Gal Lusky. 'No one mentions Israel's commitments'
Photo courtesy of Israeli Flying Aid
Eritrea. Sense of hospitality
Photo: AFP

Why work migrants can’t tell the truth

'Does the State of Israel know the different between hostile Sudan and Eritrea – its only friend in important strategic area, which insists on treating Israel favorably?' Gal Lusky, who received honorary award from Clinton for saving human life, warns solution must be found for problem of Eritrean infiltrators

I first arrived in Eritrea in 1997. A young country, consisting of patriotic, secular citizens united together in a sort of "melting pot" and surrounded by large enemy states, just like us – several years after we were declared a state. At the time, the country was already different from most African countries: Clean, without any beggars on the streets, and organized.


Many may not know this, but Eritrea is about a two-hour flight from Israel, with 1,250 kilometers (776 miles) of golden desert, and a beach with a strategic importance which there is no need to mention.


In that same amazingly beautiful country, filled with corals and virgin islands, I encountered a sense of hospitality exceeding that of Sinai's Bedouins in the 1960s. Every time I hear about travel warnings to Egypt, I dream about this perfect destination for thousands of Israelis during the holidays.


We are talking about a small country (more than 4.5 million people) which, unlike surrounding states, is trying to live without foreign aid and has built itself slowly, with Israel at its inception serving as a role model. This country's ministers travel in old, modest cars, and the president walks through the streets with almost no security, wearing a simple shirt and no tie.


On New Year's Eve, which was celebrated in the capital recently, the "tyrant" walked through dozens of partygoers, hugging citizens and shaking their hands, with almost no security. Only recently, in one of his speeches in Europe, when the Eritrean president was asked about his opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Isaias Afwerki replied that "Israel has the right to defend itself in every way possible."


Unfortunately, Israel's commitments towards Eritrea have not been mentioned by anyone in the media. But there are many of them, believe me. Eritrea's ambassador to Israel has been here for six years, and has never been invited to one of the government ministries and asked a simple question: "What do you, Mr. Ambassador, think should be done to solve the problem?"


The Israeli government has forgotten about the reciprocity agreement required diplomatically and conscientiously between two friendly countries, and the issue of illegal immigrants from this country is only one of them.


Is this the way to treat a friendly country?

There is a lot of confusion among Knesset members and ministers today regarding immigration or refugees. Few, if any, have taken upon themselves to study the issue thoroughly.


I have been invited to discussions about this issue organized by the Interior Ministry, the immigration department, the police and humanitarian bodies. The ambassador of the country being discussed and slandered was not present in any of them. Why? After all, it's his citizens and country that are being placed on any available table at the Knesset and chopped into little pieces.


Poster encouraging tourism to Eritrea


Is this the way to treat a friendly country? An official representative of a foreign state arrives, sits in his office in Israel, writes to the relevant ministries, warns of difficulties and security dangers and is usually left unanswered.


Can the State of Israel tell the difference between hostile Sudan, which has no representation here, and Eritrea – its only friend in an important strategic area, which insists on treating Israel favorably? A country, which despite the fact that 50% of its population is Muslim, refuses to join Arab countries and preserves a Jewish synagogue in its capital city?


And here? Some 150 Eritreans infiltrate Israel every night, and we continue to avoid making a decision about them. Can they be deported or not? Many, including the UN, argue that should the immigrants be deported to Eritrea, they would be put in prison or tortured, and even murdered by the tyrannical government.


The UN? The same organization that saw our soldiers being kidnapped and stood idly by without doing anything? The same body which sets regulations but fails to enforce them? The same organization which should have, according to its own treaties, visit Gilad Shalit?


So the UN said so, so what? Has anyone checked when a reliable report based on facts, not on the "testimony" of illegal work migrants who seek to improve their standard of living by working in a country which is significantly richer than their own, was conducted recently?


It is clear to all of us that these people will tell horror stories so as not to be deported back to their countries. After all, you cannot expect work migrants with a clear interest to stay here to tell the truth. That's exactly what we would do if we were in their shoes.


And talking about terrified refugees, how it is that every time I visit the ambassador's office, whether invited or not, the corridor is packed with dozens of Eritrean citizens asking him to help them adjust to life here or move on to Europe. Would they do the same if it were a tyrannical and threatening dictatorship?


