Report: The Jerusalem Workshop on East African Migrations in the Middle East

CONJONCTURE / CURRENT ISSUES

International Workshop, May 5, 2015 at the French Research Centre in Jerusalem: East African Migrations in the Middle East: A Reassessment

A report by Fesseha Berhe (Mekelle University/CFEE)

The International Workshop on ‘East African Migrations in the Middle East: A Reassessment’ organized by the French Research Centre in Jerusalem (CRFJ) and co-sponsored by the French Centre for Ethiopian Studies (CFEE) was held in Jerusalem on May 5, 2015 (read the program on CRFJ website: http://www.crfj.org/?p=3773). The aim of the workshop was to create a forum for policy makers and scholars (both advanced and young scholars) to discuss on the new trends in the existing research on migration and to offer new, interdisciplinary and trans-global research paradigms. In the workshop, papers focused on East African migrations in the Middle East were presented by scholars coming from France, Israel and Ethiopia and from a wide range of disciplines in the field of social sciences and humanities.

In his welcoming speech, Julien Loiseau, Director of the CRFJ, stressed how migration was now a timely issue. He thanked the participants and the persons and institutions who extended their hand to make the workshop a reality. Next to this welcome speech, introductory speeches were made by Lisa Anteby-Yemini (CNRS-IDEMEC-Aix-Marseille University) and Galia Sabar (Tel-Aviv University).

The first speaker, Fesseha Berhe (Mekelle University), after thanking the organizers, his sponsors (CFEE and CRFJ) and his home institution (Mekelle University), talked about ‘Irregular Migration from Northern Ethiopia to the Middle East’.

Fig. 1. Mountains of Irob, one of the districts in Tigray affected by emigration (©Fesseha Berhe)
Fig. 1. Mountains of Irob, one of the districts in Tigray affected by emigration (©Fesseha Berhe)

The reasons for such migration, it was said, are not as simple as some research works / reports try to put it: lack of economic and livelihood opportunities, poverty, famine, drought, conflict, political oppression. The causes for irregular migration are diverse and multifaceted; they range from social to economic to psychological to political. Though migration is not a thing that can be fully controlled or stopped, the following seven issues may help in minimizing the problem:

Fig. 2. Partial view of Atsbi town, capital of Atsbi-Wonberta district, one of the major source of irregular migrants (© Fesseha Berhe)
Fig. 2. Partial view of Atsbi town, capital of Atsbi-Wonberta district, one of the major source of irregular migrants (© Fesseha Berhe)

1) Thorough and multidisciplinary research to be a clear understanding of the problem;

2) research based, integrated and grass root level awareness creation schemes;

3) solving the deep rooted socio-economic and administrative problems;

4) flouting the smuggling network in systematic and integrated manner;

5) building the capacity of officials working in institutions dealing with immigration issues;

6) expanding the work opportunities of Ethiopian youth in the Middle East and elsewhere;

7) equipping potential migrants with the required knowledge and skills (language, technical and other needed skills) in order to expand their employment opportunities in the Middle East.

Fig. 3. Hashenge lake, one of the sites where I conducted the fieldwork (© Fesseha Berhe)
Fig. 3. Hashenge lake, one of the sites where I conducted the fieldwork (© Fesseha Berhe)

The subsequent discussion focused mainly on whether the Ethiopian government is encouraging irregular migration to get remittances; the issue of circular migration in Tigray / Ethiopia context; how the irregular migration from Tigray / Ethiopia is seen in terms of the evolution of the migratory project in the world; the level of the knowledge of the potential migrants involved in irregular migration.

