Israel – The gradual nightmare for African asylum seekers

Israel is embroiled in tragic tales of black African asylum seekers. In this special report this magazine’s Middle East analyst Ran HaCohen (PhD), from Tel Aviv, Israel, looks deep into the tricky human, political and economical factors at play 

The prelude took place at the end of April: four Molotov cocktails, thrown at homes and a kindergarten of African asylum seekers in Tel Aviv. The damage was massive; luckily nobody was injured. Hell broke loose a few weeks later. A demonstration against the so-called “Sudanese” – most of them are in fact Eritreans – attracted a handful of politicians, both from Netanyahu’s far-right coalition and from the even-further-right opposition, who turned the event into an incitement contest. “The time for words is over,” threatened opposition Knesset Member Michael Ben-Ari (former member of the violent Jewish-racist “Kach” movement, outlawed in Israel and considered a terrorist organization in the United States).

“The Sudanese are cancer in our body”, surpassed him coalition Knesset Member Miri Regev. The mass took the gentle hints seriously. The same evening on May 23rd, Africans were chased and attacked on the streets of Tel Aviv, among them – collateral damage – a Jewish-Israeli student of Ethiopian origin. Eritrean-owned shops were broken into, looted and destroyed; lynch was imminent. Ever since, the African asylum seekers live in an atmosphere of terror. Ever since, the issue of these “refugees”, “work migrants”, “infiltrators” – depends on whom you ask – dominates the Israeli public debate.

 From Africa to Tel Aviv’s slums

Israel, especially Tel Aviv, is now hosting about 60,000 asylum seekers from Africa. Most of them, about 40,000, are Eritreans. The rest are from both Sudans and several other countries, including a small number from Ethiopia. Arriving in Egypt, they are led by smugglers through the Sinai desert; horrible reports of blackmail, body organ sale, abuse and rape during this journey abound. The long border between Egypt and Israel is still partly open (a fence is under construction). The crossing Africans are caught by the Israeli army, usually jailed for a few weeks and then – as a last step in their “absorption” – they are dumped at Tel Aviv Central Bus Station.

In any other country, close to 90% of the Eritrean asylum requests are approved. In Israel, however, approval rate is practically zero. In 2011, out of 4,603 new asylum applications Israel approved only a single one. All the other requests were either rejected (3,692) or left unprocessed. The Eritrean asylum seekers cannot be deported – Israel complies with UN regulations that ban repatriation to Eritrea – but they are not granted a refugee status either. They get a visa to stay, but no work permit. How are they supposed to make their living? This is exactly what several human rights organizations asked in an appeal against the State a couple of years ago. The State declared that it would not impose the prohibition on work “until further notice”. This announcement – neither a law nor a regulation, just a declaration of the State in Court – is Xeroxed by human rights groups (copies of it can be seen circulating with a hand-written translation in Tigrigna and Arabic) and handed out to asylum seekers: this is all they can show to an employer who is willing to hire them. No wonder that asylum seekers who do find work –cleaning and dish-washing for example – are often maltreated.

 A recipe for a social disaster

Tens of thousands of young people, mostly men, mostly traumatized, without regular work, no social security, no health insurance, without future and without hope are seen roaming the streets of Tel Aviv. This huge mass of human despair naturally concentrates in the poorer south of Tel Aviv, around the Central Bus Station: shabby neighbourhoods of Israelis, mostly of Oriental origin, neglected for decades by State and Municipality alike, with an old, malfunctioning infrastructure even before the arrival of the masses of Africans. Asylum seekers are packed here in flats that are hired not by the month but by the week, and not per room but rather per person. Unable to afford continuous rent, some of them live alternately a week in a flat and another week on the streets. Though crime rate among asylum seekers is not higher than among Israelis, according to Israeli Police, the local Israelis feel insecure; they complain about theft and robbery, about drunkards and harassing of young women, about noise, dirt and smell. And once they complain, take to the streets or take the law into their own hands, they are often accused of racism by better-off Israelis. That’s where the internal gaps come in, between poorer Israelis of Oriental origin, traditionally right-wing voters, and better-off Israelis of European origin, who are generally more liberal. Obviously, the asylum seekers concentrate in the poor areas simply because they are poor. But one can very well understand the often-heard claim by embittered local Israelis in the slums: “Why don’t you take those Sudanese to your rich neighbourhoods in the north”.

 And when politics come in

A migrant from Eritrea walks in a building, used to house people waiting to be smuggled into Israel, near the Egyptian-Israeli border in Sinai December 25, 2010. (Asmaa Waguih/Courtesy Reuters)

So far the story sounds like a tragedy: one can sympathize both with the asylum seekers, whose plight is undeniable, and with the local Israelis, whose predicament is understandable too. But now the government comes in. First, it terms the asylum seekers “infiltrators”, the same term used for Palestinians who fled or were deported from their homes and lands in Israel in the 1948 and 1967 wars, many thousands of whom – mostly unarmed civilians – were killed by the Israeli army while trying to return to their homes. Second, the government frames the problem as “a demographic danger to the Jewish majority”, even though the Africans are less than 1% of the Israeli population. One minister has even portrayed them, especially the Muslims, as a “security threat”, although Israel’s own security forces deny any connection whatsoever to Islamist terrorist groups among asylum seekers. Third, like in many dark regimes, the government deflects public outrage of one population group by directing it against another – in our case, against the helpless African minority.

