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Israel, Designed To Absorb Jewish Refugees, Now Struggles With African Migrant Wave

This week’s protests in Tel Aviv are the fruit of nearly a decade of government indecision about how to handle an influx of strangers

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Rahwa Hayle holds her conditional release permit; in the background, her son Nachum watches videos. (Asher Greenberg)
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Meir Ya’acoby owns a shop in Neve Sha’anan, a neighborhood of South Tel Aviv. Once a gateway for Greek and later for Iranian Jewish immigrants, the neighborhood’s reputation is one of poverty, drug-dealing, prostitution, and neglect. But today, it’s mostly known as the landing point for a massive wave of African—mainly Eritrean and Sudanese—illegal migration.

An immigrant from Iran, Ya’acoby speaks in a deliberate authoritative tone, in his native Farsi. “They have been let loose here,” he said. “They do anything they want here. They steal bikes, they get into fights. They are vahshi.” That’s a Farsi word suggesting the feral or uncivilized, something between wild animals and savages. It can be used jokingly or as a more serious insult; Ya’acoby seemed serious.

Unlike the vast majority of Israelis, Ya’acoby interacts with the migrants, who are his customers, on a daily basis. “There are good people amongst them, but they all came here, all in Tel Aviv, and have gotten together in one group and they have made a mess of life here,” he told me. “The government should take care of them. I cannot take care of them.”

Since its inception, Israel has been a state uniquely designed to handle refugees from all over the world. But the influx of non-Jewish African migrants is a new problem. Israel had never been a serious destination for African migrants. They started trickling into Israel over the border with Egypt in 2006—at first mainly from Sudan, and later, mainly from Eritrea.

As to why the migrants came to Israel, that is less clear. The crisis in Darfur, blocked routes to European countries, crackdowns on African migrants in Egypt and Libya all played a role. Once a few had settled safely in Israel, family networks encouraged more migrants to make the trip. Today there are 54,000 non-Jewish African migrants in the country, according to the Immigration Authority.

Initially, migrants were dropped off at city centers around the country. But as the number of migrants grew to the tens of thousands, virtual ghettos developed in places like South Tel Aviv, prompting protests from Israeli residents against the transformation of their neighborhoods into “refugee camps.”

Whether the Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel are actually refugees is the core of the public debate. While the term refugee is used loosely in the press, its official use would have legal implications, indicating that the migrant is protected under United Nations guidelines. Israel is one of the original signatories to the 1951 U.N. refugee convention, which defined the meaning of a refugee according to international law and the responsibilities of states in granting asylum. The convention defined a refugee as someone who would be persecuted upon returning to their homeland because of their identification with a particular ethnic, political, religious, or other group.

As the public mood has soured against the African arrivals, the government, first under Ehud Olmert and now under Benjamin Netanyahu, has employed popular and legal strategies to avoid labeling them as refugees. In official statements, the migrants are referred to as “economic infiltrators,” suggesting they are job seekers rather than asylum seekers. African migrants from Eritrea and Sudan are given a temporary protection visa, which allows them to stay in Israel—but without the legal right to work or access to the state’s social security, although under a promise made to the Supreme Court, the state mostly turns a blind eye to under-the-table employment. Since June 2012, new migrants are jailed upon entry into the country. Under a recent amendment, they can be held indefinitely at an open-air internment camp in the Negev.

January 8 protest
Migrants protest in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem on Jan. 8, 2014. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

With no official body actively resolving the migrants’ refugee claims, there has been debate, racially charged at times, over why the migrants are in Israel and what to do with them. This week, thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese protested in Tel Aviv, demanding an end to migrant detentions, the right to work, and the processing of their asylum claims. In response, Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “I’d like to make clear that protests and strikes won’t help. … I would like to emphasize that these are not refugees, but people who are breaking the law and are being dealt with to the fullest extent of the law.”

***

African migrants—“economic infiltrators,” according to the government’s official designation—started sweeping across Israel’s Sinai border in the mid-2000s. Propelled by wars in Sudan, misery in Eritrea, and facing closed doors in Europe, some would go east, through Egypt and the Sinai. Migrants paid traffickers, often Bedouin, to cross the Sinai and hide from Egyptian army patrols. Israeli soldiers would find them sitting in little groups on the highway near the border.