The second presentation in the morning session was by Michèle Baussant (CNRS, CRFJ) and focused on the Migration of Women to Lebanon. The research was done in 2010 for her PhD dissertation. The focus of her research was on the migrant women on Lebanon prisons. In her presentation, she said that during the time of her research 42% of the detainees in Lebanon were migrants and 90-95% were female; most of the men come through irregular way. According to her study, there were 250,000 migrants mostly women in Lebanon, of which the bulk majority work as domestic workers. The well paid are from Indonesia / Malaysia because they speak English, and lowest in the scale are from Ethiopia and Bangladesh. Lebanon seems the most popular destination to Ethiopian women and girls working as domestic workers. The number of Ethiopian domestic workers has been estimated to be between 20,000 and 50,000 (27% of the total domestic workers). The majority are between 20 and 30 years old. The majority (17,000 Ethiopians) went to Lebanon in irregular way mostly through trafficking; only 900 are regular migrants with work permits. In her presentation she discussed the work of the agencies, the nature of the contract (written in Arabic) that the domestic workers sign, the do and do not as shown in the fliers prepared by the Lebanon authorities (rules how to behave and how not abuse the employer; dressing codes while serving men), the stereotypes including the derogatory words forwarded against Ethiopian domestic workers, and the abuses and problems that these women face. She concluded her presentation by stressing that the focus of her research was on the human rights in Lebanon and rights of the person and access to rights; and judicial system in Lebanon. She also reflected on some of the questions / reflections (such as on the number of Ethiopian women in Lebanon prisons, the level of abuse against Ethiopian women, the accuracy of the statistics and figures, the religious right of the domestic workers) forwarded by the participants.

The third presentation by Hadas Yaron, Jaffa College, Israel, was entitled ‘Palestine and Africans Then and Now and the Infiltration Law’. She discussed how the Israeli government is applying against African migrants the 1954 anti infiltration law, initially enacted with the aim of stopping the migration of Palestinians and Arabs to Israel. The coming of Africans to Israel mainly started in 2006. After discussing the nature and motives of the infiltration law and how it applied in handling the Palestinians/Arabs, she explained that 50 years later the anti infiltration law became the background for detaining Africans mostly Sudanese nationals. As the Palestine were seen by the Israeli government as a threat to the ‘Zionist State’, African migrants are also seen as a threat to the peace and security of the society. Consequently, the government criticizes activists supporting the cause of the migrants. The need for revising the anti infiltration law and on the entire criminalization of irregular migration and asylum seekers by the Israeli government and its refusal to give protection to asylum seekers are some of the questions and reflections given by the participants to which the presenter gave a detailed answer.

The afternoon session started with Julie Picard, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Toulouse, who presented a paper entitled ‘Sub-Saharan African Migrants in Cairo’ focusing on the issue of integration of the sub-Saharan African migrants (ethnic and religious minorities) in a foreign city, Cairo. She said that there is a feeling of constant waiting and forced immobility among the African migrants because resettlement programme to the western countries had stopped since 2004. Because of the migratory deadlock, the speaker stressed that migrants are returning to religion and are trying to give meaning to their presence in the country. There is revitalization of the African churches in Egypt and Pentecostal churches have also mushroomed. Some migrants even created their own churches. In her talk she also dealt with the issue of humanitarian assistance to the refugees, and the religious mobility and symbolic rooting of the migrants. The questions which followed focused on the mobility of the migrants between the churches, the issue of racism, the legal status of the refugees, the effect of the division within the Eritrean Orthodox church on the Eritrean migrants, the reaction of the Egyptian state and the society to the increasing evangelization.

The next speaker was Anda Barak-Bianko, PhD student at Haifa University. The topic of her talk was “Asylum Seekers Entrepreneurs in Tel-Aviv” where she discussed how the Eritrean and Sudanese refugees living in a marginal and precarious position manage to open and operate business enterprises in Israel, particularly in Jerusalem. According to her, there are around 43,000 asylum seekers in Israel, of which 80% are from Eritrea and the remaining 20% are Sudanese nationals. She further said that, according to Israeli law, only Israeli citizens or legal residents with work permit can operate business enterprises in Israel. And only 6% of these refugees have work permit. But despite this fact, a number of these refugees operate business enterprises by employing three strategies: 1) ignoring the law, 2) operating in informal places or unconventional times, and 3) engaging with a third party (fictive owner). These three strategies have been discussed in detail, including the four types of fictive arrangements that these refugees arrange with Israeli citizens or people with legal residence permit in order to open a business. Questions raised include the issue of inter-ethnic relation in the businesses and the relation between the Israeli Ethiopians and the Eritrean refugees where the presenter reflected that many Eritreans are using the Israeli-Ethiopians to open a business.

Pauline Brucker, PhD candidate at Sciences Po and associated with the French Research Centre in Cairo (CEDEJ) presented on “We are refugees: Sudanese Contestations and contentious politic(s) in Egypt and Israel”. The focus of her talk was on the role of law and refugee determination in the construction of social movements, the issue of “refugeeness”, and the issue of transnational approach to mobility and governance. In her presentation she compared the refugee actions in Egypt and Israel. She presented the 2005 “Mustefa Mahamood Square” incidents in Egypt and the different refugee demonstrations in Israel where she thoroughly discussed the nature of the ‘entrepreneurs’ (those who involve in these actions), the issue of leadership or organization, importance of social media in these actions, the nature of external support and other related issues. In a way of conclusion she raised the question whether what was happening in Israel was a refugee fight or a leftist anti-Zionist fight, and she concluded that it seemed as an externalization of the fight in Israel. Following her conclusion, the participants asked different questions such as the effect of the recent Egyptian revolution on the refugees, the status of the Syrian refugees in Egypt, the relation between refugee status and politics (the idea of refugees from friendly country vs. enemy country), if the fear of the Israeli society towards refugees preventing the refugees from demonstrating.

What followed was a round table discussion where four scholars presented various discussion agendas. Galia Sabar (Tel-Aviv University) reminded us that migration was here to stay and all of us were subjects and objects of migration. According to her, the most pressing research challenges are: 1) seeing migration as source of asset than liability, 2) dealing with religion (Islamic migration), 3) the increase of migration following the dismantling of national boundaries with the establishment of EU and the concomitant rise in xenophobia and rise of right wing national parties, 4) relation between gender and migration, particularly the feminization of migration, 5) trajectory of individual perspective and national perspective, and 6) the need to see refugees as agents or subjects than objects.

Sheldon Geller dealt with the topic “Persistence of refugee camps in African countries as indicators of differences between job seekers and refugees” in which he focused in the refugee camps in Ethiopia, Kenya, Chad and the Sudan. He discussed in detail the condition of the refugees in these camps. In his talk he asked the following question: would you go to Chad to seek job? Following this question he underlined the following points: 1) the migrants in these countries are not job seekers, they are going to these camps mainly for security and escape other problems, 2) refugee camps are becoming breading grounds for terrorists, 3) a refugee camp is almost a prison, the refugees do not move, 4) it is a permanent crisis where there is permanent conflict and thus permanent refugee, 5) regime change seems a solution, and 6) there are not humanitarian but political crises. Some of the alternatives in dealing with refugees in Africa as well as in Israel, according to him, are i) regime change (like Somaliland), ii) seeing asylum seekers as potential contributors (seeing them not as burdens but as potential resource), iii) allowing the refugees work and change them into friends, iv) change Holow refugee camp into training centre, and v) bring change in mind set i.e., Israel will not be overwhelmed by African migrants.

In this roundtable discussion Lisa Anteby-Yemini (CNRS-IDEMEC-Aix-Marseille University) also made a talk on “New paradigms for studying irregular/regular migration and Jewish immigration in Israel”. Habtom Mehari, an Eritrean activist living in Israel, also discussed the current conditions of Eritrean refugees in Israel, the activities of different activists and the refugees in changing the dare conditions of the refugees in Israel and the ways forward. The presentations in the roundtable discussion were followed by questions, reflections and sometimes by heated debates among participants.

At the end of the workshop Julien Loiseau emphasized the need to see the migration problem in regional scale. He also underlined the need to build a network among the various scholars and institutions working on the issue with the aim of organizing similar conferences, and undertaking joint research projects and publications.


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