Nearly two-thirds of infiltrators come from one country adjacent to the Red
The public discourse that deals with the issue of infiltrators and migrants
from Africa is missing one central fact: Nearly two-thirds of them come from
one country adjacent to the Red Sea: Eritrea.
Most people remember the Sudanese, often the Darfuris. But although the word
“Eritrea” is mentioned repeatedly in connection with the phenomenon of
infiltration from Africa, we haven’t stopped for a moment to think outside
the box and focus on Eritrea as a national goal, to solve the problem and
deal with the whole phenomenon.
For years, we have been accepting the argument that the migrants from
Eritrea deserve protection as refugees and that they can not be returned to
their country. And I have been saying, for several years now, in cabinet
meetings and to several Israeli prime ministers, that we have to check these
assumptions and challenge them. I also presented my position to
representatives of the UNHCR and to the Foreign Ministry. Unfortunately, so
far I have run into an absolute objection on the part of the Foreign
Ministry, which believes there is nothing that can be done in the current
situation. I wish to challenge this perception and state that at least the
issue should be reexamined from top to bottom.
Eritrea is not far off. It is just two hours’ flight from here. A country of
six million people, composed of different ethnic groups and religions,
situated on the Red Sea on the Horn of Africa. Eritrea gained its
independence in 1993 after its disengagement from Ethiopia, which is still
Israel has full diplomatic relations with Eritrea, including the exchange of
embassies. The founding president of Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki, was treated
in Israeli hospitals. During Yitzhak Rabin’s government, then-health
minister Dr. Ephraim Sneh inaugurated a hospital established with Israeli
assistance in Eritrea. It is a† poor country in international terms,
although recently deposits of precious metals were discovered that slightly
improve the situation.
In the history of our people. Eritrea is remembered for the British
detention camps holding hundreds of Jewish underground prisoners, including
great names such as Yitzhak Shamir and Meir Shamgar.
In Israel today, there are also Jews from Yemen, particularly from the
British colony of Aden, who got to the other side of the Red Sea to Asmara,
the capital of Eritrea, and later immigrated to Israel after the
establishment of the state. I personally know some who still maintain a
connection with their old homeland.
Eritrea is not a democracy and it is at the bottom of the ladder in terms of
human rights. For this reason and due to other circumstances, it has lost
its charm in the eyes of the United States in recent years, despite its
The United Nations commissioner for human rights has criticized Eritrea
repeatedly while asserting that if Israel returns the migrants to Eritrea,
they will be badly harmed because they are draft-dodgers. Another problem
with Eritrea is the long dispute with its rival, Ethiopia.
These are convincing arguments and I do not make light of them at all. But
given the dimensions of the national problem we are facing, they are not
enough to justify a complete denial when searching for an alternative path
such as dialogue with Eritrea. I believe that a thorough study was not
carried out to test the veracity of the claims and the real risk there may
be to the lives of the migrants from Eritrea sent back to their country.
I think we have not examined the various interests and the relevant levers
that could lead to a change in the situation and to establishing an
understanding with the leaders of this country. In short, Israel’s policy
toward Eritrea has not been tested in terms of the current crisis, as a
result of which tens of thousands of Eritreans have infiltrated Israel and
hundreds of thousands more may be on their way.
The necessary data have not been relayed to the political echelon, nor has
the problem been formulated in a way that we can think creatively about how
to use the right political and economic tools to change the basic
humanitarian situation with regard to Eritrean citizens.
Certainly, there has not been a formal interface with the president of
Eritrea, and no meaningful political steps have been taken to change the
trend from the bottom, which would satisfy the UNHCR and the rights
organizations in Israel that feed primarily on information provided to them
by the infiltrators themselves.
Moreover, when Israel has such a significant strategic objective, we cannot
demonstrate ignorance and a lack of basic knowledge of a country that has
provided us with tens of thousands of job-seekers or refugees who come here
in roundabout ways.
The time has come for the prime minister to appoint a team of experts which
should include professionals relevant to all aspects of this target country,
and offer an appropriate outline for diplomatic, political, economic and
legal action that would totally change the direction of that which exists
Let me, for example, offer a really unorthodox proposal – that Israel
negotiate with the government of Eritrea to establish a treaty that would
allow legal employment of some infiltrators, in nursing and agriculture, as
it does with the Philippines and Sri Lanka, for a limited, defined period of
employment at the end of which the employees would return to their country
of origin with their money and would be welcomed back.
We are in an emergency situation with regard to the dimensions of the
illegal migration from Africa. In such a situation, we must think outside
the box. We must focus our attention on Eritrea diplomatically and
economically, and fundamentally change our perception and policy regarding
infiltrators from the country. The government and the Knesset Foreign
Affairs and Defense Committee must address this problem urgently.
The writer is a Labor MK.
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Received on Thu May 24 2012 - 18:46:38 EDT