On September 2nd, 2023, chaos broke out amid Eritrean asylum seekers demonstrating in southern Tel Aviv.
The Eritrean Embassy arranged an event to mark President Isais Afwerki’s 30 years of rule. Outside the venue hosting this event, groups in support of, and in opposition to Isais Afwerki’s rule organized. Supporters of the regime wore red, while those in opposition wore blue; police stood at attention. What started off as rallies soon devolved into violent clashes.
The two groups faced off with rocks, clubs, scrap metal, and wood, resulting in over 170 injuries to asylum seekers, and dozens of police officers. Throughout the day, law enforcement detained numerous individuals involved in the riots, and additional arrests were anticipated as authorities pursued those responsible for instigating and participating in acts of violence.
For over three decades, Eritrea has been governed by President Isaias Afwerki, who initially rose to power as a key figure in the liberation movement that succeeded in ending a 30-year-long struggle for independence from Ethiopia. During his 30-year tenure, President Afwerki, now 77 years old, has never held an election, established a functioning parliamentary system, or instituted an independent judiciary. Furthermore, Afwerki’s administration implemented obligatory military service, a system of forced labor, and ban on political parties, earning him a reputation as one of the world’s most dangerous dictators as far as destroying freedom of expression and the press. These policies have driven numerous Eritreans to seek refuge abroad, with some of them joining the ranks of African refugees who have made their way to Israel over the years.
And yet, although Eritrea stands as one of the most oppressive regimes, the UN’s Human Rights Council has enlisted Eritrea as a member of its council. Additionally Israel and other countries have allowed their Eritrean embassies to celebrate President Afwerki’s 30 years of rule. As Eritrean refugees observed these festivities, a pressing question emerged: what significance does international recognition of Eritrea’s authoritarian regime hold, when the UN’s Human Rights Council still welcomes the regime to their round table?
Israel’s Asylum Seekers Issue
It is estimated that 25,500 African asylum seekers currently reside in Israel, the majority of them originating from Sudan and Eritrea. On paper, Israel has signed on to the various refugee conventions, and allows foreign citizens to file for asylum due the persecution based on gender, race, political belief, sexual preference and more. Even while many asylum seekers have spent years or decades in Israel – with Israel officially recognizing the brutality these seekers face if they were to return to their home countries – Israel still has not granted them refugee status.
Thousands of asylum applications have been put on hold, collecting dust. Over 15,000 asylum requests are currently pending, with less than .5% of requests having been accepted. For comparison, the percentage of requests accepted in Europe is approximately 70%.
In light of Israel’s recognition of the dangers facing these refugees back home, Israel regulates their living status under a policy of temporary protection. While previously, efforts have been made to deport asylum seekers, it’s important to note that their presence in Israel is sanctioned by law, and their status is governed by either a 2A5 Visa or temporary visitors permit, which require renewal every three or six months. This policy leaves asylum seekers in a state of uncertainty, unlikely to be deported, yet unable to access social services, and social security benefits. The ministry of interior also uses intentionally ambiguous terminology regarding asylum seeker’s ability to work in Israel.
Israel’s Deportation Efforts
Israel’s attempts to deport the asylum seeker population have been a source of considerable debate, reflecting a complex and evolving chapter in the nation’s immigration policies. In 2012, Israel deported individuals from South Sudan to the newly established South Sudanese state. And again in 2018, Israel initiated efforts to deport Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda, sparking an unprecedented wave of public protests, a protracted legal battle, and extensive media coverage. Since 2018, there have been no further deportation attempts.
However, in October 2020, the United States announced its intentions to facilitate a normalization agreement between Israel and Sudan. Subsequently, within Israel, calls emerged to deport Sudanese asylum seekers back to Sudan. Nevertheless, in January, 2023, the Director General of the Immigration and Population Authority clarified that deportation was not a current agenda item.
The Practical Realities of Israel’s Asylum Seeker Violations
In Israel today there are still proponents of deporting asylum seekers, arguing that Israel must balance its humanitarian obligations with the practical constraints it faces. This approach is rooted in Israel’s geographic realities lies an understanding that the country’s limited physical space makes it incredibly challenging to accommodate large numbers of refugees. Additionally, Israel faces its own set of pressing issues, including regional security, and the well-being of its own citizens. Redirecting significant resources to help tens of thousands of refugees could strain the nation’s already limited resources and infrastructure.
The challenge remains in finding a balanced solution that respects both the nation’s capacity to assist those in need and its responsibility to address pressing internal priorities. Ultimately, the path forward will require careful consideration and collaboration among various stakeholders to ensure a just and pragmatic approach to the asylum seeker issue in Israel.
Solidarity Amidst Crisis – Asylum Seekers Join Israel’s War Efforts
Since the outbreak of war, on October 7th, all of Israel’s differing communities have come together in the most amazing ways to support Israel’s war efforts. Since many of these Eritrean asylum seekers have been living in Israel since the early 2000’s, it goes without saying that they feel a part of this country, and have linked arms with Israelis, getting involved in the volunteer efforts.
They’re helping out wherever they can, rolling up their sleeves and volunteering at a Moshav, or making sandwiches and sorting clothes with the Brothers In Arms, at Tel Aviv’s Expo Center. “I don’t see a situation where this activity would have been able to operate at the same level without them” says Noam Lanir, one of the leaders of the Brothers In Arms project, in reference to the Eritrean volunteers. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel, Matthias Larota, explains “Asylum seekers and refugees are an important resource for the host country. This is true in normal times but deserves special attention during the current state of war in Israel”.
However, as amazing as this show of solidarity is from the Eritrean community, these asylum seekers are still suffering under their status as temporary-visa holders, instead of receiving more stable status as recognized refugees. The Berl Katznelson Foundation analyzed the Ministry of Finance’s compensation program, recognizing the possible harm to asylum seekers, and devised a solution: implement a temporary arrangement that permits undocumented workers to engage in employment across various sectors and geographic regions without restrictions, for a specified duration. The Eritrean community’s dedication and involvement in the war efforts, has proven invaluable, demonstrating the significance of their contributions during this challenging time.