`Meet Tesfay Ghebremedhin on the street and you could mistake him for a college student – but in a few weeks, he faces either return to his native Eritrea or a stay at a camp set up by the state of Israel for illegal migrants. The camp, he assured me, is a prison.


There are tens of thousands of asylum-seekers living in Israel, mostly fleeing civil war and political persecution in Eritrea and South Sudan. Refugees under international law, they are not granted status and therefore cannot legally work.


Tesfay has been in Israel for over four years, working under the table as a hostel cleaner. When I arrived at that hostel, he was leaning against the counter in jeans, drinking a glass of water; he grinned at me, and I took him for another traveller.


Almost five years ago, he fled Eritrea to Ethiopia and then Sudan. Tesfay knew that he could only claim refugee status in Egypt, the first stable country he reached. But Egypt’s frontier deserts create horror stories for refugees featuring guards who shoot on sight, and gangs that torture for ransom. So Tesfay, like so many others, set out for Israel, where a friend of a friend was rumored to have gotten a work permit.


Even then, he could not possibly survive without a guide, and many would-be refugees die crossing the Sinai. In addition to chronic human trafficking in the region, migrants fall prey to dehydration.


In Sudan, a group of Bedouins offered to take Tesfay across the Sinai Peninsula to Israel – for $3,500. Family and friends helped him raise the impossible sum and, after a twenty-two day crossing without food or water, Tesfay reached Israel. In Israel he spent over two months in a camp before being granted a temporary visa to stay. He was homeless in Tel Aviv until a generous stranger gave him 100 Shekels and a mobile phone, and Tesfay started a new life.


His wife came later. When she could not raise money to give to the Bedouin guides, they offered to take her for free, but  once in the desert, they demanded $4,500 and sex. Like hundreds of others, Tefay’s wife was held there until the Bedouins received their ransom – which Tesfay borrowed from anyone he could. When she arrived, Tesfay’s wife asked him to take her to the hospital. She never told him what happened. “She still cries to think about it,” he said.


Human Rights Watch has reported on an ever-increasing number of asylum-seekers who, like Tesfay’s wife, are kept, tortured, and sexually assaulted in the Sinai.


Those asylum-seekers that make it to Israel live on four-month renewable visas. These permit them to stay in the country, but nothing else. In theory, they are temporary visas for asylum-seekers waiting to have their cases reviewed for refugee status. Tesfay, however, never expects a decision.


He and his wife are just two victims of decades of turmoil in Eritrea. Eritrea won independence from Ethiopia in 1991, after thirty years of civil war. War with Ethiopia erupted again from 1998-2000. Eritrea remains a single-party state, with all opposition fiercely repressed and where private media is illegal. The ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice maintains such a high level of suppression by spending a fifth of the country’s GDP on the military; no other country spends over 9%. The government has been repeatedly accused of human rights abuses, including detention without trial of its perceived enemies and prosecution of religious minorities. Refugees have been fleeing Eritrea for longer than Eritrea has been a country; 34,000 of them reside in Israel today.


When Tesfay tried to renew his visa at the beginning of January, he got a different one than he was used to: one-month and non-renewable. He unfolded the visa, showing me its expiration:


“This is my prison date,” he said


With as little notice, any of the other tens of thousands of asylum-seekers in Israel could be in the same situation. Many already are. Israel is a signatory of the 1951 UN Commission on the Status of Refugees, which includes the Principle of Non-Refoulement. According to this fundamental principle, asylum-seekers cannot be returned to a country “where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”


Israel, however, sees people like Tesfay as illegal migrants and nothing more. All arriving refugees are detained, and given no assistance upon their release. With 90% of Israel’s substantial population of asylum-seekers having arrived since 2007, both the state and incoming migrants face an impossible dilemma. For people like Tesfay, the solution cannot come soon enough.

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