By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
JERUSALEM/ASMARA (BosNewsLife)– International aid workers say nearly 30,000 Eritrean Christian refugees are struggling to survive in Israel and many may soon be moved to jail due to new government policies. “Next year the limited periods in the Holot detention center may, if the Israeli government is successful in its current negotiations, be replaced with indefinite periods in a real prison,” warned Barnabas Fund, a Christian relief, and advocacy group.
The Britain-based group told BosNewsLife that Israeli authorities plan to detain “those who are selected for deportation to Rwanda yet refuse to go out of fear for their lives.”
Last month, the Israeli cabinet approved a plan to close the Holot detention center, a facility in the southern Negev (Naqab) desert that currently houses just over 1,000 African asylum seekers. Put forward by the interior and public security ministers, the proposal would reportedly see Holot shuttered by mid-March 2018.
Asylum seekers in Israel would then be forced to choose between indefinite detention in an Israeli prison or deportation to a third country in Africa – named in local media as Rwanda – with or without their explicit consent.
Currently, Israel hosts roughly 40,000 asylum seekers, according to government figures. There are some 27,500 Eritreans and 7,800 Sudanese in Israel, said the UN refugee agency UNHCR. “Since Israel took over refugee status determination from UNHCR in 2009, only eight Eritreans and two Sudanese have been recognized as refugees by the authorities. Another 200 Sudanese, all from Darfur, were recently granted humanitarian status in Israel,” the UNHCR explained.
The agency noted that between December 2013 until June 2017, about 4,000 Eritrean and Sudanese were relocated under the Government’s ‘voluntary departure programme’ to two African countries, identified as Rwanda and Uganda.
Due to the “secrecy” surrounding this policy and “the lack of transparency concerning its implementation”, it has been “very difficult” for UNHCR to “follow up and systematically monitor the situation of people relocated to these African countries,” the agency said.
The UNHCR expressed concerned that these persons have not found “adequate safety or a durable solution” to their plight and that “many” have attempted “dangerous onward movements within Africa” or to Europe. “As party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Israel has legal obligations to protect refugees and other persons in need of international protection,” said UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Volker Türk. “UNHCR and the international community have been assisting Israel to meet its international obligations, including by resettling or finding other durable solutions for 2,400 refugees who have departed from Israel in the last couple of years.”
Barnabas Fund reported that many of those being deported or threatened with expulsion are Christians. “There are around 30,000 Eritrean Christian refugees in Israel. The brutal regime of their homeland mercilessly hounds Christians of certain denominations, imprisoning them for years in atrocious conditions just for meeting together to pray. But things are little better in Israel.”
Besides facing prison, they also “struggle to survive dreadful poverty that is largely the result of Israeli government policies,” Barmanas Fund claimed.
“While ordinary Israeli people are generous in donating to help the impoverished Eritrean refugees, the Israeli government makes no secret of its determination to oust them from the country. The screw is gradually being tightened. In May a new law made it harder for them to get jobs and reduced their take-home pay by more than 20 percent,” the group added.
Among those facing difficulties is Eden who fled her homeland, Eritrea, after being held in an underground prison as punishment for her husband leaving the country.
With her seven-year-old son and four-year-old daughter, she made her way across the Sahara desert, hoping to find safety and refuge in Israel, Barnabas Fund told BosNewsLife in a statement. “They had almost reached their longed-for destination when Bedouin people-traffickers in Egypt’s Sinai desert took them hostage. As the only mother in the group of hostages, Eden was put to work cooking for hundreds of people who came through the underground camp.”
The food was apparently meager, and there was nowhere to wash themselves or their clothes. The best she could do for cleanliness was to pick the lice from her children’s garments, Christians recalled.
After a month Eden and the children escaped and completed their journey to Israel, according to Christians familiar with her situation. “But there they found a hostile government, apparently determined to make their lives unbearable and force them out of the country they had hoped would be their safe haven,” Barmanas Fund said.
Israeli authorities have denied wrongdoing, and previously the Interior Ministry condemned as ‘grave and untrue’ that Israel may be contravening the United Nations Refugee Convention.
However, Barnabas Fund said eight years have passed since Eden’s family arrived in Israel after “that terrible” journey. “But they still have no legal status; Eden has to renew her temporary visa every two months, and there is no state healthcare or trauma care for them.”
Eden’s daughter, now 12, wants to be a nurse, but will never be able to do a job that requires certification because she will never be given Israeli citizenship, according to aid workers.
“In three years’ time Eden’s son will be 18, and then becomes liable to be held for a year in the cruel Holot detention center, where no one has enough to eat, and Christians are not allowed to manifest their faith,” Barnabas Fund complained.
The group stressed that with Christmas approaching, it was also “remembering how Mary and Joseph fled as refugees with the infant Jesus to Egypt.” Barnabas Fund said it is raising funds to support Eritrean Christian refugees in Israel who are “deliberately pressured through poverty” and facing a “desperately uncertain future” in the New Year. “Members of the Israeli public generously donate food and other items to an Eritrean Christian agency in Tel Aviv for distribution to the neediest Eritreans – mainly mothers with small children. But much more is needed.”
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