It would take a heart of stone to not be moved by the plight of Eritrean refugees suffering in the Sinai Peninsula. Many of them have fled their homeland to get out from under an oppressive government, only to be held captive by Bedouin tribesmen who regularly beat them and force them to call their relatives and ask for ransom. Some of the hostages do not survive their ordeal.
A piece about these victims aired on WBEZ's This American Life on August 9, 2013. The segment tells the story of these refugees in horrifying detail through a profile of Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean who now resides in Sweden. In 2011, Estefanos received a phone call from the United Kingdom from a man who said his brother had been kidnapped and was held in the Sinai. The man gave her two phone numbers so she could speak to the hostages herself.
Initially she was reluctant to contact the kidnapping victims, but eventually she made the call, and over the course of the next several months, she spoke with dozens of hostages. She started raising money to pay the ransom for the hostages. The emotional highpoint of the segment was Estefanos's visit with Eritreans who were able to make their way into Israel and escape their Bedouin tormentors. One of the hostages she helped free was so badly traumatized by what happened to her in the Sinai desert that she fainted upon meeting Estefanos.
Israel, Europe, and African Refugees
The segment cast a particularly harsh light on Israel by highlighting its decision to send some of the Eritreans who have made their way into the Jewish state back to their country of origin. The report stated that Israel does not give Eritreans answers to the request for asylum and that asylum seekers get no assistance for medical care or work permits. It states:
In the most recent figures available from the UN High Commissioner of Refugees, Israel granted refugee status to less than 1 percent of people who might qualify, the lowest rate of any developed country. A US State Department report declared in 2012 that the Israeli government doesn't even process asylum applications from Eritreans.
The report ends with the following indictment:
Last year, Israel completed most of its work building a fence along its border with Egypt, and there's a new law that allows police to detain anyone illegally crossing the border for years without trial. In 2012, the interior minister publicly stated that the purpose of the law was to make their lives in Israel unbearable. And now Israel is sending detained Eritreans back to Eritrea, back to the government they were trying to escape in the first place. The first planeload of 14 Eritreans left Israel last month.
In leveling this indictment, the report failed to include important context regarding Israeli policies regarding asylum seekers. In particular, the segment failed to report that human traffickers who have taken Eritreans (and others) hostage previously lured their victims into captivity with the promise of obtaining asylum in Israel. It also failed to report that with the completion of a fence to stop people from getting into Israel, these traffickers have now started kidnapping their victims outright from Ethiopia and Sudan before torturing them in the Egyptian held Sinai.
Here is what Physician for Human Rights Israel reported in June 2013:
Testimonies from recent months suggest an increase in victims who, rather than being lured with promises of being led to Israel, were forcibly kidnapped from Ethiopia and Sudan and taken to these torture camps. Today, the vast majority of persons held in Sinai are kidnapping victims. This shift has occurred partly due to a decrease in the numbers of asylum seekers attempting to reach Israel, since the completion in 2012 of a fence along the Israeli-Egyptian border.
This indicates that an increasing number of these torture victims are not asylum seekers, but victims of outright kidnapping by Bedouins living in Egypt. It also indicates that by making it harder for people to enter into Israel, Israeli officials have in fact made it harder for the Bedouins to ply their trade of human trafficking, which in most instances would be regarded as a good thing.
The segment also fails to report that Israel, like a lot of countries, is dealing with a growing problem of refugees and economic migrants from Africa. Eritrea is only one source of refugees fleeing into Israel.
Other sources of refugees include Somalia, Ethiopia and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. While Israel has seen an increase in refugees since approximately, 2005, the flood of refugees and economic migrants has increased substantially in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011. Many of these refugees, especially those fleeing from Libya, try to make it to Europe and represent a serious humanitarian crisis that Israel simply cannot solve by itself.
Itamar Mann, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Israeli group We Are Refugees, reports that Europe has been particularly effective in keeping immigrants from entering its countries. This is one reason, Mann reports, that more people from Africa have tried to get into Israel in recent years.
The EU Has been very successful in preventing people from crossing into EU territories and into EU territorial waters. The main technique, which an agency called Frontex is in charge of is simply outsourcing enforcement capabilities to countries in Africa so that people don't leave and stop them before they even embark. That has stopped that route.
All these things have an interesting tendency so that one route is stopped, another is opened, so in some ways the exposure of Israel in 2005 follows directly in this period when [Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi had this very fruitful and successful cooperation with [Libyan President] MohammarQadaffi.
This immigration crisis was highlighted in March 2011, when a dinghy filled with 72 migrants from sub-Saharan Africa drifted in the Mediterranean for two weeks. According an article published in The Guardian on June 19, 2013, the passengers died one by one, despite numerous distress calls, while NATO allies fighting Colonel Gaddafi were in the waters nearby but did not help. Two survivors are suing France and Spain for failing to come to their aid.
Malta is another country confronted with a refugee crisis. In early July, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the country could not send back a group of 45 Somali immigrants without giving them a chance to apply for asylum. Malta has complained that other countries in Europe have not taken in their fair share of refugees from Africa.
Father Mussie Zerai, a Roman Catholic Priest from Eritrea has called attention to the plight of African refugees. In 2011 he spoke to the World Council of Churches about the problem of refugees in the Sinai Peninsula:
More than 30,000 people have fled to Israel, mostly from countries like Tunisia, Libya, Ethiopia, Sudan and others, since 2009. Out of which, around 10,000 died during the travel, and 3,000 have fallen prey to the brutal organ thefts. The documentation we have gathered at Habeshia contains some astounding figures, says Zerai.
Zerai also reported that Asylum seekers are kept in jails by the Egyptian government, facing inhuman treatment and forced to be deported, which means a severe threat to their lives. The WCC article continues:
Zerai also shared information about the recent incident of 118 Eritreans, who are faced with forced deportation at the detention centre in Aswan, Egypt.
These asylum seekers are under severe threat of persecution if they return to Eritrea. This is the result of a human rights crisis in Eritrea due to which around 1,000 people are attempting to flee every month, shared Zerai.
According to Physicians for Human Rights Israel, there are approximately 55,000 asylum seekers from Africa living in Israel. This influx of refugees into Israel is creating serious problems, including an increase in crime, much of it attributed to Eritrean and Sudanese immigrants. In 2010, a new police station was built in South Tel Aviv primarily to deal with the problem of crime associated with immigrants from Africa.
The plight of refugees from Africa is heart-rending and the problem will only get worse in the years ahead as a growing number of countries in the Middle East and North Africa are failed states with oppressive governments.
But the suffering of refugees from these countries is not a problem that Israel can solve by itself, which is what the segment seems to suggest.