Africans in Israel protest Negev detention facility

By IndepthAfrica
In Djibouti
Oct 18th, 2012

Eritrean migrants protest Negev detention facilityPhoto: Ben Hartman

Fearing a wave of impending arrests by Israeli authorities, around a hundred Eritrean migrants rallied outside the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on Thursday, to protest the construction of a Negev detention facility for African migrants, and Israel’s refusal to give them refugee status.

Held under the slogan “Israel, don’t put us in prison, again”, the rally came against continued vows by officials such as Interior Minister Eli Yishai, to begin mass arrests of Sudanese and Eritrean migrants once construction of the detention facilities in the Negev is complete.

Yishai in August vowed to begin the arrests on October 15th, but last week his ministry backtracked, saying they would have to wait until the facilities are complete. A ministry official close to Yishai said the decision had nothing to do with a Jerusalem District Court order earlier in the day prohibiting the arrests.

“We have escaped the ‘prison’ of Eritrean dictatorship. We did not think that will end in another prison in the Israeli democratic state,” organizers said in a press release issued earlier this week.

Outside the Kirya on Thursday, the crowd chanted “Eli Yishai remember your history” and demanded Israel give them refugee status and allow them to legally work and live in the country, without facing the threat of returning to Eritrea, a dictatorship where many of them could potentially face persecution upon return.

Earlier this week the Prisons Service confirmed that for two days last week around 400-500 Eritrean migrants sent back their food at Saharonim prison, to protest against the ‘Infiltrators Law’ an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law (1954), that went into effect in June and allows the state to jail without trial for up to three years people who have entered the country illegally.

Activists and migrants in Tel Aviv said this week however that the protest began on October 8, and lasted several days, eventually involving around 1,000 detainees at Saharonim. Activists said the strike was started by a group of a few dozen Eritrean women irate that they stood to be imprisoned in Israel for three years, and fearful they could be returned to Egypt, where abuse of African migrants at the hands of Beduin smugglers is widely reported.

One Eritrean man, 30-year-old Emmanuel Amaneh, described a sort of rock and a hard place situation for Eritreans in Israel, saying “our lives are very hard here, but we can’t go back there and also we don’t want to go to prison here either.”

In Israel for six years, Amaneh also expressed some fear that his wife and two kids, and a brother, all of whom live in Israel could at some point soon end up jailed in an Israeli prison under the infiltrators law.

In a larger sense, the protest was a continuation of ongoing rallies held by Eritrean migrants over the past few years, during which they’ve called for refugee status, and the legal ability to work in the country. Making up the majority of the more than 60,000 African migrants in Israel, they call on Israel to follow the lead of other western countries in granting asylum status to Eritreans, and bring an end to what they characterize as racist anti-migrant statements on the part of politicians.

On Monday, ahead of a Knesset vote to dissolve the parliament ahead of early elections in January,  Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu touted his work since taking office to stop the influx of migrants across Israel’s southern border, in particular the construction of the Egypt border fence as well as a string of recent anti-migrant legislation.

Also Monday, the Knesset Interior Committee passed on its first and second reading a bill to limit the amount of money migrants can send back home. The bill, which still requires approval by the Knesset plenum to go into effect, will serve as a deterrent to further migrants looking to come to Israel to work, members of the committee said.

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