Yikealo Beyene, left, and Oded Oron. (photos courtesy of the speakers)
Yikealo Beyene was among the first wave of African asylum-seekers to arrive in Israel. He left his home in Eritrea in 2005, at the age of 21. The political situation in the country had deteriorated since 2001 and, after Beyene penned an article critical of the authoritarian regime, he was arrested twice. He walked under cover of darkness to the Ethiopian border and spent more than three years in a refugee camp, where he earned a stipend as a teacher and running a makeshift library.
“I did not complain,” Beyene told the Independent. “Life was extremely difficult [but] I felt safe.”
That changed when hostilities reignited between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The camp’s proximity to the Eritrean border made Beyene and others worried. Military service is mandatory in Eritrea, so every emigrant is a de facto deserter. With a group of fellow refugees, he traveled to Sudan, and to another refugee camp.
Beyene, who will speak in Vancouver this month at an event co-presented by the Independent and Temple Sholom, stresses that he is not a typical refugee. Unlike many, he had a small nest egg that allowed him to buy tickets to move between places and, as his story proceeds, crucial supports from family, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and generous strangers overseas. Most are not so fortunate.
Life in Sudan felt no safer. Eritrean security forces would sometimes cross into Sudan and abduct people.
“It was terrible,” he said. “It felt even more dangerous than my life in Ethiopia. I decided to leave. I ended up in Egypt.”
In Cairo, he lived in an apartment with about 30 other refugees. By this point, the Egyptian government (as well as that of Libya) had an agreement with the Eritrean government to repatriate citizens of that country. Concurrently, Libya had signed an agreement with Italy preventing people from migrating across the Mediterranean. Egypt’s comparative stability would soon be upended by the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Escape routes were closing.
In Cairo, word spread that smugglers were willing to help people cross the Sinai to Israel. Employing Bedouins, Beyene made it to the Israeli border in February 2008. He thinks he paid about $600 US to the smugglers. As migrants flowed toward Israel in later years, that number would skyrocket to as much as $50,000, Beyene said, and lead to a horrific trade founded on kidnapping, ransoms and organ harvesting.
Once inside Israel, Beyene and the two dozen or so other asylum-seekers he traveled with were transferred to successive military camps and, eventually, bused to Be’er Sheva, where they were left to their own devices in the cold midnight air. With three others and pooled cash, he made his way to Tel Aviv and, after connecting with Eritreans there, immediately found jobs in Jerusalem, doing construction and custodial work.
Beyene, again unlike most asylum-seekers, obtained an education, entering the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya, where he received a bachelor’s and a master’s in psychology, thanks to part-time jobs, scholarships, help from NGOs and an American Jewish benefactor.
A woman who was his girlfriend in the first refugee camp had been accepted to the United States in 2009 and, in 2012, she came to Israel and they were married. He moved to Seattle on a family reunification visa.
Beyene will share more of his story at the event May 19, where he will be accompanied by Oded Oron, an Israeli and a PhD candidate at the University of Washington, whose dissertation deals with African asylum-seekers in Israel.
For Sudanese migrants, Oron said, repatriation was potentially deadly because many, especially Darfuris, were fleeing the deadly persecution of Janjaweed militias or had been part of rebel groups opposing the tyranny of Omar al-Bashir. For all refugees, the crisis was exacerbated by the smugglers’ greed.
“Entire communities would sell everything they had or work an extra shift just to make sure that they can release people,” said Oron. “Unfortunately, many people were tortured and killed in the Sinai. Some of them were killed because they couldn’t raise the funds and others were harvested for their organs.”
In all, about 64,000 asylum-seekers entered Israel, of which 37,000 remain. Most of those who left migrated to Europe or North America. A much smaller number accepted an offer of resettlement to Uganda or Rwanda, though, of these, many found themselves still lacking in rights or opportunity and returned to the migration route, some dying on the way.
As the numbers of asylum-seekers skyrocketed, detention facilities that were never meant for illegal border-crossers, became overcrowded. The prison authority gave inmates one-way bus tickets to Tel Aviv. At times, there were 3,000 Africans sleeping under the stars in Levinsky Park, outside Tel Aviv’s main bus station.
In 2014, the government opened the Holot Detention Centre, a prison in the Israeli desert. After several NGO appeals, the Israeli Supreme Court determined that detention of asylum-seekers must be limited to one year and there has been a rotation of people serving their one-year term of detention and then returning to the legal limbo of life as an African asylum-seeker in Israel.
NGOs asked the Supreme Court to interpret the status of the migrants. The government maintained that it would neither process their asylum requests nor give them work permits. However, under pressure, the government told the court that it would not enforce the ban on working. The government did, however, require employers to collect deductions for taxes, as well as for social services for which the migrants are not eligible, and to withhold 20% of their income, to be released only on their exit from the country.
In November 2017, the government declared its plan to offer asylum-seekers two choices: accept $3,500 US and a plane ticket to Rwanda or Uganda, or face indefinite detention.
In March 2018, following public pressure, Rwanda backed out of the deal. The government then suggested a resolution that would see about half the 37,000 offered a temporary residency short of citizenship, while 16,000 would be resettled in Western countries, through a deal brokered by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
Even so, right-wing members of the governing coalition balked. The “solution,” announced in the morning, was annulled in the afternoon.
Then, late last month after Uganda, too, backed out of the agreement with Israel following public pressure, the Israeli government told the court that it would not proceed with the deportation plan for now.
The Jewish Independent and Temple Sholom invite readers to join us at the event Let My People Stay: Seeking Asylum in the Jewish State. In the spirit of learning on Shavuot, it will take place on May 19 at Temple Sholom. Shavuot services will start at 7:30 p.m., followed by Havdalah and an ice cream oneg at 8:30 p.m., and the program at 9 p.m. Everyone is welcome to all or part of the evening. RSVP to templesholom.ca/erev-shavuot or 604-266-7190, so that there will be enough ice cream for everyone.
Number of African* migrants entering Israel by year.
2006 – 2,758
2007 – 5,132
2008 – 8,886
2009 – 5,261 (decline possibly attributable to war with Gaza)
2010 – 14,715
2011 – 17,272
2012 – 10,421 (barrier completed along Sinai border)
2013 – 49
2014 – 21
2015 – 220
2016 – 18
2017 – 0
* Approximately 70% Eritrean, 20% Sudanese and 10% from other African countries.