Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel

Asylum-Seekers, or ‘Infiltrators’? Israel’s Identity Crisis Leaves African Migrants in Limbo

Date: 24.7.18 Source: World Politics Review, Yardena Schwartz
TEL AVIV—This free-spirited coastal city, known for its vibrant nightlife and liberal politics, often seems so different from the rest of Israel that many call it “the State of Tel Aviv.” Yet the different parts of Tel Aviv also offer stark contrasts, especially between the wealthier north and the downtrodden south.

In the north, chic cafes, shops, bars and restaurants abut tidy, well-groomed sidewalks lined with trees and flowers. In the south, crumbling buildings face sidewalks covered with garbage and entire blocks that smell like urine. 

In addition to this aesthetic fault line, in recent years a new political fault line between “the two Tel Avivs” has emerged, this one over the government’s treatment of asylum-seekers, in particular those from African countries. In the wealthier northern half of the city, asylum-seekers are rarely seen, yet signs of support for them are seemingly everywhere. “Stop deportation!” proclaims a poster at the entrance to a bohemian cafe. A flyer on the window of a hip bar echoes that call with a biblical reference: “You will love the stranger because you were once strangers in the Land of Egypt.” 

In grittier south Tel Aviv, by contrast, there are fewer of these signs and more of the people they refer to. On the side of some buildings, street art gives way to graffiti urging that the Africans be deported. “Go home,” is a popular refrain.

Tel Aviv has a total population of 430,000. According to Israel’s Ministry of Interior, 13,600 African asylum-seekers live in the city, the largest concentration in the country, though they are not evenly distributed. In south Tel Aviv, migrants from Africa and elsewhere—including Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, China and India—constitute over half the population, according to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, one of many south Tel Aviv-based nonprofits assisting this population.

The influx of African arrivals in south Tel Aviv began over a decade ago. When Sudanese asylum-seekers began pouring over Israel’s border with Egypt in 2006, fleeing their country’s civil war and the genocide in the Darfur region, many were given one-way tickets to south Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. They quickly took stock of the neighborhood’s advantages: Housing was relatively cheap, and they had easy access to two key administrative offices—the country office of the United Nations’ refugee agency, and the only government office that could process their temporary visas, which they are required to renew every 60 days. Their community quickly grew; Darfuri refugees even established an Israeli branch of Sons of Darfur, which “works to develop a communal identity” while providing “social, health, educational and cultural programming and services.” 

Citizens of the East African nation of Eritrea, hearing of the welcome the Sudanese had received, soon began arriving in Israel in large numbers as well. Eritrea attained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 and has been ruled by President Isaias Afwerki ever since. According to Human Rights Watch, the government there “exercises totalitarian, often brutal, control.” Freedom of expression is nonexistent, and forced conscription and labor are rampant. 

Halefom Hagos, 34, was part of the early wave of Eritreans to make the journey. An activist who is highly critical of the government—he refers to Eritrea as “one big prison”—he fled in 2008. He first went to Sudan, but he quickly set his sights on Israel, having been told it was “the only democracy in the Middle East.” He crossed the border to Egypt, then traveled, mostly by foot, through the Sinai desert and over the Israeli border. 

He and his wife and their two daughters have been living in south Tel Aviv since 2008. In that time, he has come to realize that tales of the warm reception he and his family would encounter were overblown. Before he arrived, “I was thinking of the Jewish people and their story… I thought they would best understand what it is to be a refugee,” he says. “Then I got here and realized it was the opposite. They forgot too soon.” 

Locals call Hagos and other Eritreans derogatory names like “slaves” and “monkeys,” he says. This kind of treatment comes mostly from elderly, low-income Israelis, though instead of blaming them, he blames officials who have embraced anti-immigrant rhetoric. “I see how difficult life is for them,” he says of his Israeli neighbors. “The government is telling them, ‘Look, there are Africans around you. There are infiltrators here taking your jobs, taking your life. We will be better if you clear them out.’ So partly this is coming from the government. The government tells them their life is hard because of the infiltrators.”

Hagos’ experience in Israel broadly tracks with that of many other African asylum-seekers. In recent years, they have found themselves caught up in a national debate over what rights they’re entitled to and whether Israel can accommodate them without sacrificing its security and identity. 

The debate briefly grabbed international headlines earlier this year, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government announced a plan to begin deporting many of the 34,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers who have been living in Israel for years. The global outcry was swift, with denunciations coming from the Anti-Defamation League, Amnesty International and the U.N. refugee agency. Eventually, Netanyahu abandoned the plan, along with another scheme to resettle many Eritrean and Sudanese nationals in third countries. 

For now, the African asylum-seekers are able to stay put, but they remain in limbo, and the tensions in south Tel Aviv are not going away anytime soon. Nor are the bigger questions the debate evokes, specifically concerning Israel’s human rights record and its place in the world. 

