African migrants flood Israel after perilous treks (REUTERS) By Allyn Fisher-Ilan JERSALEM, ISRAEL 04/20/12 9:13am EDT)
Reuters News Service
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(Reuters) - Hrity spent three months chained to half a dozen people
on a basement floor, beaten with sticks and chains that gave off
electric shocks, on a ration of just a spoonful of rice a day.
Now in Israel, the 26-year-old migrant from Eritrea said she was
freed only after a $30,000 ransom was delivered in cash to Israeli
accomplices of her Bedouin Arab captors.
"I can´t believe I survived it all. I still feel very weak and dizzy
just standing sometimes," she said, telling the story of her
captivity and journey across Egypt´s Sinai desert, translated by her
cousin Teklezghi, also a migrant in Israel, who borrowed from her
parents and friends to pay for her freedom.
Some 60,000 African migrants fleeing authoritarian rule in Eritrea
and fighting in neighboring Sudan and what is now South Sudan have
crossed illegally into Israel across the relatively porous desert
border with Egypt.
Half of them arrived in the past two years - more than 3,500 since
January alone - and growing numbers of homeless migrants are camped
out in Israeli city parks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has
vowed "to stop this flood we are all witnessing".
Hrity is settled for the moment with Teklezghi in rented quarters in
Jerusalem´s walled Old City, but her flight for safety may not be
The influx of African migrants has fed into a larger Israeli concern
about maintaining a Jewish majority population, an issue which has
led to policies that limit eligibility for citizenship in Israel.
Jewish immigrants are automatically given citizenship but that option
is not open to most African migrants.
Some of the thousands of laborers imported from Asia and Latin
America to work in the agriculture sector or caring for the elderly
and infirm have also been denied permanent residence or citizenship,
even for family members born in Israel.
Since January, Israeli law has been amended further to punish
migrants caught entering illegally with up to three years in jail. A
detention centre near the Egyptian border is being enlarged to
accommodate thousands more inmates.
"These people aren´t refugees, they are first and foremost
infiltrators to Israel," said Yossi Edelstein, a senior Interior
Ministry official, reflecting Israel´s official view.
Israel is not the first choice of destinations for many African
migrants. Most head to the country because it can be reached overland
and because European countries have become more strict about letting
asylum-seekers in, Edelstein said in an interview.
The recent fighting in Libya and cases of treacherous seas claiming
African victims travelling on rickety boats have exacerbated the
situation and encouraged even more to flee toward Egypt and finally
wind up in Israel.
Israeli humanitarian aid groups, some with help from local
authorities and the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, have opened soup
kitchens and shelters to accommodate the most dire cases, especially
women with infants and small children.
"We are on the verge of collapse from the demand," said Tamar
Schwartz, director of Mesila, a Tel Aviv aid group.
Physicians for Human Rights operates a clinic in the southern reaches
of Tel Aviv where many migrants congregate. Many migrant women seek
abortions after having been raped during their trek, and some are
treated for gunshot wounds suffered on their journeys, officials at
the clinic said.
Edelstein said Israel was trying to stop the illegal influx -- a
fortified fence is under construction along its Sinai border with
Egypt to keep out the migrants as well as armed infiltrators -- and
says it is trying to find places where African migrants could be
So far about 1,000 Sudanese, offered $1,000 apiece, have agreed to
leave Israel voluntarily, Edelstein said.
Israel had planned to seek the repatriation of some hundreds of South
Sudanese, but may put those plans on hold given the latest fighting
between that country and neighboring Sudan, with whom it split just
In response to legal challenges from human rights groups, the Israeli
government has pledged to its Supreme Court that it will not punish
employers who hire African migrants. The promise effectively allows
the migrants to work, but only on temporary visas, not formal work
permits, and only pending further policy decisions.
An Israeli legislative committee session on the issue recently
discussed the possibility of Israel permitting migrant workers to
replace imported labor from abroad, though immigration officials
insist they would not agree to such a move.
Parliament speaker Reuven Rivlin, a member of Netanyahu´s right-wing
Likud party, thought Israel had a "sacred obligation" to help
displaced people given that it was founded as a haven for Jews after
centuries of persecution, minutes of that meeting show.
"We are a people that knows to respect a person fleeing his country
for fear of his life," Rivlin said.
But he added the swelling numbers of migrants posed a "strategic"
problem for Israel, and urged steps to ensure "these people seeking
political asylum are rescued, but that this doesn´t involve a chance
for them to seek Israeli citizenship".
LOOKING FOR A WAY OUT
When Hrity left Eritrea in July 2010, she had no clear destination in
mind but was vaguely considering Europe.
She travelled to neighboring Sudan, where she paid $1,000 to pay off
a gang that threatened her with rape, and then went on to Khartoum.
Later she tried to flee to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, but she
said Bedouin Arabs abducted her en route and took her to the Sinai.
"I wanted to go to Europe but I was taken to Sinai. I didn´t want to
come to Israel," Hrity said in an interview, asking that her last
name not be used.
She said she was kept in a basement with other women and children,
and that she was sometimes forced along with the other women to
undress before being beaten.
During three months in captivity, she was branded with metal rods or
tied to a pole, she said. Her captors also beat the bottoms of her
feet and forced her to phone her cousin Teklezghi in Jerusalem so he
could hear her screams.
Human rights activists in Israel have taken similar testimony from
other women migrants.
It took Teklezghi several weeks to raise her ransom. Her parents sold
their home in Eritrea for about $10,000 and he borrowed the rest from
fellow migrants in Israel.
Israeli police have arrested a suspect who has been identified by
Teklezghi and other migrants as the man who took the cash from them
so their relatives in Sinai could go free.
The suspect, an Israeli Arab, has since been charged with extorting
tens of thousands of dollars in ransom for Hrity and other Eritrean
nationals and transferring the money to their captors in Egypt.
Court papers called the suspect a "main link" in a suspected criminal
gang also alleged to be based in Palestinian territory.
Several weeks after her experiences, Hrity seems too dazed to think
about the future.
She works day jobs, wrapping sandwiches at an eatery and cleaning
homes, hoping to make enough money to repay her ransom debt to her
family and friends.
"I don´t know how I could ever repay them all, even if I work for 10
years," she said.
(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Sonya Hepinstall) (© Thomson Reuters
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