In Israel, Ethiopian refugee helps others
Yohannes Lemma Bayu provides practical aid for what the government recently called a 'tsunami' of African asylum seekers
Yohannes Lemma Bayu arrived here on a tourist visa in 1997, fleeing his government in Ethiopia. It took him five years, a three-week hunger strike, and an order from Israel's Supreme Court to win political asylum.Skip to next paragraph
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"When I came here I considered Israel a developed democratic country that respected international law. It wasn't what I expected. There's no system for dealing with refugees," says Mr. Bayu, who responded by helping to found the nonprofit African Refugees Development Center (ARDC) in Tel Aviv. "After my experience, I realized there needs to be an organization to help others. We're focused on empowering refugees to take control [of their lives]."
As director of the center today, Bayu offers asylum seekers practical help as Israel struggles to cope with what Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently called a "tsunami" of African migrants. What began two years ago as a slow trickle of refugees sneaking over the border from Darfur and southern Sudan has become a steady stream of illegal migrants – some 5,000 to 6,000 have overwhelmed Israel's prisons.
About half have been released, but save for several hundred Darfurian refugees to whom the government has granted residency, the Africans get no assistance or work permits from the government because they are considered illegal migrant workers.
ARDC is one of the humanitarian and human rights NGOs that have stepped into the vacuum, but they criticize the government for ignoring the migrants' living conditions and human rights.
"The government hasn't found a proper solution neither for the state nor for the refugees. As a result people are suffering a lot," says Bayu. "There is a lack of policy, a lack of programs, and a lack of good decisions."
A government official who requested anonymity says Israel has declined requests by the Eritrean government to repatriate its nationals, fearing they could be punished back home. The solution, the official says, would be to find a third country to accept them.
Indeed, the presence of thousands of Africans who say their lives are at risk back home raises moral and emotional dilemmas in a country built up by Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and Arab countries.