As the start date for Israel’s plan to forcibly deport Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers grows near, Eritrean activist Bluts Iyassu Zeru watches the developments with a mixture of dread and disbelief.
Iyassu Zeru is the Israel chair of Eritreans United for Justice, the local diaspora political movement trying to overthrow President Isaias Afwerki, a brutal dictator who has been in power since 1993. He faces certain death if he is returned home and significant danger if he is forced to go to another country in Africa.
Last month, the Knesset approved an amendment to the so-called Infiltrator’s Law mandating the closure of the Holot detention facility and the forced deportations of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants and asylum seekers starting in March. Netanyahu announced deals to send the migrants to third-party countries in Africa, but has refused to specify the countries, though reports have named them as Uganda and Rwanda.
However, last week both Rwandan and Ugandan politicians denied that their countries would accept asylum seekers forcibly deported from Israel. “There is no written agreement or any form of agreement between the government of Uganda and Israeli government to accept refugees from Israel,” Henry Oryem Okello, Uganda’s state minister for foreign affairs, told Reuters. He said any suggestion the migrants would be deported to his country was “fake news … absolute rubbish.” Rwanda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs echoed those sentiments in statements to AP.
A spokesman from the Prime Minister’s Office said the PMO was unaware of any Ugandan or Rwandan refusal to accept deported migrants and could not comment on the issue.
Israel’s Population Immigration and Borders Authority said it was unaware of any changes to the plan to begin the deportations in March. PIBA has already started filling approximately 100 new positions to carry out the deportations, with some salaries as high as NIS 30,000 ($8,800) per month for a two-year contract. PIBA estimated that the deportation will cost an estimated NIS 300 million ($86 million), including an “exit grant” of $3,500 to each migrant and asylum seeker who leaves and, in the cases of migrants destined for Rwanda, a reported payout of $5,000 per head to the Rwandan government.
Rwanda and Uganda have already accepted about 4,000 migrants and asylum seekers who signed a document saying they had “willingly left” Israel, but the countries so far have not accepted any forcibly deported migrants.
There are approximately 38,000 African migrants and asylum seekers in Israel, according to the Interior Ministry. About 72 percent are Eritrean and 20% are Sudanese, and the vast majority arrived between 2006 and 2012. Many live in south Tel Aviv, and some residents and activists have blamed them for rising crime rates and lobbied the government for deportation.
‘It’s hard to organize a revolution when you’re worried about where you’ll sleep’
Iyassu Zeru, the chair of Eritreans United for Justice, was a high school geography teacher in a small town south of the capital of Asmara, when he was forcibly transferred to teach 12th grade in a vast military training facility called SAWA as part of his national service. Males in Eritrea are forced to serve in the army for undesignated amounts of time, which can often reach 20 or more years.
Iyassu Zeru had no freedom of movement, no salary and no hope the situation would change. After four years in SAWA, one night he escaped the military area with two other teachers, walking for two nights to reach the border with Sudan. One teacher was captured and imprisoned for two years in one of Eritrea’s notorious underground prisons. That teacher also lost his leg after sustaining multiple beatings while in custody, Iyassu Zeru said.
Iyassu Zeru spent nine months in Sudan and then paid $2,500 to a smuggler to get to the Israeli border with Sinai. He chose Israel because a cousin had previously made the journey there.
He crossed into Israel illegally on June 29, 2010, in a group of 36 people. Iyassu Zeru came to Israel during one of the peaks of illegal immigration from Sinai to Israel, when upwards of 1,300 people were crossing the border each month. In 2014, Israel completed construction of 242-kilometer (150-mile) electronic fence along the border with Sinai. Illegal immigration through Sinai dropped to just 11 cases in all of 2016.
Iyassu Zeru worked in Tel Aviv and Raanana before spending a year in detention at Holot, an “open” detention facility for illegal migrants in the Negev desert. Under the Infiltrators Law, Holot, which can host up to 1,300 illegal migrants at a time, will close in March. Migrants who were held there will either face deportation or imprisonment in Saharonim, a regular Israeli prison.
Iyassu Zeru now works in Raanana at a toy store during the week. On weekends, he comes to south Tel Aviv to meet with the other members of Eritreans United for Justice.
“We are trying to organize so that we can go back to our country,” said Iyassu Zeru. “We are trying to organize how to overthrow the government with people who are living here.”
But Iyassu Zeru said his organization has faced many difficult obstacles in its efforts to organize the Eritrean diaspora for meaningful political action. First is the overwhelming fear of the Eritrean security forces, whose undercover surveillance network, the asylum seekers say, likely encompasses Israel. Many refugees are not sure who they can trust and are petrified of putting their families still living in Eritrea in danger.
