Eritrean journey to the end of his world
Journey’s end: Saharonim, an immigration detention centre where the UN refugee agency says Israel’s Ministry of the Interior is detaining over 2,000 mostly Eritrean and Sudanese people. Photo Hotline for Migrant Workers, 2013
An African Asylum Seeker’s Hellish Journey to Israel
Eritrean escapes homeland — only to find harsh challenges
I was born and raised in Eritrea, where I was fortunate to be well educated. I studied business administration in college, and after graduation I taught high school math. At that time, I began helping opponents of the Eritrean regime flee the country. My life was at risk, and it became too dangerous for me to stay in Eritrea after I learned that the authorities were aware of my activities.
On January 10, 2012, I fled my homeland to escape persecution. Little did I know the torture and abuse that lay ahead on my path.
With help, I reached Eritrea’s border with Sudan. Smugglers offered to take me to a refugee camp, but instead they transported me to someplace in the Sudanese desert and held me and others as slaves. We worked in our captors’ houses and fields all day, without a break. I tried to escape, but they caught me; as punishment, they isolated me and held me, blindfolded, in solitary confinement for a month.
Our slave masters ultimately sold us to other smugglers in the Sudanese desert, near Egypt. Our new captors told us that unless we paid them $3,000 each, they would take us to Sinai. We were threatened with death if we did not pay, but none of us had any money.
When we reached Sinai, our traffickers raised the bounty, demanding that our families pay $30,000 each. They hung us upside down and beat our backs with sticks and whips. They subjected us to electric shocks and burned us by dripping scalding-hot melted plastic on us. Each time we were tortured, our abusers would call our families and let them hear our cries.
The people traffickers’ route. Their ‘customers’ are dumped in the Sinai where they are held for ransom or kept as slave workers unless they can escape.
We suffered greatly. We saw our friends die. They showed us fingers cut off corpses, and one time the severed foot of a dead man, to frighten us. I didn’t think I would survive.
Eventually my family found a way to raise $25,000, which was enough to secure my release. On July 7, 2012, my captors took me, and others, to the Israeli border. Israeli soldiers spotted us but refused us entry. We turned back, and eventually we found a different route to cross into Israel. Security forces immediately picked us up and transferred us to the Saharonim prison.
At the prison, we were told that under a new law, Eritreans would be held in detention for three years. I was so happy to be freed from Sinai, and now the Israeli authorities were putting me in jail? We were not criminals and had not done anything to anyone.
I spent 16 months in the Saharonim prison. Conditions were harsh, and guards treated us cruelly. A few other Eritreans and I went on hunger strikes to draw attention to our demands for our release. I suffered from depression, and my torture in Sinai left me with permanent scars and physical injuries.
The guards kept trying to pressure us into signing a “voluntary repatriation” form. It was clear to me that if I returned to Eritrea, I would end up either dead or in prison.
In March 2013 I filled out an asylum request form. To this day, I have not received a response.
I regained hope of being freed this past fall, when the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants told me by phone that the Supreme Court of Israel nullified the law that kept me detained for more than a year. The hotline informed me that according to the court ruling, I and the other detained asylum seekers would be released within 90 days.
Government authorities conducted short interviews with each detainee. In my interview, they asked me about myself and told me the conditions of my release. They informed me that formerly incarcerated asylum seekers would not be permitted to live or work in Tel Aviv or Eilat.
A week later I was released. I was given a bus ticket to Beersheva. From there I went to Tel Aviv, where I had friends. But since I was told I could not be in Tel Aviv, I found someone with whom I could stay, in a nearby city. Through him I was able to find a job.
I now work in a big house and do whatever is asked of me: clean, trim the trees and so on. There are other Eritreans there, and I work 10 hours a day, six days a week, earning $71 per day. So far, though, they haven’t paid me; they say they will at the end of the month, and I have to trust them.
I have been out of jail for a few weeks now. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate my freedom after what I have been through. I take nothing for granted.
What is most important to me now is paying off my debt. My family borrowed money from so many people to secure my freedom from the torture camp in Sinai, money that needs to be repaid.
For me, returning to Eritrea would be returning to hell. Someday, if the government changes and there is peace, I would be happy to go back to my family.
Israel’s new “Anti-Infiltration” Law frightens me. Last December the government used the law to establish an internment camp for asylum seekers. The possibility of facing captivity again? I honestly don’t think I could survive that.
My only wish is to remain free. Please, just leave me my freedom and let me live my life in peace.
The author shared his story with assistance from the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants and from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
From Israel: Amend ‘Anti-Infiltration’ Law, Human Rights Watch, June 2012
The Israeli parliament should immediately repeal or amend a newly revised law that punishes asylum seekers for irregularly crossing intoIsrael, in violation of their basic rights, Human Rights Watch said today. Until the law is amended, Israeli officials should not enforce provisions that violate international refugee standards, Human Rights Watch said.
The new Prevention of Infiltration Law treats all irregular border-crossers as “infiltrators.” Against a backdrop of anti-immigrant speeches by senior Israel politicians and rising violence against sub-Saharan Africans in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Eilat, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai announced on June 3, 2012, that the ministry would begin enforcing the law.
From Eritrea and its refugee crisis, Al Jazeera, October 2012
Eritrea, divided between Christian Tigrinyans in the central highlands and a number of Muslim tribes in the lowlands on the periphery, is consistently regarded as one of the most repressive states in the world. Under President Isaias Afewerki, a Tigrinyan who has been in power since Eritrean independence from Ethiopia in the early 1990s, the country has become a highly militarised, one party state with severe restrictions over the press, speech, and even movement, particularly in the wake of the bloody border war with Ethiopia from 1998 to 2000.
Sinai torture for Eritreans kidnapped by traffickers. ‘The UN has described the growth of the kidnap and people trafficking trades in Sinai as one of the most unreported humanitarian crises in the world’, by Mike Thomson, BBC News.
Refugees and asylum seekers ACRI’s guide to Israeli laws