After 13 years, Eritrean asylum seeker was granted resettlement. Then came COVID
World Refugee Day

After 13 years, Eritrean asylum seeker was granted resettlement. Then came COVID

Closing of skies freezes Gary Meles’ plans to move family to Canada, where they’d finally be able to receive recognition as refugees

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Ghebrehiwet Meles in Tel Aviv on May 27, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Ghebrehiwet Meles in Tel Aviv on May 27, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

After 13 years in limbo, during which Israeli authorities refrained from even adjudicating Ghebrehiwet Meles’ request for asylum, the Eritrean migrant was officially granted status as a refugee earlier this year, but not in Israel — in Canada.

In cooperation with authorities in Ottawa, the Interior Ministry booked flights for Meles and his family to Toronto, for March 25.

The 40-year-old prepared for the move as the coronavirus pandemic began ravaging the globe, and he hoped to make it out of the country before Canada shuttered its gates to foreigners. But a week before the scheduled departure, he was notified that the skies above Canada had all but closed.

Since then over three months have passed and Meles, his wife and their three young children are still stuck in Israel along with several other Eritrean families, waiting for an update from Canadian authorities that they can board a plane to Toronto. “We want to restart our lives,” he said in an interview ahead of Saturday’s World Refugee Day, explaining that they’ve been “frozen” since his 2007 arrival at the Egyptian border.

Asylum seekers from Eritrea protest against the Eritrean ambassador to Israel outside the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 25, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Initially devastated, Meles took pride in having used the extra time in Israel to support his community of Eritrean asylum seekers. The migrants have been hit hard by a pandemic that has left 80 percent of them unemployed and without the benefits previously available to migrants with unresolved status.

Reflecting on his time here, which he hopes will indeed soon be coming to a close, Meles described a largely disappointing experience in the Jewish state. He is just one of 21,000 migrants from Eritrea and Sudan who have not received a response from the Interior Ministry’s Population Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA), years after submitting applications for asylum.

“We were taught in university that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East,” Meles said during an interview with The Times of Israel at a Tel Aviv cafe earlier this month. “I thought I would be protected, but unfortunately, that has not been my experience.”

From slavery to freedom?

National elections have not been held in Eritrea since the country declared independence in 1993. It has since been run by an authoritarian regime led by President Isaias Afwerki, which has outlawed all other parties, save for its far-left People’s Front for Democracy and Justice.

Even after the country’s 20-year conflict with Ethiopia was resolved in 2018, compulsory conscription remains in place, which Human Rights Watch says has effectively amounted to the “enslavement” of millions of young civilians once they turn 18. While the period of forced-labor is supposed to last 18 months, rights groups say it often extends indefinitely.

Israeli soldiers stand guard on Tuesday as Eritrean asylum-seekers sit on the ground behind a border fence, after they attempted to cross illegally from Egypt into Israel. (photo credit: AP/Ariel Schalit)
Israeli soldiers stand guard on Tuesday as Eritrean asylum-seekers sit on the ground behind a border fence, after they attempted to cross illegally from Egypt into Israel. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

In 2006, the then 26-year-old Meles decided to leave his family and flee the country, illegally crossing the dangerous border trenches into Ethiopia, where he spent a year in a refugee camp. Still exposed to the violence of the cross-border conflict, Meles decided to flee to Sudan, hoping that there he would be able to apply for resettlement in Europe.

In Sudan, Meles and the other Eritrean migrants learned that thousands like them had been able to make it to Israel, where they were not being persecuted. With the little money he had, he paid Egyptian smugglers to be transported through the Sinai Dessert and into Israel. This was before Israel completed building a wall along its Egyptian border in 2013, and thousands of migrants, mostly African, were managing to cross through every year.

While Meles said Egyptian soldiers had shot at a group of migrants trying to cross into Israel the day before, his own journey into Israel had been less eventful, and his group of 30 migrants were simply detained by IDF soldiers at the border, as they expected.

Meles spent a week at an army base near the southern border before his group was transferred to the nearby Saharonim prison for African asylum seekers. “Luckily we got there on the Sabbath, and there wasn’t enough staff around to receive us, so we were bused to Beersheba instead and told we were free to go.”

African migrants protesting outside the Holot detention facility in February 2014. (Flash90)

Not comprehending that he had managed to avoid months in the detention center, Meles pled with the soldiers to keep him under detention so he could be interviewed and have his asylum request adjudicated.

