‘From refugee to pioneer?’ (Re-)claiming rights and a future within the Israeli asylum regime: a study among the Eritrean community of Tel Aviv

Since 2005 a growing number of Eritrean asylum seekers has come to Tel Aviv. Israeli asylum laws and practices have been evolving as a response to those new arrivals, and were being challenged by civil society organisations working with refugees.

Outside of those organisations little has been known about the lives of Eritreans in Tel Aviv when this project was started. Based on life history data from Eritrean refugees this project traced individual journeys of asylum seekers from Eritrea to Israel and analysed how their experiences have modified their notions of belonging and community. A particular focus was on legal and human rights of Eritrean refugees in Israel, how those interacted with personal aspirations, and in what ways Eritreans exercised agency to re-claim a desired future. Bringing to the fore individual struggles of Eritrean refugees in finding their place in Israeli society subsequently fed into efforts to widen the scope for reshaping the legal environment.

This project was led by Dr Tanja R. Müller. It was funded by the British Academy.


One of the main results of the project was that the refugees are clearly refugees and not economic or other migrants. This challenged the general discourse in mainstream media and among politicians in Israel who regard them as 'infiltrators'. This implies that the state of Israel is not following the conventions of international refugee law (to which Israel is a signatory) and unlawfully denies fundamental rights to the refugees from Eritrea and Sudan, not least the right to even launch a claim for political asylum. In addition the research showed that refugees feel strong connections and allegiance to Eritrea and intend to go back if the political situation changes - thus enforcing their claim for refugee status as at the centre of their movement to Israel lies the breakdown of any political relationship between the Eritrean state and its citizens.

Key academic publications


Invited keynote at Advocacy event. A paper ‘Refugees and Humanitarian Citizenship’ was delivered at the Conference Asylum and Migration: Issues and Challenges, convened by Symßiosis, Thessaloniki, Greece (7 March 2013) and subsequent collaboration and joint production of the documentary ‘Refugee Lifelines’ that is now used for teaching at GDI and was at the centre of a World Refuge Day Event at Z-Arts on 18 June 2015.

  • A documentary 'Refugee Lifelines'

A blog post which appeared on the GDI blog and Tanja's personal website.