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Al Jazeera | 03.03.2018

Al Jazeera speaks to Eritreans in Israel who are facing a tough decision: deportation or imprisonment.

In January 2018, Israel approved a plan that asked asylum seekers to choose between indefinite detention in an Israeli prison or deportation to a third country in Africa.

Rwanda and Uganda are reported to be the countries accepting those deported from Israel, despite denials from both governments.

According to the scheme, asylum seekers will be given a plane ticket and up to $3,500 for leaving, however, many are choosing to stay in Israel, rather than risk returning to Africa.

Many of the asylum seekers come from war-ravaged Eritrea and Sudan, however, Israel does not recognise the majority as refugees, claiming that they are economic migrants or “illegal infiltrators”.

‘I am in danger if I go back to my own country’

Teklit Michael and Eden Tesfamariam have lived in the Israeli capital Tel Aviv for around 10 years. Both of them say they fled Eritrea to escape the military.

Teklit arrived in 2006 and found work in a restaurant, before moving to an NGO that advocated on behalf of Tel Aviv’s African community.

“When I was in Eritrea, I was an athlete and also a student,” says Teklit. “Without any reason, the Eritrean regime detained me and forced me into the army. I left my country because I became hopeless in my own country, I became dreamless in my own country.”

He says Israeli officials are systematically failing to process asylum claims in accordance with international law, by blocking or choosing not to submit the claims.

“They never give us a chance to fill out the asylum application,” he says. “Sometimes they reject automatically out of hand, for no reason, without checking our claims.”

Returning to Eritrea is not an option for Teklit, who believes he would be imprisoned.

“I left my country because I was not safe in my country. If I go back to my country, I am sure there will be imprisonment because I crossed the border illegally and I am active against the Eritrean regime and against its crimes, so I am in danger if I go back to my country. Not just me, every Eritrean who left the country will be in danger.”

‘Go back to Africa’

Eden Tesfamariam came to Israel with her husband and two children 10 years ago. Since then, she has given birth to a daughter who is now in kindergarten. She also works for an NGO.

“All of the men that fled from Eritrea, most of them were in the army … even if the man fled from the army then the government came and they took or they arrested the family. Especially as a wife, with kids, I don’t want to be in prison,” she says.

When Eden’s husband deserted the army, Eden was imprisoned for two months in an underground facility with her then-one-year-old daughter. Soon, the family was reunited in a refugee camp in Sudan, but this proved to be no safer.

“Sudan is also the same situation, like Eritrea, because if you sit in the refugee camp, there are smugglers, maybe they kidnap you, maybe they kidnap the kids to get the money.”

While the Israeli government are taking a tough stance on asylum seekers, the response from the public has been mixed.

“Some neighbours blame us,” says Eden. “They are talking about colour, [saying] ‘Go back to Africa.'”

However, many Israelis have joined protests against their government’s “voluntary deportation programme”.

“We disagree with the decision of our government, especially as Jews, says Rabai Nava Kheferz, an anti-deportation protester. “We are a people of refugees, of asylum seekers for 2,000 years, and we are here to say that now that we are in a sovereign state, we have to deal with other asylum seekers worldwide.”

For Teklit, the support from Israeli people has not come as a surprise.

“It’s not a Jewish value what the government are doing, they are also protecting the image of the country. It’s not just about me, it’s about the country. For the last 10 years, not the government, but the people became my saviours, became my family, became part of me,” says Teklit.

“For the last 10 years, I’ve survived because of the Israeli people and because of the Israeli public, but the system is completely made to break me and to kick me out of the country and to let me down.”

Forced labour, rape and murder

A 2015 report by the United Nations, based on interviews with 500 Eritrean refugees around the world, found that the country’s military is operating as a recruitment tool for forced labour.

Beyond defending the country, the military has become an instrument of oppression, according to Eritrean refugees, with young men being forced to serve for unlimited service under brutal conditions.

Mike Smith, chair of the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea, highlighted the country’s military and national service programmes as concerning because of “their arbitrary and indefinite duration, the use of conscripts as forced labour, including manual labour, the inhumane conditions of service, rape and torture associated with service”.

Smith also noted the “devastating impact” the programmes have on family life and freedom of choice for Eritreans. The investigators concluded that there was evidence that crimes against humanity including enslavement, forced disappearance, torture and murder had occurred in Eritrea since 1991.

Many who flee Eritrea initially arrive in neighbouring Sudan but move on due to conflicts and economic instability within the country, travelling through Egypt to reach Europe or Israel.

‘It’s better to sit in jail … Africa is Africa’

For Teklit, stories of smugglers selling asylum seekers into slavery in Libya have convinced him that remaining in Israel is the safest option, even if being imprisoned is the only way to stay.

“It’s better for me to be safe until I go back to my home, which means it’s better for me to stay in prison than to go to Uganda or Rwanda … A lot of people who were deported from Israel were killed,” he says.

“As a person, I have a dream: to grow and to become a human being. I have been here [in Israel] for 10 years, I started from scratch, now I know the language, I know the culture, I know the country, I can survive now, but they’re pushing me to start from scratch again.”

“I’m not going to Rwanda,” says Eden. “It’s better to sit in jail, to sit in prison, because Africa is Africa. It is the same situation … I’m afraid to get [involved in] that slave trade, like what happened in Libya.

“My hope is, if I get a chance, I would like to go out of Israel because I can’t continue this life. It is not a life.”

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