My birthplace is in the Eritrean capital Asmara, where the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and ex-Mossad leader Rafi Eitan were imprisoned by the British in 1946, near the suburb of Idaga-Arbi. We used to call the area ‘Inda-Encode’ in honor of the Encode kosher beef packing company that was located nearby. It was there that I saw for the first time in my life an orthodox Jew. I remember asking my mother: “Who are these people?” My mother used to reply: “These are the people of God.”
Eritrea is a different kind of place now. Gross human rights violations in Eritrea are an open secret denied only by the Eritrean regime itself, and apologist friends of its president. This has led to more than an estimated quarter of a million Eritreans to flee and seek shelter elsewhere. Approximately 25,000 Eritreans have sought asylum in Israel.
The Israeli government is contemplating a forcible repatriation of Eritrean refugees back to Eritrea, despite repeated warnings from national and international organizations about the very real dangers refugees would face on their arrival. A host of international human rights organizations, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Amnesty International, have documented the fate of Eritrean asylum seekers who were repatriated to Eritrea from Malta, Egypt, Sudan and Libya: They have been incarcerated, tortured and some have been “disappeared.”
According to Amnesty International, “Nearly all [forcibly returned refugees] were detained immediately upon their arrival in Eritrea, and the vast majority of these individuals remain in incommunicado detention in locations across Eritrea…All forcibly returned Eritreans are at risk of torture and other forms of ill-treatment during interrogation. Leaving the country is itself considered by the authorities as an act of treason.”
Modern-day Israel is founded on the suffering of the Jewish people; refugees who were scattered all over the world. Caring for the refugee, the stranger, is a theme of Jewish religious thinking as well: The Torah itself says in Exodus 23:9: “Do not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be strangers, because you were strangers in Egypt.” Considering these experiences and that of the Jewish people throughout history, I don’t want to believe that Israel will send Eritrean refugees back to a country where they could face inhuman treatment in secret locations and with no access to justice.
The Jewish people know more than other peoples what it means to be denied the right to asylum. Take as an example The Netherlands, where I received asylum in 1980 after fleeing Eritrea, following its occupation by Mengistu Haile Mariam , the dictator of neighboring Ethiopia. The very same country that offered me sanctuary from a bloody military junta denied refuge to Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s. Between 1933 and 1935 about 25,000 Jewish refugees arrived in The Netherlands. Three years later the Dutch Government closed its borders to the refugees, despite protests from some political parties, passing a law declaring every refugee an undesirable alien unless they could prove that they were in physical danger. The Dutch Government was asking the impossible – to ‘prove’ danger to the individual in the face of genocide. Even after Kristallnacht and mass incarcerations of Jews, a prologue to the program of mass extermination, the Dutch government refused to review its stand. The borders remained closed to Jewish refugees and many were sent back to die at the hands of Hitler and his regime.
Why would Israel want to join the unsavory club of countries who send refugees back to Eritrea? The late Col. Mohammed Ghadafi sent Eritrean refugees back to the dungeons of current Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, his close friend, despite international protests. The ICC-indicted Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir, current President of Sudan, is also a close friend of President Isaias Afeworki and regularly sends Eritrean refugees back to Eritrea despite repeated warnings and has received international condemnations for doing so. Egypt under Mubarak sent back approximately 1,200 Eritreans in 2008, many of whom remained missing years later.
A month ago, the Eritrean Ambassador to Israel, Mr. Tesfmariam Tekeste, appeared before the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers . In his own words: "No one is going to teach me about human rights…[no-one who] will sabotage the building of the state [will be allowed to return to Eritrea],"illuminates to Israelis what the fate of the Eritrean refugees would be if they are forced to return to Eritrea under its current regime. In front of the Knesset committee and various witnesses, Ambassador Tekeste threatened refugees like Isaias Tekleberhan, who challenged him in the Israeli parliament. He called the refugee “a traitor.” You know what the fate of “traitors” is in dictatorships where the rulers are prosecutors, judges and executioners all at the same time.
Israel made a historical mistake when it, along with the US, supported the late Emperor Haile Selassie in his fight against Eritrean insurgents in the early 1960s, training special commandos that harshly suppressed the Eritrean uprising and victimized many civilians. The Israeli government has the opportunity now to save lives in Eritrea by continuing to grant Eritrean refugees asylum in Israel.
I appeal to the Israeli Government and to the people of Israel not to return one Eritrean refugee back to Isaias Afewerki’s dictatorship. Why not turn instead to the United States and other western countries, including my second home, The Netherlands, to resettle some of the refugees?
I hope and pray that the Israeli government and people will treat the Eritrean refugees as brothers and sisters. I hope and pray that no Eritrean will be forced to return to Eritrea – that is, except the Eritrean Ambassador and his cohorts.
Habtom Yohannes is a senior journalist with the Dutch Public Broadcasting Organization and was born in Asmara, Eritrea.
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