FEATURE-African migrants flood Israel after perilous treks
Fri Apr 20, 2012 12:01pm GMT
* Some 60,000 African migrants have reached Israel
* Netanyahu has vowed to "stop the flood"
By Allyn Fisher-Ilan
JERUSALEM, April 20 (Reuters) - Hrity spent three months chained to half a
dozen people on a basement floor, beaten with sticks and chains that gave
off electric shocks, on a ration of just a spoonful of rice a day.
Now in Israel, the 26-year-old migrant from Eritrea said she was freed only
after a $30,000 ransom was delivered in cash to Israeli accomplices of her
Bedouin Arab captors.
"I can't believe I survived it all. I still feel very weak and dizzy just
standing sometimes," she said, telling the story of her captivity and
journey across Egypt's Sinai desert, translated by her cousin Teklezghi,
also a migrant in Israel, who borrowed from her parents and friends to pay
for her freedom.
Some 60,000 African migrants fleeing authoritarian rule in Eritrea and
fighting in neighbouring Sudan and what is now South Sudan have crossed
illegally into Israel across the relatively porous desert border with Egypt.
Half of them arrived in the past two years - more than 3,500 since January
alone - and growing numbers of homeless migrants are camped out in Israeli
city parks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed "to stop this flood
we are all witnessing".
Hrity is settled for the moment with Teklezghi in rented quarters in
Jerusalem's walled Old City, but her flight for safety may not be over.
The influx of African migrants has fed into a larger Israeli concern about
maintaining a Jewish majority population, an issue which has led to policies
that limit eligibility for citizenship in Israel. Jewish immigrants are
automatically given citizenship but that option is not open to most African
Some of the thousands of labourers imported from Asia and Latin America to
work in the agriculture sector or caring for the elderly and infirm have
also been denied permanent residence or citizenship, even for family members
born in Israel.
Since January, Israeli law has been amended further to punish migrants
caught entering illegally with up to three years in jail. A detention centre
near the Egyptian border is being enlarged to accommodate thousands more
"These people aren't refugees, they are first and foremost infiltrators to
Israel," said Yossi Edelstein, a senior Interior Ministry official,
reflecting Israel's official view.
Israel is not the first choice of destinations for many African migrants.
Most head to the country because it can be reached overland and because
European countries have become more strict about letting asylum-seekers in,
Edelstein said in an interview.
The recent fighting in Libya and cases of treacherous seas claiming African
victims travelling on rickety boats have exacerbated the situation and
encouraged even more to flee toward Egypt and finally wind up in Israel.
Israeli humanitarian aid groups, some with help from local authorities and
the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, have opened soup kitchens and shelters to
accommodate the most dire cases, especially women with infants and small
"We are on the verge of collapse from the demand," said Tamar Schwartz,
director of Mesila, a Tel Aviv aid group.
Physicians for Human Rights operates a clinic in the southern reaches of Tel
Aviv where many migrants congregate. Many migrant women seek abortions after
having been raped during their trek, and some are treated for gunshot wounds
suffered on their journeys, officials at the clinic said.
Edelstein said Israel was trying to stop the illegal influx -- a fortified
fence is under construction along its Sinai border with Egypt to keep out
the migrants as well as armed infiltrators -- and says it is trying to find
places where African migrants could be deported safely.
So far about 1,000 Sudanese, offered $1,000 apiece, have agreed to leave
Israel voluntarily, Edelstein said.
Israel had planned to seek the repatriation of some hundreds of South
Sudanese, but may put those plans on hold given the latest fighting between
that country and neighbouring Sudan, with whom it split just last year.
In response to legal challenges from human rights groups, the Israeli
government has pledged to its Supreme Court that it will not punish
employers who hire African migrants. The promise effectively allows the
migrants to work, but only on temporary visas, not formal work permits, and
only pending further policy decisions.
An Israeli legislative committee session on the issue recently discussed the
possibility of Israel permitting migrant workers to replace imported labour
from abroad, though immigration officials insist they would not agree to
such a move.
Parliament speaker Reuven Rivlin, a member of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud
party, thought Israel had a "sacred obligation" to help displaced people
given that it was founded as a haven for Jews after centuries of
persecution, minutes of that meeting show.
"We are a people that knows to respect a person fleeing his country for fear
of his life," Rivlin said.
But he added the swelling numbers of migrants posed a "strategic" problem
for Israel, and urged steps to ensure "these people seeking political asylum
are rescued, but that this doesn't involve a chance for them to seek Israeli
LOOKING FOR A WAY OUT
When Hrity left Eritrea in July 2010, she had no clear destination in mind
but was vaguely considering Europe.
She travelled to neighbouring Sudan, where she paid $1,000 to pay off a gang
that threatened her with rape, and then went on to Khartoum. Later she tried
to flee to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, but she said Bedouin Arabs
abducted her en route and took her to the Sinai.
"I wanted to go to Europe but I was taken to Sinai. I didn't want to come to
Israel," Hrity said in an interview, asking that her last name not be used.
She said she was kept in a basement with other women and children, and that
she was sometimes forced along with the other women to undress before being
During three months in captivity, she was branded with metal rods or tied to
a pole, she said. Her captors also beat the bottoms of her feet and forced
her to phone her cousin Teklezghi in Jerusalem so he could hear her screams.
Human rights activists in Israel have taken similar testimony from other
It took Teklezghi several weeks to raise her ransom. Her parents sold their
home in Eritrea for about $10,000 and he borrowed the rest from fellow
migrants in Israel.
Israeli police have arrested a suspect who has been identified by Teklezghi
and other migrants as the man who took the cash from them so their relatives
in Sinai could go free.
The suspect, an Israeli Arab, has since been charged with extorting tens of
thousands of dollars in ransom for Hrity and other Eritrean nationals and
transferring the money to their captors in Egypt.
Court papers called the suspect a "main link" in a suspected criminal gang
also alleged to be based in Palestinian territory.
Several weeks after her experiences, Hrity seems too dazed to think about
She works day jobs, wrapping sandwiches at an eatery and cleaning homes,
hoping to make enough money to repay her ransom debt to her family and
"I don't know how I could ever repay them all, even if I work for 10 years,"
she said. (Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall)
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Received on Fri Apr 20 2012 - 10:24:57 EDT