54 African migrants die trying to reach Italy on inflatable boat

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- One man survived. His 54 fellow migrants weren’t so lucky. They died of thirst during the 15-day voyage on an inflatable boat from Libya to Italy -- most of them so close to reaching their goal, U.N. officials said Wednesday.

The survivor, Abbes Settou, an Eritrean who drank seawater in desperation, was found by rescuers clinging to the remains of the rubber boat and a jerry can. He later told officials with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees that 55 people boarded the boat in Libya in late June and within a day nearly reached the Italian coast, only to be swept out to sea and lost.

The boat began leaking air a few days after setting to sea, according to the U.N. agency. The migrants, without food or water as the days dragged on, began to die of thirst, hunger and exposure, according to Settou. Most reportedly were from Eritrea and Somalia.

Settou said the bodies of the dead were thrown overboard.

“This is a tragedy,” said T. Alexander Aleinikoff, U.N. deputy high commissioner for refugees. “Fifty-four people have lost their lives. I call upon all vessels at sea to be on heightened alert for migrants and refugees needing rescue in the Mediterranean.

“The Mediterranean is one of the busiest seaways in the world and it is imperative that the time-honored tradition of rescue at sea be upheld.”

The mid-year summer months in northern Africa and Europe, when seas are calmest, is the time when most African migrants try to make the voyage to Europe, hoping for work and a better life.

Thousands attempt the crossing in fragile vessels from northern Africa, and some boats sink without any official confirmation. Families simply never hear of their loved ones again.

About 1,300 people have arrived by boat in Italy so far this year and another 1,000 people have reached Malta from Libya, according to the U.N. agency. On Monday, another vessel carrying about 50 migrants determined to reach Italy turned away a Maltese military ship offering to rescue them. Two other boats had earlier refused rescue by Maltese authorities, the agency said.

Another 170 are known to have perished this year attempting the journey, according to the agency.


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Israeli authorities round up South Sudanese for deportation

JERUSALEM -- Israeli immigration authorities on Monday arrested dozens of people in a crackdown on African migrants mainly targeting asylum seekers from South Sudan.

An estimated 1,500 refugees from South Sudan are among the large numbers of Africans who have entered Israel illegally through the Sinai peninsula in search of a haven. Israel extended protection to the migrants from the war-torn area for a time but ended the program after South Sudan became an independent nation last year.

The deportations had been delayed by court petitions filed on behalf of relief organizations and a government review of conditions in the young African nation. The Foreign Ministry eventually ruled that it was safe enough for the migrants to return home, despite United Nations concerns to the contrary.

A Jerusalem court, in turn, Thursday upheld Israel's plan to deport the refugees, saying the petitioners had not proved that deportees would face life-threatening danger. The Interior Ministry said at the time that the migrants would be able to request interviews to determine individual eligibility for asylum and would be given a week to get organized and register for departure grants of about $1,240.

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Poll: 52% of Jewish Israelis say illegal African migrants a 'cancer'

African migrants

More than half of Jewish Israelis polled in May agreed that Africans living illegally in Israel are “a cancer in the body” of the country, backing the controversial words of an Israeli lawmaker.

The new poll from the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University is a sign of how deep the backlash against African migrants goes in Israel, a country founded by refugees that has seen angry and sometimes violent resistance to the new influx from Eritrea, Sudan and elsewhere in Africa.

The Times’ Edmund Sanders has recently reported on a string of attacks and harassment against migrants such as 60-year-old Berhun Gergrehra, a former Eritrean soldier:

Leaning against the charred remains of his fence, Gergrehra said the recent attack was the second time his house had been firebombed in a year.

"We're thinking about leaving," he said. "This country just won't accept us."

Though the attacks spurred outcry against racism and xenophobia in Israel, the new poll showed strong support for the recent Tel Aviv protests against African immigrants, with more than four out of five Jewish Israelis saying they backed the demonstrations.

Perhaps even more strikingly, more than a third said they could identify with the violence that followed, as angry mobs smashed store windows and attacked a car carrying Africans. The researchers called the number surprisingly high, "considering that most people do not tend to openly report sympathy for acts that are broadly condemned by society." More religious Israelis were more likely to sympathize.

Six hundred Israelis were polled, including Arab Israelis, who were much less likely to object to the African immigrants. Only 19% of Arab Israelis agreed that African illegal immigrants were a "cancer" and only 25% backed the Tel Aviv protests against them.

