I, A Black Stain

An African migrant protests in front of the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, demanding asylum and rights from the Israeli government, Jan. 22, 2014. Photo: AP/Oded Balilty

I, a black stain

What it’s like to be an African migrant in Israel

Editor’s note: Emanuel Y. asked that his full name not be used. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect AJ+’s editorial policy.

By Emanuel Y.

My name is Emanuel. I am 35. I was sent to prison three times in my life, each time in my home country, Eritrea. I was imprisoned because I asked questions I wasn’t supposed to ask, and talked about ideas I wasn’t supposed to talk about: ideas such as personal liberty, freedom of expression and democracy.

I asked questions about why people in Eritrea are forcibly conscripted to the army and why we have only one political party, one TV channel and one radio station.

The third time I was imprisoned, I was held in an underground jail for two years and three weeks. There were 18 people with me in the cell. Seven of us came out alive. I was 36 kilograms (around 80lbs) when I came out. But I survived.

Then I ran away.

I came to Israel in 2008 and have been here for seven and a half years. I am one of 33,500 Eritreans who have come to Israel in recent years to seek protection. Fortunately, I am not one of around 7,000 Eritreans in Israel who suffered horrific torture and rape at the hands of traffickers in the Sinai Peninsula on their way to Israel. Unfortunately, I am not one of the four—only four — Eritreans whom Israel has recognized as refugees.

I have applied for asylum in Israel, but in the eyes of the Israeli government, I am not an asylum seeker.

The stark reality of Israel’s immigration policy is embodied in Holot, a detention center situated in the middle of the Negev desert in southern Israel. African migrants are held there without knowing what will come next for them. Israel has built a fence along the border with Egypt and offered financial incentives to urge them to leave. Photo: AP/Oded Balilty

I am what they call, by law, an “infiltrator.” What is an “infiltrator”? There are about 45,000 infiltrators in Israel. What they all have in common is that they are black Africans (mainly from Eritrea, but also from Sudan and other African countries). Infiltrators mainly come from places where human rigths violations are being committed — places like Eritrea, Darfur, Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile. Infiltrators are not wanted in Israel. We are a black stain to be removed. We are a cancer, as one member of Knesset once called us (she later apologized to cancer patients for causing offense).

One government minister once said about infiltrators: “We will make their lives miserable until they leave.” And the government is doing a great job. More and more infiltrators are leaving.

They leave because they are giving up hope that Israel will see them for what they are: asylum seekers.

African migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have been demanding they be recognized as refugees — a status that would give them the right to stay in Israel. Photo: AP/Ariel Schalit

They leave for Sudan, where some of them are put in prison and accused of spying for Israel. They leave for Uganda and Rwanda because Israel sends people there under secret transfer agreements. They are left there with no documents and just continue the journey. Some try to get to Europe. Some die on the way.

Being in Israel is like serving my fourth term in prison.

It’s a strange kind of prison. You walk around. You see people. You work. But you are in prison. Because you have no hope of ever being treated with dignity or building a life. Soon I might have to go to prison number five: an immigration detention facility in the desert in the south of Israel. I honestly don’t know what I will do then. I might give up and leave and face whatever comes next. I might get lucky and end up in Europe.

And Israel will get rid of another black stain.


Undocumented teenagers from Eritrea struggle to build a life in Israel:

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