An appeal to PM Netanyahu on behalf of Ethiopians suffering in Israel

Obang Metho’s letter to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu regarding the deplorable condition of Ethiopian asylum seekers in Israel.

Solidarity Movement for a New Ethiopia (SMNE)

October 22, 2012

Open letter to:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
and Israeli Ministry of the Interior Eli Yishai;

Regarding the serious concerns involving the status, detentions and living conditions of the Ethiopian refugees now living in Israel.

Prime Minister’s Office 3 Kaplan St.
P.O.B. 187
Kiryat Ben-Gurion Jerusalem 91919


“Once I have witnessed the redemption of the Jews, my people, I wish to assist in the redemption of the Africans.” Written in 1902 by Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism

Dear Prime Minister Netanyahu,


We are writing you regarding our serious concerns involving the status, detentions and living conditions of the 2,500 to 3,000 Ethiopian refugees now living in Israel.  As you know, both the government of Israel and the African refugee living within Israel have reached a complicated and difficult impasse with no simple solutions to a growing refugee problem; yet, we believe that Israel’s newly instituted solution to cope with these refugees is not only short-sighted and harsh, but also ethically and morally wrong. Instead, we hold that a more humane policy could be found to address the very real challenges of both refugees who are genuinely seeking a temporary safe haven and the state of Israel which is not ready to meet the real needs of so many persons.


Contrary to the general tone of the law, in most cases, Ethiopians refugees living in Israel have legitimate asylum cases and are there legally as the Ministry of the Interior has reportedly issued most asylum seekers a conditional release visa. This means they are not simply “work infiltrators.” According to the 2012 report from Freedom House,[1] Ethiopia was second on the list of all countries for experiencing the greatest decline in freedom over the past two years. The 2011 Legatum Prosperity Index showed Ethiopia to at the very bottom of their list as the most “un-free” country among the 110 countries studied.[1]


Moreover, we believe the proposed enactment of stringent detention or deportation policies, under the Anti-Infiltration Law and its amendments, which includes asylum seekers, is unjustifiable in view of the widespread human rights violations in many neighboring countries, including Ethiopia, and will undoubtedly place many of these refugees in harm’s way. Some, if not many, will not survive. Furthermore, according to UNHCR, only 1% of asylum requests are finally accepted. Acceptance does not mean permanent residence or citizenship in Israel. What many of these refugees need is temporary shelter until safety and security are restored in their countries; not draconian policies that would criminalize asylum seeking, leading to long-term detention. 


We contend that the enactment of the Anti-Infiltrator law and its amendments fail to fulfill the obligations of the international Refugee Convention, of which Israel is a signatory, and may violate the soul and conscience of a nation of people who in the past and present have experienced their own persecution, threats to their survival and the need to seek the goodwill of other nations in providing safe refuge to them.


In light of this, and on behalf of these Ethiopian refugees, the SMNE respectfully calls on the Government of Israel, the Ministry of the Interior, the Knesset and other people and bodies associated with the implementation of the Anti-Infiltration Law and its amendments, to consider its revision. In particular, we would for the protection of asylum seekers from the application of this law. We also respectfully call on you to cease disclaiming the cases of these asylum-seekers as being without cause until there is a well-developed asylum process in place, free of bias, with all deficiencies corrected and until authorities possess accurate and up-to-date facts about the state of repression in Ethiopia, so as to fairly evaluate the claims of these African Refugees without discrimination. The present acceptance of only 1% of all asylum claims[i] calls into question the entire process; something that is very disturbing in light of the very real threats many of these refugees will face at home.


According to Hotline for Migrant Workers, an advocacy group located in Tel Aviv, they write in their August 2012 publication, “Legislation Targeting Asylum Seekers in Israel 2012”, “These measures reflect the false claims that the African asylum seekers are not refugees running for their lives and freedom, but rather ‘work infiltrators’, as repeatedly stated by Israeli government officials.” [ii] Amendments to the law will criminalize Israeli citizens who employ asylum seekers, but will eventually will also criminalize both Israelis – with fines and imprisonment in some cases—who shelter or transport asylum seekers or who assist them in sending money to family or others abroad. Africans, who are certainly a more easily identified group within Israel, will be easily targeted


Few Ethiopians, if any, have received asylum in Israel or have been able to go through a thorough process of determination to separate true asylum seekers from illicit workers and the bias is that none of them are refugees, an absurd assumption in light of the rampant human rights violations in Ethiopia and the lack of freedom, justice and freedom of expression. This is backed up with data. According to the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), in the entire year of 2011, Israel only approved one out of 46,000 or more requests for asylum and only 190 since Israel signed the 1951 Convention in 1954, [iii] leaving the majority of asylum seekers without work permits and forced to seek illegal work if they are to survive.[iv] 


According to UNHCR’s July 2012 report on Israel, they also express concerns that this law will be enacted before there is an adequate asylum process. They indicate in their report: UNHCR is also concerned regarding the current functioning of the asylum system in Israel. With a recognition rate below 1%, eligibility practices appear to be too restrictive… it is clear that further efforts are required to develop capacity and to consolidate the procedural framework guiding this important process. The lack of adequate capacity makes it difficult, for example, to promptly and fairly process asylum claims. A significant number of applicants have to wait several months or longer, some while in detention, to have their claims reviewed. Moreover, the accelerated processing model in use in Israel lacks necessary procedural safeguards, including adequate access to the appeal process. In UNHCR’s opinion, such deficiencies are likely to impact the quality and fairness of decisions rendered for such claims.”[v] 


