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No refuge: The plight of Africans in Israel

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No refuge: The plight of Africans in Israel

Israel is a nation of migrants, bringing together Jews from across the diaspora: from the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australasia. Some refugees from East Africa have also sought out the Jewish state as a place of refuge. As the government’s line has hardened against these non-Jewish African migrants, life is tough for the thousands of African refugees in Israel, as Santorri Chamley reports.

After long and arduous journeys, African refugees in the state of Israel are finding that the hospitable Hebrew greeting shalom does not appear to extend to them.

Human rights activists have condemned the Israeli government for its treatment of 47,000 African refugees. And the situation may get even worse for the largely Eritrean and Sudanese cohort of African migrants.

The newly appointed Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government, has campaigned to have African migrants deported. Israel is now sending letters to African migrants giving them 30 days to accept their offer of $3,500 and deportation to an unnamed  third country, in Africa.

Mutasim Ali, a 28-year-old refugee from Darfur, Sudan, is among those who are deeply concerned by Shaked’s appointment.

He has applied to the Supreme Court of Justice for a final decision on his application for asylum, which like the vast majority of applications by Africans, was turned down.

Ali arrived in Israel in 2009, and is claiming asylum because he fears for his life if he goes back to Sudan, due to his involvement in anti-government demonstrations. He said his family is currently in Abu Shouk, one of the largest displaced persons camps in North Darfur, as his home village was burnt down.

“I had to travel by ship from north Sudan to Aswan in Egypt. Fortunately, I managed to make it to Israel with the assistance of a Bedouin through the Sinai desert. The journey wasn’t easy at all as I had to do everything illegally, in addition to the risk of being shot and arrested at the border. My hope was to find protection. Not to have the fear of being deported back where I will face danger,” said Ali.

Ali is currently being held in the Israeli desert at the Holot detention facility, along with around 1,900 other refugees. There, he sleeps in a room with nine other men, all of whom are sharing one bathroom.

“There are no programmes. Most people just spend their days sleeping and eating. Only a few people are learning English, with the help of their friends. The idea is to make our lives miserable and coerce us to leave ‘voluntarily’. As a matter of fact, the Hebrew language is not allowed. They say they cannot teach us Hebrew because we won’t stay here anyway,” he added.

Nonetheless, Ali, a tall, slim man with angular features, has learned to speak Hebrew and has become an active campaigner in the African refugee community.

He is fighting for a fair asylum policy where Israel examines individual claims accurately or transfers them to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). He has helped organise protests in Holot.

He added that the medical facilities are not up to par and morale among African refugees in Holot is low.

“The food is not adequate at all. For instance, some people are in a terrible state of health and are supposed to have private meals but they just don’t provide them with suitable food. And the medical conditions are very poor. There are only two clinics for around 1,700 inmates, and most of the medical staff are students and not well qualified,” he said.

Asylum seekers from Eritrea who arrived in Israel before 31 May 2011 and Sudanese who came before 31 May 2009 are sent to the Holot facility. According to Amendment No. 5 of the Anti-Infiltration Law, which was passed in December last year, the migrants will be held at Holot for up to 20 months. They have to check in once per day, stay in the facility at night and cannot work. The law also provides that asylum seekers entering the country illegally may be detained in the Saharonim detention facility for up to three months.

Perilous journeys

Sivan Carmel, Director of the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society (HIAS), says Eritrean migrants in refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia are at risk from human trafficking rings.

“We have met Eritreans who told us they did not intend to come to Israel at all, but said they were kidnapped in Sudan or en route to another country and were soon sold to Bedouin smugglers in the Sinai and held in ‘torture camps’ for ransom.

There, they were often beaten while speaking on the phone with their relatives in order to coerce them into paying the ransom money demanded,” he added.

Today, the flow of African and other refugees to Israel has diminished. A fence along most of its southern border is keeping them out.

Before the fence was completed in 2012, asylum seekers who had managed to reach Israel’s border either climbed over, or crawled under the barbed wire. Those caught by Egyptian soldiers would be incarcerated in Egypt and sometimes deported to their countries of origin.

Israel is party to, and drafter of, the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and 1967 Protocol, which it has ratified. The 1951 Convention is the key legal document that defines who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of states. The 1967 Protocol removed geographical and temporal restrictions from the Convention.

Despite this, Israel’s record on the processing and acceptance of African asylum seekers has been criticised for being very slow and low.

Carmel says according to a report by Hotline for Refugees and Migrants in 2013, only six asylum seekers were recognised as refugees and 491 applications were rejected. In 2012, again, only six asylum seekers were recognised as refugees while 1,131 were turned down. In 2011, eight asylum seekers were recognised as refugees and 4,279 applications were rejected.

The global average recognition rate for Eritrean refugees in 2012 was 81.9 percent. Yet Israel has only recognised two Eritreans as refugees and rejected thousands of claims. No Sudanese asylum seeker has ever been recognised as a refugee.

Carmel said that although Israel generally respects the principle of non-refoulement set out in the Convention – i.e. it does not forcibly deport Sudanese and Eritreans to their home countries or place where their life or liberty would be in danger, it is also not offering them complete protection.

“By continuing to use detention as a tool for deterring more migrants from coming and exerting pressure on those inside Israel to leave ‘voluntarily’, Israel appears to be violating article 31 of the Refugee Convention, which prohibits imposing penalties on refugees who entered the country without authorisation, if they presented themselves without delay to the authorities of that country and showed good cause for why they entered that way,” he said. 