At first there was empathy for the new arrivals. The human-rights catastrophe in Darfur represented an echo of both the Holocaust and the Israeli situation. And Darfur, like the Holocaust, was being ignored by the West. And, while this wasn’t explicit, it resonated that the Darfuris were being slaughtered by Arab militias, just as Israel was beginning to come out of the bloody intifada. In 2006, there were just 200 Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel. “There was a lot of sympathy in the Israeli street,” said Sigal Rozen, a founder of the Hotline for Migrant Workers. “They are genocide survivors and the number was small and not threatening.”

But what began as a trickle soon turned into a steady stream—not just Sudanese, but Eritreans too. Yet, the Eritrean story was not so widely known in Israel. To Israelis, Eritrea was just another poor African country. Most Eritrean asylum seekers were army deserters, a cultural taboo in Israel. By June 2007, only a quarter of the African migrants were from Darfur. And 600 more were crossing into Israel every month.

There was no real policy in place for handling the influx. Most migrants were kept in prison or small settlements. But soon there wasn’t enough room in the prisons. By the end of 2007, there were close to 8,000 migrants in the country. The government had to do something: So, after being documented and checked, many migrants were just dropped off in front of police stations in cities like Tel Aviv, Be’er Sheva, and Eilat.

It was in 2007 that stories first started appearing in the press about ghettos in places like South Tel Aviv. The media and the public started using the government term for the asylum-seekers: “infiltrators.” “We totally lost the fight on this,” Rozen said. “Even when [the media] are on our side, they call them infiltrators. The choice of word is influencing a lot. We believe after we lost the fight in the terminology, we lost it with the audience, with the Israeli public. Because the term infiltrator reminds Israelis of al-Qaida or the fedayeen.”

Meanwhile, more kept coming.

Between 2008 and 2011, a period of just four years, another 45,000 crossed the border, many of them Eritrean. The African population in Israel quintupled from 2007 to 2011. Tel Aviv, Eilat, and Be’er Sheva grew restless. Protests broke out, and the government was under pressure.

The first order of business was to keep out new “infiltrators.” Israeli soldiers were ordered to turn back as many migrants as possible at the border while the government constructed a 140-mile-long, $400 million fence. The barrier was completed earlier this year. It has been so effective that the government has halted plans to expand detention centers. According to the latest figures from the Israeli Immigration Authority, only 36 migrants had crossed into Israel by September 2013. By the same point in 2012, 6,357 migrants had crossed.

But when it came to the tens of thousands of migrants who’d already made it in, the government was stuck. The Sudanese could not be deported because Israel had no official diplomatic relations with the country—they are technically at war.

This was made clear when South Sudan became a country in 2011. The new state developed ties with Israel and roughly 1,000 South Sudanese migrants were “voluntarily deported” there in short order—each was offered 1,000 euros to go. Rozen believes there are only about 60 South Sudanese left in Israel. For many of the other migrants, the hasty removal of the South Sudanese is a window into their own future.

As for the Eritreans, who make up the bulk of the migrants, they cannot be deported directly to Eritrea because of the oppressive practices of its pariah government. And Israel did not want to be ejecting or seen to be ejecting probable refugees directly to a place where they may be in danger. But on the other hand, granting the Eritreans refugee status would have enabled the migrants to stay in Israel, an untenable political position for most Israeli politicians by the late 2000s.

So instead, the explicit plan was this: Make life as difficult as possible for those who’d already made it in, in the hopes that they would leave on their own.

***

In a metropolis without a subway, Tel Aviv’s central bus station is a nerve center for fleets of local and intercity buses. In a neighborhood of three- and four-story apartments, the station’s ramps stretch out like tentacles into the surrounding neoghborhoods: Neve Sha’anan to the north, Florintin to the west, Shapira to the south, and Hatikva to the east.

