Eritrean Asylum Seekers in Israel are Facing Attack While Demanding Good Governance

On Monday September 4th, 2023, a group of Eritrean nationals who were immigrants in Israel (majority seeking asylum) stormed the Embassy of Eritrea in Tel Aviv in exercise of one of the world’s most fundamental human rights – the right to peaceful assembly – guaranteed by Article 20 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which Israel is a signatory.

They were protesting not only the 30-year anniversary celebration of Isaias Afwerki’s continued hold on power but also what they perceived as a provocative celebration of his dictatorship. Mr. Afwerki’s prolonged rule, marked by a lack of presidential or parliamentary elections and the absence of an independent judiciary, has led to unparalleled hardships for the Eritrean people and the protesters viewed this celebration as an affront to their dignity and a stark reminder of the corruption, violence, and poverty that had forced them to flee their homeland and seek refuge in a foreign land.

The Israeli government, in response to the protests, provided the Eritrean government the police force and significant support to illegally suppress the protesters and make room for pro-government demonstrators who were hired to put up a false charade for the unpopular dictator. Despite the provocation, the immigrants who were protesting maintained their cool until the hired group, under the supervision of the police, attacked the protesters. The police then used force, including shooting tear gas, stun grenades, and live rounds while officers on horseback tried to control the protesters who broke through the barricades and hurled chunks of rocks at the police in response to their brutalisation.

Following the situation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would increase efforts towards the deportation of what his government calls “illegal” African migrants. Observers have argued that this response falls short of addressing the broader issues at hand, such as the alleged heavy-handedness of Israeli police and the underlying cause of the violence – Israel’s support for the authoritarian Eritrean regime. 

While this holds true, there is also a need for emphasis on the blatantly illegal and clearly racist dimensions of Mr Nethanayu’s comments. Rather than delving into various potential factors contributing to the situation, including inadequate police crowd control tactics and the alleged provocation of peaceful protesters by government-backed demonstrators, the proposed decision centers on returning African migrants, who are fleeing both physical and economic violence, to the conflict-ridden regions they are escaping from in what could potentially constitute a violation of international law. 

Explicitly included in the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED), the principle of non-refoulement, prohibits signatory states, including Israel, from returning or expelling a refugee or asylum-seeker to a place where they would face persecution, torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or other serious human rights violations. This principle is absolute and non-derogable, meaning it applies at all times and no exceptions can be made even if the individuals entered the country illegally or are considered a security threat.

Despite this international legal protection, Israeli authorities have consistently emphasized the threat of deportation, particularly targeting immigrants of African descent, as if it were the definitive solution to addressing crime and violence. This stance has been reiterated by the Israeli government in multiple instances, including March 2018, September 2021, and most recently, further underscoring their commitment to mass and seemingly unfair deportations of African immigrants. In some disturbing instances, the threat of deportation has been accompanied by deeply offensive racial slurs and comments. For example, in 2018, prominent political and religious leader Yitzhak Yosef referred to black people as “monkeys” and used the Hebrew equivalent of a racial slur during one of his weekly sermons.

Astonishingly, no penalties were imposed on Mr. Yosef for these comments, despite a pattern of such remarks, as he had previously stated two years earlier that non-Jews, including Africans and Arabs, could only reside in Israel if they agreed to serve the country’s Jewish population. Around the same time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a public statement equating the arrival of non-Jewish African refugees to something “much worse” than severe attacks by terrorists in the Sinai region.

These comments by the nation’s top political leaders highlight a troubling racist underpinning of their immigration policies toward Africa, which appears to be an apparent disdain and contempt for individuals of African descent, regardless of their contributions to Israel’s economy and society.

Israel is not alone in this discompassionate stance in immigration policy for Africans. In the five-year period from 2018 to April 30, 2023, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) reportedly rejected 59% of visa applications from English-speaking Africans and a staggering 74% from French-speaking Africans looking to study in Canadian colleges and universities. This stark contrast in acceptance rates has raised concerns about racial bias.

In 2022, the rejection rate for French-speaking African applicants stood at 66%, while English-speaking Africans faced a 62% refusal rate. Comparatively, students from Western countries had significantly lower rejection rates, with Great Britain, Australia, and the United States at 13%, 13%, and 11%, respectively. France had the lowest refusal rate at 6.7%.

