Z., a 25-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker, crossed the Egyptian border into Israel in June 2012, a few days after the Prevention of Infiltration Law was amended by the Knesset. The amendment meant that any African entering Israel without a permit could be jailed for up to three years without trial. As a result, Israel held Z. at the Saharonim detention center in southern Israel, with no scheduled release date.
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Four months after crossing the border, Z. petitioned the authorities at the Negev center, requesting political asylum. He told them that if he were returned to Eritrea, he could die. Shortly afterward, he became one of the first prisoners to be called in for an interview, where he was asked to explain why he deserved asylum in Israel.
He said he had been a teacher in Eritrea and had gone on strike at his school. “The teachers demanded an improvement in their salaries and work conditions,” recalls Z., in a recent interview – mostly in Tigrinya, with the help of a translator – with Haaretz. The dictatorship deemed the strike an illegal political rebellion and began arresting and jailing the teachers.
“Some of the teachers fled to Ethiopia,” he says now. “They caught me with another three teachers, arrested us and jailed us. We stayed there six months without trial or seeing a judge. Luckily, I was released on bail. I don’t know about the other three teachers.”
Fearing for his life, Z. fled Eritrea, he told officials at the refugees’ investigation unit in Saharonim.
In the following months, he was called in to tell his story another three times, but his request received no answer.
Toward the end of 2013, the state finally released him after the High Court struck down the “infiltration” amendment. For the first time since entering Israel, Z. was free. However, his visa forbade him from living in Tel Aviv or Eilat. He found himself a small apartment in Rehovot and tried to start a new life.
In January, Z. received a surprise call from an Interior Ministry representative. “The State of Israel accepted your request for asylum,” the official told him, asking Z. to report to the Population, Immigration and Border Authority office in Rishon Letzion to receive his new visa.
After 15 months, Z. had become the first of the Eritrean migrants to obtain asylum status in Israel. The amendment had made it mandatory to review any asylum request by someone in detention within nine months. Another Eritrean, held even longer, also obtained asylum status.
Z. says that, even after his release from jail back home, the Eritrean regime had continued hounding him, making him realize he had to flee. Z. left behind his mother, three sisters and a brother, who all still live in Eritrea. He reached Israel through Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, feeling danger everywhere. “People tried to follow me in Ethiopia,” he says. “It wasn’t safe in Sudan, with the smugglers and Eritrean intelligence. So I decided to come to Israel, to be in a safe place.”
He admits that he didn’t know much about Israel. “I only knew it was a country that accepts refugees. I didn’t expect jail,” he says.
The gap between expectations and reality was huge. “It was really bad in jail,” Z. recalls. “There are no good health services. In jail, everything you do – going to the doctor, judge, immigration officials – they follow you. Even if you receive permission to go to the hospital in Be’er Sheva, you go handcuffed – like a prisoner.” Still, he stressed, he would rather die than go back to Eritrea.
Z. repeatedly thanks God for receiving asylum status. “I relied on God when I asked for asylum,” he says.
With his new status, he hopes to start working, and dreams of studying in Israel. “I want to help myself improve my life,” he says. “If the [Eritrean] regime changes, if it will be good in my country, I’ll return.”
Some 36,000 Eritrean citizens live in Israel, according to the Population, Immigration and Border Authority. Israel does not deport them, in compliance with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees directive not to endanger them. Some 1,950 Eritreans have applied for asylum status; 270 requests have been reviewed, with just two of them being accepted.
The state has been putting a lot of pressure on them to leave voluntarily, in exchange for a $3,500 grant. Under pressure of detention, the number of African asylum seekers leaving Israel reached 773 in January (up from 325 in December and 63 in November).
Z. says he participated in all the asylum seekers’ demonstrations last month in Tel Aviv. “It could lead to a little more attention,” he says. “Maybe it will cause change. I hope people will keep making their voices heard.”