African barber shops and convenience stores stand adjacent to Israeli-owned furniture stores and auto-body shops. The sound of Tigrinya, an Eritrean-Ethiopian language, fills the air. This reality was born out of political and economic factors beyond Israel’s borders. “In no other place in the world does a refugee camp ‘sit’ on top of an existing neighborhood,” said Haim Goren, who recently moved from a West Bank settlement to Shapira together with his wife, whose great-grandparents lived there, and sees it as his religious and national duty to turn things around. He is a clean-cut geography teacher at a local religious high school.

Goren
Haim Goren in Shapira. (Asher Greenberg)

He pointed out a public park in the middle of the neighborhood, a playground in the center of a grassy square. There were dirty blankets and clothing on the plastic slides. A gated kindergarten building was adjacent to the park. The central bus station loomed just a few blocks to the north. Over the last three years, the park has become a home for African migrants, he said. “In the morning the park seems pretty peaceful and empty, but in the afternoon when I pick up my kids, there are many immigrants in the garden.”

Goren is a member of the neighborhood association. The migrants, despite their numbers, are not able to join. “It is a matter of status,” Goren told me. “They need now to move people, check them and see who is a refugee and who isn’t. If they get temporary refugee status and live here, then they are part of the community.”

One evening last summer, South Tel Aviv boiled over. Politicians revved up a protest crowd of nearly 1,000. Miri Regev of the governing Likud party infamously referred to the Africans as cancer. (She later apologized.) After the rally, mobs roamed Hatikva, beating up Africans and looting African stores.

Rahwa Hayle remembers that night. “They threw a lot of stones. Even when I called the police, they didn’t answer.” Hayle lives in the heart of Hatikva. It’s a small house; two beds share one room, one for herself and one for her 5-year-old son, Nachum. To distract him, Hayle plays videos on her computer. She speaks to her son in a mixture of Hebrew and Tigrinya.

Like the other Eritreans in Israel, Hayle’s life here is unstable. Her visa doesn’t permit her to work, but she works anyway as a housekeeper, bringing home the equivalent of just under $1,500 per month. Nachum goes to school in the local gan, or kindergarten.

Hayle left Eritrea in November 2007. She was 23. Like many others, she paid Bedouin traffickers to smuggle her through Sudan and Egypt on her way to Israel. Hayle’s reasons for making the trek are more complicated than others. Her story tumbles out episodically, but without chronology. Hayle married in 2004, when she was 20. But she was not allowed to marry the man of her choice. When she became pregnant after an affair, she fled the country. The plan was for her lover to join her in Israel, but he never made it. He was caught on two attempts, spending years in jail. He can’t risk trying again.

Hayle’s story is unique but exemplifies the difficulty in defining Israel’s African migrant population. They didn’t all appear at once because of a war next door, as did Syrian refugees in Jordan. Nor did Hayle run away from famine. Instead, she escaped a loveless marriage, an infidelity, and, like everyone else in Eritrea, a life with no future.

***

Zabib came to Israel in 2009, leaving behind her family in Eritrea. She came on the advice of a friend, who told her Israel was a safe place. “I was thinking it is like a democratic country and a developed country so I can work and study. And when I came here I found it difficult. It’s just different from what I was thinking.”

She cleaned houses for $6 an hour before starting an Eritrean daycare and women’s center in a decrepit building in Florintin in June 2012. The room is lined with cribs and babies. As she gets into the details of her current work and what she is doing for the community of Eritrean women, there is a growing sense of warmth in her voice.

Besides looking after children, the center runs English and Hebrew classes, health, family planning, and human-rights courses. Everything in the center—the toys, the cribs—has been donated by the U.S. embassy and Israelis, she said.

She doesn’t make as much money in the center as she did from housekeeping. “It’s not enough but I’m OK. You can’t do two things at the same time. You have to pick one. Less money and contribute something to the community,” she began and paused. “It’s important.” Zabib said she does not like to dwell too much on plans for the center, because for her the future is uncertain. Though, in a way, her future has never been certain. “Even in Eritrea, [a woman] can’t plan for the future,” she said. “You can’t move by yourself. If you want to leave to visit family far away you are not allowed. You need a document to visit the other part of Eritrea. This, in my home, my country.”

While the center is a relative success, she does not feel much more secure in Tel Aviv. “You don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Tomorrow the government may send you to prison.”

