The vast majority - about 2,800 - of the Africans who have entered Israel illegally from Egypt via Sinai are from Eritrea. Israel and Eritrea have full diplomatic relations, with embassies in Asmara and in Tel Aviv, but there is no active dialogue on the refugee issue. A few weeks ago, Eritrea's ambassador to Israel even registered an official protest with the Foreign Ministry, in which he complained about Israel's failure to repatriate the Eritreans. "These are not political refugees, but rather work migrants or army deserters," the protest said. (See more coverage, Page 3)
The Eritrean ambassador, Tesfamariam Tekeste, noted yesterday in an interview with Haaretz that his letter of protest included several issues of concern to his government. First, he said, at least half of the infiltrators represent themselves as Eritrean while in fact they are from other African states, such as Sudan or Ethiopia. "They know the Eritreans automatically receive a six-month visa, so they pretend to be Eritrean," he said.
The letter also mentioned the fear that hostile elements helping to smuggle Africans into Israel could exploit them for carrying out terror attacks. "If that happens, the accusing finger will point to Eritrea," Tekeste said.
"Israel is turning itself into a migration destination for Eritrean citizens fleeing from army service or looking for work," Tekeste said. "The fact that you issue six-month visas encourages people to come here."
Tekeste's letter also protested the lack of discussion between the two countries on the infiltration.
"No one has talked to us about it and I haven't received any response to my letter of protest," he said yesterday.
The ambassador is infuriated by claims that repatriated Eritreans face execution. "It's an unfounded accusation," Tekeste said. "Many of those who come to Israel leave Eritrea legally and won't be hurt if they return. Army deserters will be treated in accordance with the law and drafted."
He also expressed anger about Eritrea's characterization by Israeli officials as a dictatorship.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert faces a dilemma with regard to Eritrea. He wants to find a human solution to the refugee crisis, but also wants to take decisive action to prevent the flow of refugees into Israel. He knows that a fence along the border with Egypt would stop the infiltration, but the NIS 700 million price tag is daunting.
Tekeste is not the only one who is worried about the lack of dialogue on the refugee issue. In a discussion on the issue on Sunday, Olmert asked Foreign Minister deputy director general for Africa Jacques Revah what was being done vis-a-vis Eritrea or other African states, and received only a vague response.
Olmert berated military and Foreign Ministry officials, saying: "You turned Herzl's vision upside down. Instead of bringing us to Uganda, you brought Uganda to Israel."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, "The actions of the Foreign Ministry are perfunctory."
The Foreign Ministry was directed months ago to come to an agreement with the African countries and the international community to find places for the infiltrators. One month ago, the request was repeated, but no progress has been made. A senior Foreign Ministry official noted that talks with the U.S., Canada and Kenya on the subject have been fruitless, and that no state is willing to absorb the infiltrators. The Foreign Ministry is considering transfering a large percentage of them to Burkina Faso.
A few weeks ago, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit cited Eritrea's "oppressive regime" as the reason for Israel's issuing of work visas to infiltrators. The Israeli embassy in Asmara recently sent a report to Jerusalem indicating that Eritreans who were returned to their homeland "will be placed in rows and shot or thrown into torture chambers."