He added that temporary “conditional release” permits granted to Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers may protect them from deportation but they do not afford them any basic social rights, including the right to non-emergency medical services.

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A different past

Carmel says African refugees were not always unwelcome in Israel. “For several years Israel had been quite welcoming to asylum seekers from Africa. Most of them received renewable work permits and in 2007 former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert granted residence permits to approximately 500 asylum seekers from Darfur. For years, the only migration policy applied by Israel governed the arrival and absorption of Jews immigrating to the country (including the Beta Israel or Falasha Jews from Ethiopia). Very little existed in the way of policy when it came to irregular migration,” Carmel says.

He said migrants crossing the border would usually be met by Israel Defence Forces soldiers securing the southern borders who gave them food and water and took them to Ktsiot camp, where they would usually spend several weeks before being given a bus ticket to Tel Aviv or Beer Sheva. If there were no vacancies in Ktsiot, they could go directly to Tel Aviv, where civil society organisations assisted them. 

He reasoned that the less welcoming atmosphere built up as the number of new arrivals from Sudan and Eritrea began to increase.

“In 2011 and 2012 there were record numbers of newcomers crossing the southern border, sometimes as many as 2,000 a month. I think it was at this point when the government and some of the public started to panic that Israel was losing control of the situation.

“At this time, asylum seekers were concentrated in some neighbourhoods of southern Tel Aviv because they were sent to the nearby central bus station and had nowhere to go on arrival. Some started to refer to nearby Levinsky Park as Israel’s Ellis Island, the Island in New York through which millions of migrants passed as their first port of call in the United States.

“People were sleeping in the park, beneath the slides in the playground, anywhere they could find shelter. At the same time we started hearing a very unwelcoming rhetoric from some politicians, saying that they were economic migrants who brought disease and crime. It was following these kinds of insidious statements by politicians that violent riots broke out during the spring of 2012, during which damage was caused to the shops of African migrants in south Tel Aviv and the demonstrators called upon them to leave Israel and return to their countries,” he added.

In response, the Israeli government began to apply tougher measures to deter other migrants from coming. This included building the fence along the border, restricting employment and legislating amendments to the Anti-Infiltration Law of 1954.

“To be fair, we should remember that most societies in the world have not been very welcoming to migrants when their asylum systems just started out. No country opened its arms and said ‘let’s welcome refugees’, including the US and Canada. It was usually through the intervention of the courts that the systems of those countries improved and became what they are today,” he argues.

Nevertheless, government pronouncements on the migrants seem, at times, self-contradictory, causing confusion.

“On the one hand it does not deport Sudanese and Eritreans because of the severe human rights violations that await them in these countries. On the other hand, many public officials, including the former ministers of interior, Eli Yishai and Gidon Sa’ar, often referred to them as economic migrants in their public statements.

“The double standard runs even deeper when it comes to the right to work. The 2(a)(5) permits that many Sudanese and Eritreans hold state ‘this is not a work permit’. Nonetheless, the government has announced that it will not prosecute employers of such asylum seekers,” explains Carmel. 

This uncertainty surrounding the status of Africans in the country makes employers reluctant to employ them, or they will only do so on poor terms.

“Without a valid permit, asylum seekers are not able to find work, hold a bank account and receive other kinds of services. They often find themselves ‘stuck’ here, too scared to go back home, but also unable to go anywhere else or to live normally within the host country,” Carmel says.

When African refugees do work, Ali says exploitation is common.

“They mostly do cleaning jobs in hotels and restaurants…There is a lot of exploitation as employers take advantage of people who don’t have work permits or visas. For example, some people are getting paid less than minimum wage,” he said.

He added that, although some Israelis have been supportive to African refugees, racism is a major problem. African asylum seekers and other blacks in Israel have been the victims of a series of racist assaults. The attacks have shocked the African community and liberal Israelis.

“Many Israelis have a negative opinion about Africans, because the government and some officials keep inciting the public against the asylum seekers. They claim that we’re not refugees but work infiltrators, without examining our individual claims. Miri Regev has publicly referred to Sudanese and other African asylum seekers as a ‘cancer in the body of Israel’. But at the same time, there is a minority that’s supportive to the asylum seekers and refugees,” Ali says.

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Racist attacks

Ali himself has suffered abuse and assault at the hands of Israeli citizens, not just policies of the state. He was attacked by a gang of youths when out walking with a female Jewish Canadian friend of his.

On 3 May 2015, simmering frustrations among Israel’s Ethiopian Jewish community boiled over in a large demonstration against racism and police brutality in Tel Aviv.

The protest was sparked by a video showing two Israeli policemen violently beating and attempting to arrest an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian descent in what seems to have been an unprovoked assault.

The series of attacks have raised unsettling questions about Israel’s treatment of African asylum seekers and other ethnic minorities and its struggle to integrate newcomers into its wider society – both Jews and non-Jews.

Carmel is certain that the state can treat refugees better. He argues that, “The use of and threat of detention in the Holot facility as a means of creating pressure to leave ‘voluntarily’ is not the right solution.”

He added that detaining asylum seekers in the Holot facility in the Negev Desert would not ease the suffering or neglect of residents of south Tel Aviv.

“It is time to find more humane and logical solutions, such as granting asylum seekers official work permits. This will encourage a more even distribution of this population throughout the country and ease the pressure on south Tel Aviv…These solutions are not complicated. What’s missing is the will to pursue them,” he argues. NA

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