The Interior Ministry is telling 2,000 Eritrean refugees it will only renew their work permits if they leave the center of the country. They are being told to move north of Hadera and south of Gedera where they would have greater chances of finding work.

When refugee leaders protested against this decree, the ministry's Lod bureau refused to extend their visas or work permits. The ministry also refused to issue a visa to another refugee who spoke up for the leaders.

Some 4,500 asylum seekers from Eritrea are now staying in Israel. The first 2,000 refugees who were released from prison received a work permit that enabled them to stay anywhere in Israel. Many of them found employment at large hotel chains. The rest received a "conditional release" form allowing them to stay only north of Hadera and south of Gedera. The form does not include a work permit.

The visa of the refugees who had work permits expired at the beginning of June and many of them were fired. They were summoned yesterday to the Population and Migration Authority's new offices in Lod, where ministry officials question asylum seekers.

But instead of extending their visa, the ministry officials gave them a one-month "conditional release" form, forbidding them to stay between Hadera and Gedera.

The Eritreans' three leaders, Gabriel, Valda and Isayas, argued with the officials, who finally agreed to remove the Gedera-Hadera condition from the provisional permit. They also added a commitment to replace the form in the future with a work permit.

But in the future, extending the work permits will be conditional on staying outside the Gedera-Hadera lines, the ministry said.

Spokeswoman Sabine Hadad said director-general Yaakov Ganot decided that this would solve the problem of refugees living in Tel Aviv shelters. In the north and south of Israel there is more work for foreign workers, including room and board, she said.

The ministry, meanwhile, is refusing to extend the visas and work permits of the refugees' three leaders who conducted the negotiations yesterday. "They told us that it had been decided but didn't give us any reason," Isayas said.

He said the Lod bureau manager took away another asylum-seeker's conditional release form because he had asked for a permit for the three leaders.

One of the refugees who had been fired when his visa expired after working in cleaning jobs in recent months said he would not be able to get a job for a one-month period. "We're human beings. If we don't work, we'll die," he said.

The man had escaped from an Eritrean prison after serving a two-year term. "All my friends in Egypt are in prison," he said.

Hadad said that due to computer problems in the new office it was not possible to issue work permits, so instead the refugees were given conditional release forms for a month.

Hadad said she hoped the computer problems would be solved this week so that the issue of work permits could be resumed.