“Ultimately, the people I was with convinced me that this was our opportunity to get to Tel Aviv, where there were lots of others like us,” he said.

They all pitched in for a taxi to the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv and he spent the ensuing nights at a nearby shelter.

“Life has not been easy since. Tel Aviv is very big — like being in a jungle — and Israelis didn’t know anything about the Eritreans coming here and have grouped us with all other Africans as if we’re the same,” Meles said. Of the over 31,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, over 70% are from Eritrea, while most of the others are from Sudan.

At the end of 2007, Meles received a work visa, which he has used for employment in various service industry jobs. Years passed. During that time, he moved into an apartment in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood, learned Hebrew and English, met his wife and started his family. But throughout that whole period, he was unable to file an application for asylum.

The Hatikva Market in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

It took until 2014 before the Interior Ministry began accepting applications from African migrants. Meles filed one shortly thereafter, and was brought in for an interview a year later. Since then, he has heard nothing.

“I, of course, believe I am deserving of refugee status, but even if they think I’m not, at least give me an answer so I know how to proceed,” he lamented.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s PIBA did not comment on Meles’s specific case and acknowledged that for a period, asylum applications were reviewed at a slower pace when no deportations were taking place anyways. However, she said that now, “all applications [received] are under review.”

Shira Abbo, a spokeswoman for the Tel Aviv-based Hotline For Refugees and Migrants explained that PIBA prioritizes the applications from eastern European migrants as there are easier legal grounds to reject those requests, whereas African migrants, whose claims for asylum are believed to be more legitimate, are almost entirely ignored.

Turning lemons into lemonade

Convinced that a response from PIBA would never come, Meles reached out to relatives in Canada, hoping they would sponsor his resettlement request.

“My children have no future here,” he said, explaining the decision to file an application in 2018.

A woman feeds children from families of illegal African immigrants at a day-care center in southern Tel Aviv, on May 28, 2015. The faces of the children were blurred to protect their identities. (Jack Guez/AFP)

It took nearly a year and a half until the requests received approval, but plane tickets were finally issued for Meles’s family in February.

Less than a month later, the coronavirus scuttled their plans.

Meles said he knew of at least ten other families in the same situation, but Canada’s Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship department said it could not disclose the exact number due to issues of privacy.

A spokeswoman for the office said in a statement that “due to these extraordinary times, the Government of Canada has implemented a number of temporary measures, including travel restrictions, to protect the health and safety of Canadians and reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

“Overseas refugee resettlement will resume once conditions allow, which includes ensuring that there are appropriate measures in place to support refugees upon arrival,” she added, No timetable was given for when the restrictions might be removed.

Volunteers with the African Refugee Development Center prepare to deliver food packages to African asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv, April 3, 2020. (Courtesy ARDC)

But Meles said he has “used the delay for something positive.”

He joined forces with other activists in the Eri Asylum Seekers Community In Israel who recognized the depth of the challenge the pandemic posed for the thousands not entitled to insurance benefits and who work in industries that had been shuttered almost entirely during Israel’s lockdown.

With no work anyways, the activists had plenty of time to volunteer, translating government instructions and updates on the virus and reaching out to the media in order to raise awareness of the community’s plight.

“We’ve mobilized to help the weakest members of the community and have helped feed 400 families,” he said. “They wouldn’t have had anyone else to turn to.”

Ghebrehiwet Meles in Tel Aviv on June 18, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Meles, who works as a translator for the Hotline and has been able to keep his job during the pandemic, said he prioritized his volunteering with the activists.

“Our energy became a symbol of hope for the community,” he gushed.

Meles said he was glad he had been given the opportunity “to give back to the community,” but admitted that he and his family are ready to begin the next chapter of their lives in Canada.

“It will be a difficult transition, but my wife and I want to have the opportunity to raise our children with dignity,” he said, adding that he wasn’t nervous about the move, knowing that he will no longer have to fear deportation or endure emigration-encouraging policies.

“Why have us fill out applications for asylum if you don’t intend to respond to them?” he wondered aloud, adding that the lack of response from the government has effectively held him and thousands others “hostage” for years.

Reflecting on the entire experience in Israel, Meles lamented, “it shouldn’t have had to be this way.”

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