassies throughout Europe and North America, including in Washington, D.C.
Over the past several years, Africans have been fleeing their homelands, hoping for a better life. To them, Israel is a democracy in a sea of autocratic states, a land where they can start over.
The Israeli government has labeled these people infiltrators, but they want to be considered asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are given a hearing and have their individual fate determined. Infiltrators into Israel are required to report to a detention center and are banned from working outside that facility.
Still, they are not sent back, and they are given an allowance, room, board and health care.
“Infiltrators imply sinister intent, like illegal aliens here,” explained Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS. “Asylum seekers want protection from the country.”
According to The Israel Project, anyone seeking asylum must request that status at the first country they arrive, which in these cases is usually Egypt. They must state that they are asking to stay for humanitarian reasons, but most of those entering Israel talk mostly of seeking work. Therefore, Israel has no legal obligation to grant them asylum.
Elinor K. Tesfamariam, an immigration attorney and one of the chief organizers of the D.C protest, said she believed Israel would be more willing to welcome these Africans if those who made it to Israel had the chance to present their facts.
“It is very disappointing. We do not expect Israel to take these kinds of measures,” said Tesfamariam, who was born in Eritrea. “Most of them are individuals who left their country because of genocide. Most of them have been trafficked. They suffered a lot before getting to Israel.”
About 15 American University students attended the D.C. protest across the street from the Israeli embassy. Despite the bitter cold, the students held their signs high and spoke of the misery among the Eritreans and Sudanese they saw while in Israel on their college’s Alternative Break Program.
“I am upset, because they can’t help where they were born. All they want is a fresh start in life, and I am upset that Israel is an immigrant state and they want to be a democratic state, and they won’t let these people in,” said one sophomore who didn’t want her name published.
“It’s a complicated situation in a complicated country,” added classmate Jes Walton of Washington.
Also attending the solidarity rally was Rabbi Charles Feinberg of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington.
“I feel strongly about the Sudanese and Eritrean refugees who came across the border,” he said. “They shouldn’t be treated as terrorists or enemies. This is a problem for the whole region. They need a process to handle this. Israel shouldn’t walk away from it.”
While the Israeli embassy refused to comment on the actual protest held outside its building, it did release a statement concerning what it referred to as the illegal migrants issue.
Since 2006, about 64,000 people have entered Israel unlawfully, and some have since voluntarily returned to their homeland, leaving 53,600 in Israel, according to the embassy statement.
“The Population and Immigration Authority, through its RSD (Refugee Status Determination) unit, has been examining hundreds of demands for asylum,” said the statement. “All applications are given thorough treatment. The sheer numbers and the range of issues raised present a significant challenge for the economic and social services of Israel — whose population is eight million.”
Because Israel is the only developed country with a land border with Africa, people do seek to enter Israel, the embassy stated. It is difficult to work out a solution “due to Israel’s unique geostrategic situation and the current political instability surrounding its borders; it becomes practically impossible to develop regional cooperative solutions with countries of origin and transit, as done by other developed countries, such as European countries and the U.S.”
Of the 53,600 mostly male Africans in Israel, about 67 percent are from Eritrea and 25 percent came from Sudan, said Hetfield. They had been flooding the border at the rate of about 2,000 to 3,000 a month, but the flow has all but halted following Israel’s erection of a fence along its Sinai border. During the first 10 months of last year, only 36 people made it through to Israel.
“Basically, it’s down to a trickle. Israel really has gotten the problem under control,” stated Hetfield, adding that now would be a great time to re-evaluate the policy.
Hetfield said he believes Israel continues to create an unwelcome atmosphere in hopes the Africans will choose on their own to leave Israel. But according to many people at the protest, those coming into Israel cannot return to their homeland for fear of death.
Last month, the Knesset passed an amendment to its Anti-Infiltration Law that allows detention without trial for up to a year for African asylum seekers who entered Israel illegally, as opposed to three years. The old law was ruled unconstitutional, as it disproportionately impinged on a person’s right to liberty, as well as being in conflict with Israel’s Basic Law regarding freedom and dignity.