The UNHCR also notes that persons of African descent will be more vulnerable than others. “UNHCR has expressed serious concern prior to and with the approval of the Law for the Prevention of Infiltration. Applied to asylum-seekers, it could constitute a breach of the rights and obligations of the Government, as stipulated in the 1951 Convention, of which Israel was a founding signatory. Of particular concern is the long term detention to which asylum seekers are subjected; a minimum of 3 years according to the law. The application of the law could be considered discriminatory, in contravention of other international obligations under the ICCPR and ICERD6, as it will apply almost solely to persons of African descent in practice. Additionally, UNHCR is concerned that the law also applies to children and other persons with specific protection needs.[vi]

Ethiopian Refugees in Detention Centers

Unofficial sources estimate that there are between four and five hundred Ethiopians in various detention centers within Israel; some for over three years. This number includes minor children. Here are some facts:


In Givon Prison, located near the city of Ramla are the following:

  • There are 8 male and 13 female prisoners as well as 2 who are reported as being Eritrean. Out of these 23 prisoners, 10 are underage (13 – 16 years).
  • Among these prisoners are women who have been detained there for more than a year and six months; among the male prisoners it is reported that the maximum prison time is 3 years and 2 months. The average prison time of those underage prisoners (13 – 18 years) is 7 months.


In Saharonim Detention Centre (also “Saaronim”) close to the border with Egypt there are approximately:

  • 200 – 300 male prisoners; among these male prisoners, the longest prison time is 2 years and 2 months
  • Among the 123 female prisoners, the longest prison time is 2 years. There is some credible information about infant prisoners with their mothers.


In Matan, a juvenile detention facility, located near Hadera

  • We have been unable to get information about countless prisoners.


In seeking meaningful answers to this current dilemma, no one expects Israel to “go it alone,” but yet, Israel, a nation called to be “repairers, healers and restorers,” – “tikkun olam”— might be in a position to play an important role in working together with Africans themselves and other concerned nations and organizations in finding humane, effective and durable solutions which could be mutually beneficial in the long-run if not much sooner. 


“For the Sake of the World” (mip’nei tikkun ha-olam)

We in the SMNE are working to create a “New Ethiopia” where diverse Ethiopians will find a home where they can live and flourish, where streams of refugees out of the country will cease and where those scattered among the nations will want to return, without deportation, like the Jews to their homeland of Israel.  Because of your own suffering, you may better understand the present-day world of many of these refugees who are unwanted in their own homeland, driving them to seek a temporary place of safety, but find they are also unwanted there. 


The people of Israel know about the great suffering that comes from being unwanted in foreign lands, even those in which they had been born and raised. It led to the Holocaust, an evil that became the darkest of stains on humanity; however, many do not realize that Ethiopians were also the innocent victims of the same evil system that dehumanized them along with many others. One man typifies the common thread between what happened to the Jews and what happened to Ethiopians. That man is Rodolfo Graziano, the defense minister under Mussolin’s fascist regime.


In 1937, Rodolfo Graziano carried out a massacre of Ethiopians, killing 30,000 persons in three days and 1,000,000 other Ethiopians throughout the duration of their invasion of Ethiopia, earning him the nickname as the “Butcher of Ethiopia.”[vii] One of his officials incited the killing saying, Comrades, today is the day when we should show our devotion to our Viceroy by reacting and destroying the Ethiopians for three days. For three days I give you carte blanche to destroy and kill and do what you want to the Ethiopians.”  In 1938, Graziano signed anti-Semitic laws leading to the deportation of 7,000 Italian Jews to German concentration camps where nearly 6,000 of them died.


The world is ashamed of what was done to the Jew during the Holocaust. The Germans have apologized and given compensation and the Vatican has apologized, but in terms of Ethiopia, few even know of the systematic mass extermination campaign where chemical warfare and poisonous gases were used to kill great numbers of people. World leaders could have stopped the rise of Hitler Mussolini early on, like could have been done with Hitler, but another great stain on history was when the League of Nations caved in to self-interest and betrayed one of its co-signers it pledged to protect—Ethiopia—when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia.


Ethiopians suffered so much but it has never acknowledged. Now their grandchildren are the ones suffering at the hands of their own government but they are finding nowhere to go to escape it. This is not about infiltrators or illicit workers but it is about human beings—our sons, daughters, sisters, fathers and mothers.   


We do not blame Israel for reacting to what has become an overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable challenge of absorbing such a large influx of refugees in such a small country; however, what we ask for is a temporary arrangement until refugees can return. Use your diplomatic efforts to support those Ethiopians who are working to create a government where there is freedom and democracy. It will bring greater stability to the region. We know the real way out is not with Israel or some other country of refuge but instead it is to build a country where there is a government that respects the rights of its people; where its leaders our accountable to its citizens; and a homeland where the people can live and flourish.


To read the entire letter, please open the attachment or click the link


For those who speaks Amharic, please listen to the attached audio of an Ethiopian refugee who lives in Israel

I am appealing to all my friends and colleagues to forward the litter to your friends. If you do, you will not just be giving a voice to our beautiful people, but you would be doing justice to our humanity. Knowing the truth is overcoming the first obstacle to freedom! 


Thanks so much for your never-ending support. Don’t give up. Keep your focus on the bigger picture and reach out to others and listen! Care about those who are suffering. Think about our family of Ethiopians and humanity throughout the world—they are YOU! There is no “us” or “them.” This is at the heart of the SMNE.


Sincerely yours,


Obang Metho

Executive Director of the SMNE

Email: [email protected]



~ There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge and wisdom. Shall we instead choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? I appeal as a human being to human beings; remember your humanity, and forget the rest ~ Bertrand Russell

Open letter to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu