Eritrean asylum seekers in Tel Aviv clash outside embassy event


JERUSALEM — More than 150 Eritrean asylum seekers and dozens of police were injured Saturday in Tel Aviv after demonstrations outside an event sponsored by the Eritrean Embassy turned violent, Israeli officials said.

The melee was the latest violence to break out at a series of global festivals intended to celebrate 30 years of Eritrean independence but which have sparked fury among opponents of longtime President Isaias Afwerki, one of the most repressive leaders in the world.

Israeli police in riot gear and on horseback struggled to disperse crowds as rioters broke store windows, grappled with officers and smashed vehicle windshields.

At least 16 of the protesters suffered serious injuries in the brawl, according to Israeli media reports. A hospital said it was treating 11 gunshot victims. Police used rubber bullets and stun grenades to quell the violence, and officials advised residents to avoid the area in central Tel Aviv.

The Eritrean asylum seekers living in Israel’s Hadar community in Haifa

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was briefed on the situation and ordered police to deploy the forces needed to restore order, according to his office. By late afternoon, police said they had removed most of the protesters from the neighborhood by bus and declared the scene to be under control.

Most of the Eritreans were refugees and asylum seekers who fled forced conscription and other repression in the East African country, which Afwerki has led since it gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993. Some Afwerki supporters also were reportedly at the scene, fighting with opponents of Afwerki’s government.

Police said anti-government protesters entered the public hall, smashed chairs and vandalized displays. Police were able to clear the area after morning clashes, but protesters returned in significant numbers in the afternoon and the riot spread.

Similar clashes have flared at recent Eritrean events in Canada, Germany, Sweden and elsewhere. Government critics have sought to use the celebrations as a way to draw attention to Afwerki’s human rights abuses.

In Toronto last month, protesters blocked the entrance to an Eritrean government event. And in Stockholm, police detained more than 100 people at a brawl outside a state-sponsored Eritrean cultural festival.

Activists have criticized the events as propaganda for the government, which rights groups say operates as a “one-man dictatorship.”

Eritrea has “no legislature, no independent civil society organizations or media outlets, and no independent judiciary,” the New York-based Human Rights Watch wrote in its annual report this year.

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Last month, Eritrean Information Minister Yemane Gebremeskel called those who were disrupting the festivals “asylum scum.”

In Israel, Eritrean activists said they warned police that there could be violence Saturday and requested that the event be canceled.

“We said there would be violence,” one Eritrean resident, who declined to be identified, told Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper. “They didn’t listen to us.”

About 18,000 Eritreans live in Israel, according to government figures. They are some of the tens of thousands who have fled Eritrea in recent years, escaping repression that includes forced labor and the possibility of lifelong military conscription.

Eritreans typically fled to Israel through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where they were often ensnared in human trafficking networks and forced to pay ransoms for their release, according to rights groups.

Israel built a fence along its border with Egypt in 2010, effectively cutting off the flow of African refugees and asylum seekers, mainly coming from Eritrea and Sudan.

Once in Israel, Eritreans and other Africans have no pathway to asylum. Instead, the state classifies those who enter illegally as “infiltrators,” subjecting them to restrictions that limit where they can live and work. Israel’s government has also offered to pay African migrants to leave the country — or face prison time if they are caught.

Berger reported from Washington.


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