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 Operation “Returning Home”

Interior Minister Eli Yishai – specifically flagged as an instigator already in the American 2011 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and one of the worst inciters against Africans – needed just a couple of weeks to orchestrate a highly televised action against South Sudanese. A few hundreds of them were hunted by the police (accompanied by journalists and cameras) and put on airplanes to Juba. Among the excesses of this overhasty operation several Sudanese were deported to South Sudan instead. An entire Sudanese family, including a ten year old girl, were arrested “by mistake” and released only after public protest. A South Sudanese girl who had been sent to a boarding school in order to keep her away from her highly abusive father was “reunited” with him, to be deported together.

All this is just a cheap distraction (and Yishai has a lot to distract from): there are not more than 1,500 (and perhaps much less) asylum seekers from South Sudan in Israel. Yishai says the Eritreans are next; but Eritrea is not South Sudan. You cannot deport people to Eritrea. Voices like that of former minister Dr Efraim Sneh, who treated Isaias Afewerki for malaria and now claims Israel should trust the merciful dictator that he would not harm his repatriated countrymen, or even that Israel’s strategic military interests in Eritrea are more important than the lives of some bothersome asylum seekers that nobody wants anyway, are (still) marginal, due to the clear international consensus regarding the repressive Eritrean regime.

 The money behind

The government, especially Minister Yishai, indeed have a lot to distract from. Behind the scenes, economic factors play a huge role. While African asylum seekers are portrayed as a threat that has to be removed, Israel willingly opens its gates to thousands of foreign workers from Asia. Entire branches of the country’s economy – especially agriculture and construction – depend on this cheap labour force coming mainly from East Asia. (The Palestinians, who used to occupy this slot in the labour market until the 1990s, were pushed out and put behind walls and fences.)

So instead of importing thousands of new workers from the Philippines or Thailand, Israel could give work permits to the African asylum seekers who are already here. It would take the pressure off the poorer neighbourhoods of Tel Aviv, enable the asylum seekers to earn their living, and reduce the need for migrant workers from the East. In fact, many poor Israeli inhabitants demand just that: let the Africans work instead of hanging up bored and penniless in the streets. This solution, however, seems to collide with vital, though clandestine economic interests of the ruling elites. Unlike asylum seekers, who enter Israel free of charge, every legal migrant worker pays an Israeli “manpower contractor” thousands of dollars just for the right to enter Israel. Asylum seekers come for free, but migrant workers are big money, and politicians are dependent on big money. Thus the same Miri Regev, a week before calling the Sudanese “cancer”, tried to promote a law easing the State regulation on “manpower contractors”. Shlomo Benizri, a former minister from Eli Yishai’s party, is now serving his time in prison – convicted of accepting bribe from such a “manpower contractor”. And Interior Minister Eli Yishai himself, while inciting against asylum seekers, lets more migrant workers in than any of his predecessors. The prosperous Israeli “manpower contractors” are definitely better connected to the political system than the African asylum seekers.

Another economic motivation behind the incitement seems to be gentrification. Tel Aviv, the economic heart of Israel, is booming, and real estate prices soar. Gentrification is apparent in many weaker neighbourhoods, especially in Jaffa – once a Palestinian town, now part of Tel Aviv. The weaker Arab population of Jaffa is rapidly pushed out by luxury apartment buildings for rich Jews. Once the asylum seekers are pushed out of the weaker neighbourhoods, the poor local population is likely to be the next victim of gentrification; indeed, quite a few houses in the poor neighbourhoods are now being renovated, anticipating rises in prices.

 Their bleak future, our bleak past

Inhumane as the Israeli policy towards asylum seekers may be, the future is likely to be even bleaker. The government has already passed a bill allowing it to arrest “infiltrators” for up to three years (without any charges); Israelis assisting them may be harshly punished too – up to five years in prison for employing an illegal worker. Under the ironic name “City of Nations,” a huge prison for asylum seekers is being constructed in the desert, not far from the Egyptian border, with a capacity of up to 20,000 people. The construction of a hermetic fence along the Egyptian border is in progress, so that the camp is probably intended for asylum seekers who are already inside Israel.

Many Israelis follow the “cancer” and “demographic threat” propaganda, and not just those who directly suffer from the asylum seekers in their streets. One must remember that Israel defines itself, constitutionally, as a Jewish State, where the Jewish majority is privileged and all non-Jews are conceived as unwanted, at best as tolerated elements, but in no way as equal citizens. The asylum seekers are easily put into the pigeonhole reserved for Arabs and all other non-Jews.

On the other hand, quite a few Israelis invoke Jewish history and recall the times, not so long ago, when Jews were a persecuted minority, when Jews had to flee and seek asylum from evil regimes, sometimes rejected and deported to their death by countries using propaganda very similar to the one heard in Israel today. From this perspective, the current atmosphere towards African asylum seekers in Israel fills one’s heart with deep shame.


Cover Photo: A South Sudanese girl protests against Israel’s government decision to deport 700 South Sudanese asylum seekers back to South Sudan. (AP)

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