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The Crisis of Eritrean Refugees in Israel

Project Overview

An informational presentation and trip to a refugee detention center to inform Kibbutz inhabitants about the Eritrean refugee crisis in Israel.

Identifying the Problem

There are about 50,000 African refugees in Israel, 35,000 of whom are from Eritrea. Refugees from Eritrea usually do not get asylum in Israel, despite Israel’s international obligations and the high acceptance rates of Eritrean refugees in other countries. Instead, Israel has a government policy of detention and (voluntary) deportation. In response to Israel’s immigration policy that largely rejects Eritrean refugees, these refugees stage protests all over Israel. In Israel, public opinion about Eritrean refugees is largely negative, and is influenced by the public statements of government officials that refer to refugees as a “cancer” in the body of the people of Israel. Media representation is often one-sided and many people lack information about the situation of refugees.

Vera spent two weeks assisting Eritrean refugees in filling out their applications for asylum in Israel, where she learned a great deal about the many legal, social and political difficulties they faced in Eritrea and Israel. It was the first time that Vera had ever worked with refugees, and she was hugely moved by their stories about the pain they had suffered back home, their treacherous journey to Israel and their deep desire for a better life. Vera was motivated to share these stories with more people and encourage more effective activism for refugees in Israel.

Creating A Solution

Following her work with Eritrean refugees, Vera volunteered at an Israeli Kibbutz for a couple of months. Because she had relatively easy access to that community, she decided to create a project that would include the Kibbutz members as participants. In order to increase awareness about the Eritrean refugee crisis, Vera’s project began with an information session for both international volunteers and Kibbutz members. Vera developed a short presentation, and then booked a space for the event. She promoted the event off and on-line within the Kibbutz, using Facebook, flyers, announcements, notice boards and by asking co-workers for their help in spreading the word. 

The presentation gave an overview of the situation of Eritrean refugees in Israel, which included the reasons why people flee Eritrea, their experiences during their flight (including kidnapping and torture), their legal and economic situation in Israel, the public debate on African refugees in Israel and the problems illegal migration poses to Israel. Vera’s presentation included an interactive discussion among the participants, as well as a question and answer period at the conclusion of the event. She was also sure to include personal testimonies of Eritrean refugees. The event turnout was excellent, and many of the participants were grateful to have been granted access to information they would not get through the mainstream media.

Given the success of the presentation, Vera decided she wanted to further engage the participants in a volunteer activity that would allow them to get to know refugees personally, which Vera hoped would sustain their engagement in the issue. Vera was aware that the advocacy group Help Holot coordinated weekly solidarity visits to the refugee detention center refugees in Holot, so she organized a car share to take interested volunteers along on one of those solidarity visits. Vera also collected games, books, toiletries, and cleaning supplies to donate to the detention center, as the government did not provide any entertainment or educational material to the detained refugees, and the budget for toiletries and cleaning supplies was very small. 

The solidarity visit to the refugee detention center provided a unique experience for participants to gain insights and engage in interactions that would have otherwise been unavailable to them. Meeting refugees and seeing the conditions they lived in provided the opportunity to see them as human beings rather than as “problems.” For many volunteers, the experience was instrumental in challenging their perspective on Eritrean refugees in Israel, and encouraged them to think about the issue differently. 

Lessons Learned

Vera was surprised that some of the presentation participants questioned the validity of the refugee testimonies. “This was a challenge, but also made for interesting discussion,” Vera says. She acknowledges that while she would have liked to invite a refugee to speak during the presentation, that was not possible due to the remoteness of the area. However, she recommends that others interested in pursuing a similar project do try to get someone who has personally experienced the situation to speak about it, as it adds a level of legitimacy and credibility to the circumstances being described.

Get Involved!

To learn more about the Eritrean refugee crisis in Israel, and to become involved in refugee advocacy in Israel, Vera recommends contacting the African Refugee Development Center and the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.

Funding

Vera did not raise any money for this project, and was fortunate to be able to develop and implement her project at such a low cost. In the Kibbutz, she had access to a location for the presentation and free access to Internet and printing. The only cost associated with this project was a small fee for gas for the car-share to the refugee detention center.

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About This Project

HIA Program:

Poland Poland 2013

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