Iyassu Zeru said the challenge of organizing the Eritrean community was exacerbated by the uncertainty of the situation in Israel. Israel has constantly been threatening to send them back to Eritrea or a third-party country, and they are very wary of engaging in any king of political activism while their situation is so precarious.
Iyassu Zeru pointed out that because Eritreans living at home have no ability to protest or organize politically, the only ones who will be able to create real change are expatriates. But in Israel, fear over their situation overwhelms their ability to effect change. “People feel they don’t have any safety, so they feel they need to keep silent,” said Zeru.
“[Eritreans] should stand together and solve the problem,” he said. “We just want to stay in Israel until we can make our country better. We hope to return to our country. We have a killer in charge [in Eritrea]. If we can change the killer, we’ll go back the next day.”
‘If we don’t stand together, we will stay as refugees’
Iyassu Zeru and the other members of Eritreans United for Justice hold weekly meetings. They try to publicize underreported news from Eritrea, both to their community and to the world at large. They are attempting to build a network of Eritrean diaspora activists with Eritrean refugee communities in Europe. “If we don’t stand together, we will stay as refugees,” said Iyassu Zeru. “We are trying to move forward, to get help from other countries, so they can help us on a government level.”
Rather than threaten deportation, he wishes Israel would help train the Eritrean dissidents in tools like community organizing, civil disobedience, education, and other methods they can use to effect lasting change in their country from abroad.
Iyassu Zeru is certain that his work organizing Eritreans in the Holot detention center and speaking to international media has put him on a list of government opposition figures, and his life is in danger — even if he is deported to a third-party country in Africa. For that reason, if he is required to choose between deportation or imprisonment at Saharonim, Iyassu Zeru plans to choose prison.
Iyassu Zeru said his half-brother chose the government’s $3,500 payout for “willing deportation” to Rwanda, but was not allowed to stay there. Asylum seekers and migrants deported to Rwanda have told The Times of Israel they are placed in transports and dropped off at an international border in the middle of the night, without documents, and told to cross illegally. Zeru’s half-brother went to South Sudan, then north Sudan, then Libya, then undertook a dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean to Europe.
Don’t deport, disperse
Iyassu Zeru supports a policy of dispersal to spread the migrants and asylum seekers evenly across Israel, to ensure that no one place is overwhelmed by a high concentration of Africans, as south Tel Aviv currently is. Europe has a similar policy, though many countries such as Great Britain have been accused of dispersing refugees overwhelmingly to poor neighborhoods.
Iyassu Zeru said the concentration of migrants and asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv also means that most Israelis have never met an asylum seeker, making it easier for them to dismiss the issue and buy into the “messages of hate from the Israeli government and some media.”
He said he hopes that if the migrants and asylum seekers are dispersed throughout the country, they will be able to assimilate into Israeli society in a way that is mutually beneficial for both Israelis and his community.
“They’re saying that south Tel Aviv is turning into an African city,” said Iyassu Zeru. “But they put us here, they brought this upon themselves.”
Like many other migrants and asylum seekers, after Iyassu Zeru was released from his initial detainment in 2010 he was furnished with a one-way ticket to Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. Lost and disoriented, many refugees stayed in the area around the bus station, which, long neglected by the city, is also its grittiest neighborhood, with crumbling infrastructure.
Sheffi Paz, one of the main activists with Central Bus Station Neighborhood Watch, a small but vocal group of residents of south Tel Aviv opposed to the African asylum seekers, said the idea of dispersal is “too little, too late.”
“We talked about dispersal years ago, and no one paid attention to us; they talked to us only about their freedom of movement and the fact that they built a community here, and called us racists and fascists,” she said. Paz has been known to provoke violent altercations with African residents of south Tel Aviv, including protesting local community events and harassing African children as young as four years old and telling them to “go home because they’re not welcome here.”
“Now, because deportations are on the table, everyone’s going back to this idea of dispersal, but now it’s too late,” she said. Paz, who has lived near the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station for more than 20 years, said she was “overjoyed” that the deportations are planned for the next two months. “I hope it happens,” she said. “I’m really angry at them for destroying the neighborhood and I don’t want them here.”
Iyassu Zeru called for a bit more understanding. “We don’t want to be citizens of Israel, but let’s respect each other. Treat us as human beings and remember you were a stranger in Egypt the way we are now strangers in Israel,” he said. “Try to remember your grandparents’ history. We’re refugees now, but we’ll go back.
“Just give us safety until we make peace,” he continued. “No matter how long the night, the Israeli society and government should trust us. We will make this change.”