Other findings from the new poll included:

- Though disdain for refugees might seem to result from daily friction with foreigners, most of the Jewish Israelis who were polled said there were few refugees where they lived or none at all.

- While more than half of Jewish Israelis were tolerant of foreign workers from Eastern Europe, Thailand or the Philippines, nearly three out of four said they were disturbed by Sudanese or Eritrean workers.

- Among both Jewish and Arab Israelis, strong majorities oppose the idea of an open-door policy toward refugees who were persecuted in their countries of origin.


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African refugees in Jerusalem attacked with firebomb

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: An African woman from Eritrea walks by Hebrew graffiti that says "Get out of the neighborhood" in Jerusalem. Credit: Abir Sultan / European Pressphoto Agency

African refugees in Jerusalem attacked with firebomb

JERUSALEM -- The wave of violence against African refugees in Israel hit Jerusalem on Monday morning with the firebombing of an apartment where 10 Eritrean asylum-seekers were living.

At least four refugees suffered injuries from smoke inhalation and burns while trying to put out the blaze, officials said. The assailants were not apprehended and left behind a graffiti message to get "out of the neighborhood," according to police.

The attack is the latest in string of violence against Africans in Israel. In May, several homes and a kindergarten were firebombed. In Eilat, an African hotel employee was beaten by Israeli beach-goers. Two weeks ago, Israeli youths in southern Tel Aviv rioted through a neighborhood where many refugees live, smashing storefront windows and attacking a car, police said.

Israeli government officials have condemned the violence, but critics say recent statements by some officials about deporting or imprisoning refugees have encouraged the backlash. One lawmaker recently called on Israeli soldiers to shoot any refugees attempting to cross the border with Egypt.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai has called the refugees "criminals" and suggested, without providing evidence, that they are responsible for raping many Israeli women. He said the crimes are unreported because they women fear being stigmatized with having contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Health and women's groups quickly refuted the claim.

Over the last three years, Israel's refugee population has nearly doubled to 60,000, giving it one of the largest refugee communities per capita among democratic, developed countries.


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Q & A: Eritrean journalist-in-exile reflects on censored country

AaronberhaneThis post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

The isolated and impoverished country of Eritrea is now the most censored country on the globe, according to new rankings from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Under President Isaias Afewerki, who has led Eritrea since it wrested its independence from Ethiopia nearly two decades ago, the heavily militarized East African nation has clamped down on dissent. Foreign reporters are shut out. All media are  controlled by the government.

It didn’t used to be that way. Eritrean journalist-in-exile Aaron Berhane published an independent newspaper in Eritrea before the government shut down private media in 2001, angered by criticism of the regime.

Now living in Canada, Berhane publishes a newspaper for the Eritrean community there, providing local news and relaying what information he can from his home country, which suffers from drought and hunger and the constant threat of forced labor imposed by its authoritarian government.

With journalists in the country unwilling or unable to speak out, Berhane talked to The Times about his brushes with censorship in his homeland before he went into hiding and escaped.

Before your paper in Eritrea was shut down, were you threatened for your reporting?

Threats and intimidation were part and parcel of our life. It was very common for me to be summoned to the police station once or twice a week to answer very trivial questions. “Why did you write this? Who was your source?”  Some of the generals called and told you, “Watch it. It is not time to talk about this now.” The intimidation was there all the time. But it was not as open at the beginning.

Once we published an open letter from 15 officials criticizing the president and calling for democratic reform. It was a kind of turning point. It changed the political environment of the country. I was summoned to the police station and interrogated. I was asked, “Who gave you that letter?” And I told them, “What’s the point? The name of those officials are listed at the bottom of the letter.” They said, “No, we want to know who gave you the letter.” They interrogated me for three or four hours just to get the answer, who actually gave me the letter? I didn’t give them any name.

After that the intimidation really increased. One day in September 2001 I wrote an editorial that said many things about the government. When I got home that night around 10 p.m., two security agents were waiting for me in front of my home, in the shadows.

I got out of my car and they came out and approached me. Their faces were covered. One of them put a gun on my chest and he told me, “We came to give you advice.” I asked him, “Who are you?” They said, “We are concerned Eritreans. If you keep criticizing the government, this is going to be your final byline.”

It was very scary. I could feel the tip of the gun on my ribs. I just waited and they told me, “Keep quiet.” And they left.

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