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Challenges to establish Eritrean identity

On July 15, 2011

A recent case before the Tel Aviv Administrative Court highlighted the common misunderstandings which may occur when asylum seekers apply for protection in Israel. Tigset, an Eritrean asylum seeker, was ordered to leave Israel in March 2010. The Israeli Ministry of Interior (MoI) deemed her to be Ethiopian and thus ineligible for temporary protection. The court later ruled that Tigset had been subjected to unfair procedure by the Israeli authorities and ordered the MoI to grant her a one-year visa.

Currently, the MoI grants temporary protection under the Refugee Convention to nationals of certain countries, such as Eritrea and Sudan, provided that they can prove their identity.

The African Refugee Development Center (ARDC), based in Tel Aviv, has encountered numerous cases being dismissed out of hand by the MoI due to the difficulties in doing so. In the case of Eritreans, problems arise when there are discrepancies in identity between Eritreans and Ethiopians. Unlike Eritreans, Ethiopians are not eligible for temporary protection in Israel. As in the case referred to above, the MoI commonly rejects an applicant’s claim by asserting that they are not Eritrean but rather Ethiopian.

The long and complex history of Eritrean and Ethiopian relations has resulted in a state of confusion regarding national identity for several thousands of people. Individuals seen as traitors, such as those who voluntarily qualified to vote for Eritrean independence in 1993 or those who were involved in Eritrean Community Associations, were denied Ethiopian citizenship. At this time the Eritrean administration was only a “provisional” government and thus not capable of issuing legal documents such as passports, only identity cards. Therefore many of these cases fell under the definition of “stateless”, that is, they were not formally recognized as either nationality. However, Article 15(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality. In 1996 both countries signed a formal agreement stating that acquiring Eritrean identity under the 1993 referendum does not deny individuals from Ethiopian nationality. Both Eritrea and Ethiopia then began issuing dual citizenship.

After Eritrea’s attack on Ethiopia in May of 1998, individuals of Eritrean ties residing in Ethiopia were issued with yellow “alien” identification booklets. These individuals were again denied their Ethiopian citizenship and were not issued with legal Eritrean documents, as they were seen as enemies of the state. This resulted in tens of thousands of cases of denationalized citizens. To add to the confusion, those Eritrean nationals who left Ethiopia were issued with an Ethiopian alien passport which did not show evidence of Eritrean origins. There are three common problems when attempting to prove Eritrean identity

Firstly, in the case of mixed marriages between Eritreans and Ethiopians, one spouse may be granted protection in Israel whilst the other is not, The spouse not granted protection may even face deportation. These situations are also particularly difficult if the couple wish to relocate. Furthermore, there are many difficulties for children born out of these mixed marriages in terms of citizenship which can result in the denial of a temporary protection visa. Due to the current political climate in both Eritrea and Ethiopia, mixed marriages and the resulting children are not accepted by either country and often face discrimination if they are returned. Article 16(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that: “The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”. The complexity of Eritrean-Ethiopian identity and nationality therefore results in several situations in which the principle of family unity is in danger.

Secondly, adult individuals of mixed heritage who gained dual citizenship (such as in the aforementioned court case) are often are dismissed as being purely Ethiopian and thus not eligible for temporary protection. However, these individuals are faced with the same discrimination and persecution as all other Eritrean nationals, such as forced military service.

Finally, identity cases are often brought forward by individuals having previously lived abroad for many years or in exile from their country of origin. In these cases, the claimant may not speak the native language of their birth place. For example, Eritreans exiled from Eritrea to Ethiopia may speak Amharic rather than Tigrinya or Arabic, the two most common languages in Eritrea. Similar language issues are found for those clients from Sudan, who do not speak tribal languages such as Fur. Language and identity often go hand-in-hand for the MoI is commonly used to dismiss temporary protection claims.

This court case was a step-forward in asylum rights and we must continue to advocate for fairer trials and a multi-dimensional understanding of identity.

by Zoe Peck