Defending Asylum Seeker Rights in Israel
Gabriel is from Eritrea. In 2001, when he was studying educational management at the University of Asmara, the government mandated that all students in the country spend their summer working for the regime without pay. The Students' Union protested the decision, and all objectors were sent to jail without a trial. After a few months, Gabriel was freed, but two of his fellow students died during their imprisonment.
The following year, Gabriel and his friends were assigned to eight months of forced labor followed by conscription into the army. In Eritrea, soldiers spend most of their time doing forced labor for the regime instead of military activities, without being paid for their efforts. Even worse, he was only permitted to see his family once a year. "I didn't use my education at all," Gabriel says, "They used me as a slave."
By 2006, Gabriel had enough. He managed to escape, first to Ethiopia, and from there to Sudan. He had heard that Israel was the only democracy in the Middle East and hoped he would be able to find shelter there. When he arrived in 2007, there were only 300 Eritreans in the country. Gabriel teamed up with the others, and set up the first organization working to defend Eritrean rights.
He soon formed links with human rights organization in Israel, and began volunteering as a translator for NIF grantee Hotline for Migrant Workers. "I do everything in my power to form a bridge between the Israeli and Eritrean communities," he says. At the same time he worked in a number of restaurants before opening a small shop with Eritrean products in 2010. He also met his wife, with whom he has two children – Matan and Yehudit. He finally feels safe here, but has found it hard to live with the constant uncertainty of his unresolved immigration status. "We have to renew our visas every three months, and we never know how much more time we have here," he reflects.
In December 2012, Gabriel joined the paid Hotline staff as a translator. In addition to meeting with groups to tell them about Eritrea and the Eritrean community in Israel, he also travels once a week to the Saharonim detention facility in the Negev to record the testimonies of Eritreans who have been detained there, to answer their questions, and to help them communicate with the authorities.
As a result of the Anti-Infiltration Law passed last year, refugees are subject to administrative detention of up to three years with limited judicial review, and up to five years for anyone found providing shelter, employment or transportation to an "infiltrator." Saharonim is the largest detention center for immigrants in the western world.
"I feel like I'm helping my people, but it's difficult for me to hear the stories," Gabriel says about his work. Many of them were in jail for a long time in Eritrea, and will now be in jail for a long time in Israel. Thanks to the work of Gabriel and the Hotline, though, there is a greater chance that these people will one day gain the freedom that they so richly deserve.