Evidence of racial bias within IRCC came to light during hearings held by the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration in 2022. Etienne Carbonneau, director of research and support for internationalization at Université du Québec, bluntly stated that there is a “certain rate of racism” within IRCC, particularly targeting French-speaking African populations. Similar concerns were echoed by Daye Diallo, a senior economist at the Institut du Québec in Montreal.

Also in the United States of America, racial bias is historically ingrained in the immigration laws. The first comprehensive federal immigration law was forged by virulent racism against Chinese immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of most Chinese people to the United States.  From 1792 to 1952, being white was a prerequisite for the naturalization of immigrants. 

Passed by Congress in 1924, the discriminatory national origins quotas system, which remained in place until 1965, favored immigration from Northern Europe and greatly restricted the migration of people of color to the United States. In 1954, the U.S. government removed hundreds of thousands of persons of Mexican ancestry from the country in an initiative officially known as “Operation Wetback.”

Today, the racist dimensions of the system are obvious in the enforcement of the laws. The American Bar Association (ABA) in 2022 called for an investigation by the U.S. government into the influence of racism and xenophobia on the enforcement of immigration laws. The ABA House of Delegates passed Resolution 610, which: “Urges the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Health and Human Services, to identify and eradicate actual and perceived racial bias, discrimination, and xenophobia in the enforcement of the Immigration and Nationality Act.”  

Many noncitizens within and seeking to enter the United States are people of color from the developing world who are directly affected by the comprehensive federal immigration law. That law employs the terms “alien” to legitimize harsh treatment. Those deemed as aliens are subject to discrimination that never could be lawful with respect to U.S. citizens, including detention and removal from the country.  

Africans who have been displaced from their homelands, often due to political manipulation and imperial exploitation by Western powers, find themselves in a challenging predicament. Instead of being welcomed with open arms and receiving support to alleviate their suffering, they continue to grapple with the enduring scourge of racial discrimination. This global issue raises significant concerns and highlights the need for international cooperation and empathy. 

The African diaspora is vast, with individuals scattered across the globe. Many, including the Eritreans, have left their countries of origin to escape political instability, economic hardship, and violence perpetuated, in part, by historical interventions by Western powers. These forced displacements, be it through colonization, neocolonialism, or geopolitical conflicts, have left countless Africans in a state of uncertainty, searching for safe havens and opportunities elsewhere.

Tragically, the challenges do not end upon reaching foreign shores. Africans in exile frequently encounter racial discrimination in various aspects of their lives, from education and employment to daily interactions. This discrimination can manifest itself in overt forms, such as hate crimes and racial slurs, or more subtle, systemic biases that hinder their integration and progress.

This prevailing discrimination starkly contrasts with the ideals of equality and inclusivity that many nations proclaim to uphold. Instead of a world that opens its arms to these displaced Africans, offering them a chance at a better life, they are often met with barriers that obstruct their path to integration and success. These barriers not only hinder the well-being of individuals but also contribute to societal divisions and tensions.

As global geopolitics continue to experience structural shifts, African states are presented with a unique opportunity to renegotiate the terms of their relationship on the global stage which could prove pivotal to combating racism and strengthening their international standing as well as a  chance to break free from historical imbalances and negotiate their positions as equals on the global stage. They also have the opportunity to raise awareness about the enduring effects of colonialism, slavery, and racism, and push for meaningful reforms on a global scale. 

At the same time, African nations should actively redefine their participation in international organizations like the United Nations, African Union, and regional blocs. Through diplomacy, African states should move to foster partnerships, resolve conflicts, and advocate for their interests. Building strong diplomatic ties with both traditional and emerging powers can open doors for economic cooperation, technological advancement, and infrastructure development.

To further assert themselves in the multipolar world, African states should also pursue self-sufficient foreign policies. This entails reducing dependency on external aid and trade relationships that may be skewed against their interests. By fostering economic self-reliance and diversifying their partnerships, African nations can enhance their bargaining power. 

Investing in education, healthcare, and technology sectors is crucial to building self-sufficiency. African countries can also promote intracontinental trade and cooperation, harnessing the vast potential within the African continent itself. Regional integration, as seen in the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), is a significant step toward economic empowerment.

By pursuing self-sufficient foreign policies and prioritizing regional integration, African countries can harness their full potential and contribute to a more equitable and just world order. In doing so, they can not only renegotiate the terms of their relations with the world but also lead the way in the fight against racism on the global stage.

Writer: Ayoola Babalola
Editors:Chimee Adioha, Amaka Obioji
Image: Timo Wagner/Unspash

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