Photo: Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
Most people remember the Sudanese, often the Darfuris. But although the word “Eritrea” is mentioned repeatedly in connection with the phenomenon of infiltration from Africa, we haven’t stopped for a moment to think outside the box and focus on Eritrea as a national goal, to solve the problem and deal with the whole phenomenon.
For years, we have been accepting the argument that the migrants from Eritrea deserve protection as refugees and that they can not be returned to their country. And I have been saying, for several years now, in cabinet meetings and to several Israeli prime ministers, that we have to check these assumptions and challenge them. I also presented my position to representatives of the UNHCR and to the Foreign Ministry. Unfortunately, so far I have run into an absolute objection on the part of the Foreign Ministry, which believes there is nothing that can be done in the current situation. I wish to challenge this perception and state that at least the issue should be reexamined from top to bottom.
Eritrea is not far off. It is just two hours’ flight from here. A country of six million people, composed of different ethnic groups and religions, situated on the Red Sea on the Horn of Africa. Eritrea gained its independence in 1993 after its disengagement from Ethiopia, which is still its rival.
Israel has full diplomatic relations with Eritrea, including the exchange of embassies. The founding president of Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki, was treated in Israeli hospitals. During Yitzhak Rabin’s government, then-health minister Dr. Ephraim Sneh inaugurated a hospital established with Israeli assistance in Eritrea. It is a† poor country in international terms, although recently deposits of precious metals were discovered that slightly improve the situation.
In the history of our people. Eritrea is remembered for the British detention camps holding hundreds of Jewish underground prisoners, including great names such as Yitzhak Shamir and Meir Shamgar.
In Israel today, there are also Jews from Yemen, particularly from the British colony of Aden, who got to the other side of the Red Sea to Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, and later immigrated to Israel after the establishment of the state. I personally know some who still maintain a connection with their old homeland.
Eritrea is not a democracy and it is at the bottom of the ladder in terms of human rights. For this reason and due to other circumstances, it has lost its charm in the eyes of the United States in recent years, despite its strategic location.
The United Nations commissioner for human rights has criticized Eritrea repeatedly while asserting that if Israel returns the migrants to Eritrea, they will be badly harmed because they are draft-dodgers. Another problem with Eritrea is the long dispute with its rival, Ethiopia.
These are convincing arguments and I do not make light of them at all. But given the dimensions of the national problem we are facing, they are not enough to justify a complete denial when searching for an alternative path such as dialogue with Eritrea. I believe that a thorough study was not carried out to test the veracity of the claims and the real risk there may be to the lives of the migrants from Eritrea sent back to their country.
I think we have not examined the various interests and the relevant levers that could lead to a change in the situation and to establishing an understanding with the leaders of this country. In short, Israel’s policy toward Eritrea has not been tested in terms of the current crisis, as a result of which tens of thousands of Eritreans have infiltrated Israel and hundreds of thousands more may be on their way.
The necessary data have not been relayed to the political echelon, nor has the problem been formulated in a way that we can think creatively about how to use the right political and economic tools to change the basic humanitarian situation with regard to Eritrean citizens.
Certainly, there has not been a formal interface with the president of Eritrea, and no meaningful political steps have been taken to change the trend from the bottom, which would satisfy the UNHCR and the rights organizations in Israel that feed primarily on information provided to them by the infiltrators themselves.
Moreover, when Israel has such a significant strategic objective, we cannot demonstrate ignorance and a lack of basic knowledge of a country that has provided us with tens of thousands of job-seekers or refugees who come here in roundabout ways.
The time has come for the prime minister to appoint a team of experts which should include professionals relevant to all aspects of this target country, and offer an appropriate outline for diplomatic, political, economic and legal action that would totally change the direction of that which exists today.
Let me, for example, offer a really unorthodox proposal – that Israel negotiate with the government of Eritrea to establish a treaty that would allow legal employment of some infiltrators, in nursing and agriculture, as it does with the Philippines and Sri Lanka, for a limited, defined period of employment at the end of which the employees would return to their country of origin with their money and would be welcomed back.
We are in an emergency situation with regard to the dimensions of the illegal migration from Africa. In such a situation, we must think outside the box. We must focus our attention on Eritrea diplomatically and economically, and fundamentally change our perception and policy regarding infiltrators from the country. The government and the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee must address this problem urgently.
The writer is a Labor MK.