by Ben Hartman | JPost.com | March 11, 2011
Over a hundred Eritrean migrants braved a downpour on Friday to protest outside the Eritrean embassy in Ramat Gan, demanding that the regime led by Isaias Afwerki step down and calling on Israel to give protection and refugee status to Eritrean asylum seekers.
They also demanded that Israel and the international community take steps to fight the so-called “torture camps” in the Sinai, where Beduin smuggling gangs reportedly beat and rape migrants until their families send ransom money. Photo by: Ben Hartman
Chanting “we need justice” and “end the dictatorship,” among other slogans, the protesters on Friday also carried Eritrean and Israeli flags and signs stating that they are seeking protection and fleeing torture in Eritrea and in Sinai. Protesters also held caricatures of Afwerki and a photo of the Eritrean leader meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as well as a poster that read “Free All Political Prisoners” and showed the portraits of around three dozen Eritreans reportedly missing in the country.
31-year-old Haile Mengistab, founder of the Eritrean Asylum Seekers in Israel organization, said “today’s demonstration is to demand that the Eritrean dictator step down from power.”
He also claimed that agents working for the Eritrean government are “interfering with the Eritrean community in Israel to make them fight each other. So we need to condemn the Eritrean dictator in Israel.”
He said there are five people in particular working within the community that he knows of who are working to cause problems in the community, a claim that could not be confirmed.
When asked if the Eritrean community in Israel is watching the popular uprisings in the Middle East and whether he thinks that such upheaval could in turn make its way to Eritrea, he said “we know that when [Libyan leader Muammar ] Gaddafi steps down, Eritrea will be free. This is because Gaddafi supports the regime. These events are starting Eritrean refugees who were in doubt that they need to start protesting the regime in Eritrea and demand that it steps down. The government is afraid there will be an uprising and they are causing destabilization within the army to prevent this.”
When asked about the effect the situation in the Middle East is having on the Eritrean community in Israel, Shahar Shoham head of the migrants and persons with no civil status department at Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-Israel) said “there is no doubt that the revolutions and the atmosphere today in the Middle East are giving them a feeling that there is the possibility to rebel. The community here in Israel is united and wants their voice to be heard as much as possible not only to help those who are here but also those who remain in Eritrea.”
Shoham said Friday’s protest had two main goals, “to demand democracy in Eritrea, to demand status as refugees in Israel and international interference to stop the torture that is going on in Sinai.”
She said she believed that they need more support in Israel, where they are not given social services, refugee status, or the legal ability to work. Israel must recognize them as refugees and give them access to health services.”
Friday’s protest came the day after PHR-Israel reported that an Eritrean migrant told them that the IDF returned 67 African migrants to Egypt’s Sinai peninsula one night two weeks ago, an allegation that if true, could represent a violation of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, of which Israel is a signatory.
According to a PHR-Israel report in late February, the majority of African migrants who report for treatment at a Jaffa clinic they operate reported that they were held against their will and/or subjected to systematic physical abuse during their time in Sinai en route to Israel.
According to PHR-Israel, 52% of migrants treated at the clinic in Jaffa said they suffered physical abuse and 44% said they witnessed violence and fatalities suffered by other migrants.
A week earlier, the Hotline for Migrant Workers released a report entitled “The Dead of the Wilderness” which detailed beatings, rape, murder, and extortion that African migrants reported suffering at the hands of Beduin smugglers.
The report was the result of interviews the hotline conducted with 60 African migrants, mainly from Eritrea, 24 of them women and 36 men, who said they suffered severe brutality on their way to Israel.
Reports have surfaced that the smuggling gangs use Eritrean and Sudanese collaborators in Israel who help them extort the money from the relatives of their captives.