The main claim made by the Eritrean immigrants is that they are "escaping from the army" and that if they return they will be harmed."


Both Israel and Eritrea have compulsory military service. Their original plan was for men and women to serve for a year and eight months, but the tensions with the neighboring countries and the "state of emergency" declared in the country since 1997 and yet to be lifted, can extend the service to 20 years for men and 10 years for women (unless they marry or have children).


Most of Eritrean recruits work in construction and infrastructure or in guarding the borders with Ethiopia and Sudan due to the infiltration of fundamentalist tribes.


Does that sound bad? Well, who gave us the right to judge a foreign country and intervene in its constitution? And what would the State of Israel do had 'Moshe Cohen' moved to Jordan and sought refuge because he was scared of three years of compulsory service? Had Jordan given him a refugee status, our ambassador would have been recalled to Jerusalem within one minute! Why are we allowed to do what others are not?


Is an Israeli defector located and caught embraced or investigated, and then jailed and returned to military service? And apart from defectors – who are criminals by law – perhaps we should think logically for a minute, talk to the Eritrean ambassador in Tel Aviv and ask him for the listings of those legally leaving Eritrea for Cairo? A list of all those who have been legally issued a passport, and therefore are not seeking refuge and the state has nothing against them.


Maybe that's when we'll all understand that about 50% and more of those infiltrating Israel from its southern border cannot be drafted in Eritrea and have left the country legally. Can't we deport these people too although they are not wanted by the army and although they are not facing any persecution? Will we refuse to understand that these are work migrants?


In Israel there are real refugees who come from Darfur after experiencing living hell, and they deserve political asylum and all the possible conditions. But is there any doubt that we are subject to a clear manipulation by Eritrean work migrants who are taking advantage of our inability to distinguish between those walking through our gates? And that at least those who left their country legally can be deported immediately?


Did we expect infiltrators to say that all is good in their country or admit that they have come to make a living and send money home? Will we welcome them with open arms then?


Refugee or illegal work migrant?

In the past, the Eritrean authorities complained about the failure to deport those people back to their country. Recently, after years of unanswered requests, the Eritrean president decided to change the policy. He realized that a citizen who has defected and betrayed his country will not be a loyal citizen in any case.


These people, if they are returned home against their will, will cause moral and other damage, so the Eritrean government has decided not to let the State of Israel deport them to Eritrea against their will, and will only take in those asking to return. Is it all clear now? Have we understood that we are stuck with them?


It's important that we understand, quickly, that human beings must not be held under poor conditions and without a status. We must not prevent them the ability to make a living legally and honorably, because then we'll be surprised when they get involved in crime. They must be given education, medicine, and infrastructure for an appropriate and decent life. We must know how to distinguish between Eritreans and Ethiopians, who take advantage of our confusion and feel safe to lie because we don't have the training or the skills to tell them apart.


The UN Refugee Agency must not be allowed to sort them out for the State of Israel, giving us the possibility to decide on our won who is worthy to be given a refugee status and who is an illegal work migrant. Do the Americans on the Mexico border let the UN do it for them?


With our idleness we've "invited them to keep on coming", and indeed they are coming. We should all be troubled by their passage through Sudan and Sinai, where they are exposed to blackmail. In their weakness, they may cooperate with hostile elements.


And perhaps we should turn to a more significant dialogue with Egypt, which in the power of the peace agreements are prevented from reinforcing motorized and other forces on the route from which they are supposed to prevent the infiltration into our area.


And now the ministers should decide whether it's time to appoint a steering committee to think outside the box, act with all sensitivity and compassion towards those who have arrived here, and make decisions on their fate in Israel or outside the country.


And one last thing: If you or your children the backpackers fly to the Far East, consider yourselves warned. Eritrea is the only country where we can land at the time of a technical problem in the plane. The day when we'll no longer be given a permit to land is getting very close. Enjoy your flight.


The writer is the founder of Israeli Flying Aid , an Israeli organization which helps countries that have experienced a natural disaster, whether or not they have diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. Click here to view the organization's activity at a girls' orphanage in post-quake Haiti.



פרסום ראשון: 01.27.11, 07:45
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