“Prison” means Sahronim, a massive complex near the Sinai border. Just about every African asylum-seeker who makes it into Israel will spend time there. It’s the first stop, where the government processes the people it calls “infiltrators.” Lately it’s also become the last stop for nearly everyone, after the government passed legislation that imprisons every new illegal arrival for three years. Just driving up to the main entrance brings out several officers. “This is a closed military zone, do not to take any pictures,” they say.

In between the prison and the lawlessness of the Sinai, there is a part school, part refugee camp in Nitzana for underage Eritrean migrants. It is the unlikely offspring of law, bureaucracy, and a few good hearts. Inside, 50 Eritrean teenagers study Hebrew and English, mathematics and sciences. The bureaucratic term for them is “unaccompanied minors”—their parents and relatives are missing or struggling back at home in Eritrea. Here the teenagers recuperate, some from their journeys, some from the beatings and torture they endured in Sinai, within sight of the desert and prisons they escaped.

In this lonely corner of Israel, Sahronim and Nitzana make plain the contradictions of the country’s response to a situation that no one asked for and no one saw coming. In June 2012, the government amended the Prevention of Infiltration Law, empowering the state to imprison new migrants for up to three years. The law also gave the police sweeping powers to detain any African suspected of crime—a procedure called administrative detention.

SahronimNitzana
Sahronim Detention Center, above, and Nitzana. (Asher Greenberg)

Asaf Weitzen, a lawyer who handles asylum cases, explained the legal rationale: “If I go to Israel and I do something illegal, the state has two options. It could put me on trial but why waste the money? They could say instead, ‘I’m sorry this isn’t working out. It’s not you, it’s us. Take care.’ So, they’d put me on a plane, stamp my passport 10 years denied entrance to Israel, and end of story.” But the asylum seekers cannot be deported. “So they say, ‘It’s not you, it’s us, it’s not working,’ but instead of expelling them, they just put them in detention for an unlimited period of time.”

In the past, the government has argued that the purpose of this law was security. “But in the last version, they did not ‘hide’ anymore,” Weitzen told me. “In this law it was clearly stated that the purpose of the law is to deter work infiltrators from entering Israel. They didn’t say anything about security anymore. Because they realized it’s a joke. None of these people ever attempted to violate our security.”

Most of those involved in migrant issues believe the core of the asylum-seeker problem lies with Israel’s refugee status determination, or RSD, process. That’s the process by which any state decides which asylum seekers are genuine refugees and which can be safely deported. In Israel, the RSD process is barely functional. The acceptance rates are among the lowest in the world: only 0.2 percent of claims processed. Since the state was created in 1948, only about 170 non-Jewish refugees have been officially recognized. And since 2009, only one African migrant has been declared a refugee—an albino baby born to parents from the Ivory Coast.

“No country really likes refugees,” Weitzen said. “But what is amazing is that in other countries, the recognition rates are 10 to 30 percent. The refugees are the same refugees. How come there is such a huge difference?”

The majority of Israel’s migrants are from Eritrea and Sudan. Until very recently, their claims weren’t even being processed. Weitzen argues that the government isn’t in a hurry to assess claims because recognition rates for Eritreans and Sudanese are high in the developed world. In Canada, 97 percent of Eritreans seeking asylum have been recognized. In the United Kingdom, 76 percent. In the United States, 86 percent. “That’s a good indication that even here in Israel, the ratio could be the same,” said Sharon Harel, the representative in Israel of the U.N.’s High Commission for Refugees. “If people’s cases could be documented and heard, you know if they will have an interview.”

Many of the migrants feel the same way. “I want the Israeli government to check us, to interview us, to make the refugee status determination and to interview every individual to know why he is leaving his country, why it made him run away,” said Gabriel Tekli, an Eritrean shop owner and political activist in South Tel Aviv. “And based on that, to make a decision, whether he is a refugee or not. But giving us a collective name—work infiltrators—without checking individual stories … ” He trailed off, and then added: “It does not feel good.”

For additional reporting on Israel’s migrant problem, please click here.

***

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Israel, Designed To Absorb Jewish Refugees, Now Struggles With African Migrant Wave

This week’s protests in Tel Aviv are the fruit of nearly a decade of government indecision about how to handle an influx of strangers