African Asylum Seekers Leaving Israel for Canada, Europe

‘Here I don’t feel like a refugee, I feel like any other person,’ Dawit Demoz says about his new home in Toronto

Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior
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Dawit Demoz, a leader of the asylum seeker community, at Ben Gurion Airport before departing for Canada, March 28, 2016.
Dawit Demoz, a leader of the asylum seeker community, at Ben Gurion Airport before departing for Canada, March 28, 2016.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Ilan Lior
Ilan Lior

Israel boasts that many asylum seekers from Africa are returning to their countries of origin or going to Uganda and Rwanda, but Haaretz has discovered that the main destinations in the past year were actually other Western countries. In these states, in contrast to Israel, asylum seekers receive substantial benefits and are not under pressure from the authorities.

In the past year almost 1,400 asylum seekers left Israel for North America and Europe – almost three times the number in the previous year. About 900 asylum seekers, about 98 percent of them Eritrean, were absorbed into Canada – more than the number taken in by Uganda and Rwanda combined. Many were single, but Canada also absorbed families and children. The United States took in around 140 asylum seekers who had been in Israel, while more than 350 went to Europe, most of them to Sweden or the Netherlands. Israel’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, part of the Interior Ministry, provided this data in response to a Freedom of Information request from the Movement for Freedom of Information.

Dawit Demoz, 30, from Eritrea, spent almost seven years in Israel and was a community leader before leaving for Canada last year. During his first year in Canada he began studying psychology at York University, in Toronto, while working part-time in an organic supermarket. This summer he will be a counselor at a camp for at-risk youth. Last week Demoz flew to Berlin to see his sister for the first time in 10 years. As an asylum seeker in Israel he was barred from leaving the country, but in Canada he obtained a laissez-passer that allows him to travel abroad to meet with relatives.

Speaking from Toronto, Demoz describes his new life. “I feel that I’m not a refugee now,” he says in good Hebrew that already has a Canadian accent. “For six and a half years in Israel I begged to be a refugee, but here I don’t feel like a refugee, I feel like any other person. Everyone is the same here, Nobody looks at me differently or says anything wrong to me, the way people didn’t sit next to me on the train, the way people told me that they don’t rent to Eritreans. That doesn’t exist here. People speak their language freely without fear and display their culture. From the moment I landed I felt at home here.”

The Canadian government enables refugee absorption in a number of ways, one of which is sponsorship by a licensed organization and a Canadian citizen. That’s how most of the asylum seekers get from Israel to Canada. They have to show that they can’t return to their country and have no other long-term solution, to undergo medical examinations and to deposit about 25,000 shekels ($7,000) to guarantee that they can support themselves for the first year if they don’t find work. After a year they get the sum back if they don’t use it.

The sponsoring organization arranges things with the authorities and the private citizen providing sponsorship promises to help with absorption and to take care of basic needs in the first year. The asylum seeker receives permanent residency upon his arrival, and full social rights including health insurance. After three years he can request Canadian citizenship.

In Israel, Damuz lived in a small apartment in south Tel Aviv with other asylum seekers. In Toronto he lives with a local family. “I live in West Toronto. There’s no such thing that all the rich and white people live in one place and simple people and those without money live elsewhere. There’s nothing like south Tel Aviv. People are mixed here. There’s no government frightening the public about 'infiltrators.' So the public sees us like anyone else. Most of the public is not racist, really open and not afraid. If you’re already a refugee, Canada is the first option. No other country treats refugees like Canada.”

Mulo Masfan, also 30 and also from Eritrea, recently left for Canada after spending over seven years in Israel. He began the immigration process about two years ago, but shortly afterward he was sent to the Holot detention facility in the Negev. After staying there for a week he left without permission and returned to Tel Aviv. Masfan says he didn’t want to spend his remaining time in Israel locked up, adding that he had committed no crime. In Israel he worked mainly in a Tel Aviv bar. The manager, a Canadian, helped him to move to Canada. He now lives there with his family, works in a restaurant kitchen and plans to start academic studies next year.

Asylum seekers at the Holot detention center in Israel's south, December 2016.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

He says that in Israel he lived in constant fear of the authorities and couldn’t plan his future. He was always afraid his permit wouldn’t be renewed or that he would be arrested. “They kept passing laws and policy against us, harsher each time. It’s still safer to remain in Israel than to go to Uganda or Rwanda, or to return to Eritrea. From the moment you arrive in Canada things start to change. Everyone you meet is very friendly, they cooperate with you, all the opportunities are open. I just have to decide what I want to do,” Masfan says.

Nirit Blayer, the executive director of the Movement for Freedom of Information, said that the information provided by the Population and Immigration Authority was laconic, partial and complicated. She complained that it is infuriating that an authority deals so extensively in information and is asked to transmit it to the public, permits itself to provide information in an inaccessible manner that cannot be processed. “In my opinion this is a very important request, and if that’s the attitude with which it’s received, that’s very disturbing,” Blayer said.

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