If anything, the recent confusion over Israel’s policy toward African asylum-seekers has only heightened anger and anxiety on both sides of the debate. 

‘Everyone Calls Us Racists’

South Tel Aviv has historically housed the city’s most vulnerable populations, particularly Jews who emigrated from Arab countries in the 1950s and 1960s. But as the number of African asylum-seekers grew, residents felt that the demographics of south Tel Aviv were being completely transformed. This rapid metamorphosis of their neighborhood led to resentment and fear among locals.

“Do you know what it’s like for your whole world to change in just a matter of months?” asks Sheffi Paz, a longtime resident of south Tel Aviv who supports deportation. “I live here like an ethnic minority in a country where the whole rationale is that I will not be a minority.” 

Paz, 65, leads the Front for the Liberation of Southern Tel Aviv, a local anti-migrant activist group that organizes protests and lobbies the government to deport asylum-seekers. In that role, she has become Israel’s most prominent anti-migrant activist. 

Paz argues that it was all too easy for the rest of Tel Aviv to look the other way as the burdens of accommodating asylum-seekers fell on the city’s weakest. “Many people here have suffered discrimination, whether because they’re Mizrachi”—meaning Jews from Arab countries—“religious, or poor,” she says. Instead of trying to understand these residents’ concerns, she says, those who support granting refuge to African asylum-seekers brand anyone who objects as racist. “All of a sudden, the whole country has decided that this neighborhood will be a refuge for Africans,” she complains. “And everyone here says, ‘Wait, this is our home!’ And then everyone calls us racists.” 

Paz started out on the other side of the debate, as an activist in Israel’s left-wing Meretz party. But the left’s vilification of south Tel Aviv residents in discussions about asylum-seekers bothered her. “I’ve lived here 24 years. I knew these people,” she says. “I knew they were good people. They weren’t racists, they were tolerant.” 

Though Paz is highly visible, she does not represent all residents of south Tel Aviv by any means. To the contrary, in the months after Netanyahu first unveiled his deportation plan in January, it was local activists who organized the largest demonstrations in support of asylum-seekers, calling on the government to invest in local infrastructure rather than jail and deport them. 

“Israel can and should absorb all 36,000 asylum-seekers that sought protection here by creating a fair migration policy… and investing in the neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv,” local aid organizations, including Hotline, said in a joint statement in April. “Instead, the government is playing political games on the backs of the weakest populations, and it’s time to put an end to it.”

Asylum-Seekers, or ‘Infiltrators’? 

While the struggle over what to do about African asylum-seekers has been playing out in south Tel Aviv for years, Netanyahu’s deportation plan turned it into a full-blown national crisis for the first time. In order to understand the decisions that led to that inflection point, it’s important to take into account how Israel’s policies on migration have evolved over the past decade. 

According to the Ministry of Interior, more than 64,000 Africans crossed into Israel via the Egyptian border between 2006 and 2012. Today, between 35,000 and 40,000 remain. Of those, 8,000 are Sudanese and 26,000 are Eritrean.

Netanyahu, who served his first term as prime minister between 1996 and 1999 before taking office again in 2009, has consistently described this population as composed of illegal infiltrators and economic migrants. “We are not taking action against refugees,” Netanyahu told a Cabinet meeting in January. “We are taking action against illegal immigrants who come here for work purposes. Israel will continue to be a shelter for true refugees and will eject illegal infiltrators.”

Yet this approach flies in the face of the treatment that Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers, who are widely understood to be fleeing horrific conditions, receive elsewhere. According to the U.N. refugee agency, Eritreans and Sudanese have an average refugee recognition rate of 58 percent and 41 percent, respectively, in the European Union. In some countries, that figure is as high as 90 percent. 

Since 2006, Israel has granted refugee status to just one Sudanese and 10 Eritreans. Until 2013, Israel wouldn’t even accept asylum applications from them. Since then, slightly more than 15,000 have managed to apply for asylum. According to official statistics, 6,514 of those requests were closed or rejected, while 8,588 are still pending.

Despite the challenges they face in applying for and receiving asylum, Eritrean and Sudanese nationals have benefited from “group protection,” a legal status that means they cannot be deported to their home countries or to unsafe countries where they are unlikely to be able to stay. To Yuval Shany, a professor of international law at Hebrew University and vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute, this rule amounts to a tacit recognition that Eritreans and Sudanese are legitimate asylum-seekers, not “infiltrators.”

Group protection does not give asylum-seekers access to work permits, health insurance or other benefits, however. It is merely a temporary visa that must be renewed every 60 days at the government office in south Tel Aviv. 

At the height of Israel’s migrant wave, in 2012, some 1,300 Africans were crossing into Israel each month, according to Israel’s Population Authority. Since then, just 300 have managed to do so, in large part due to a 150-mile electric fence that Netanyahu’s government constructed on the border with Egypt between 2012 and 2014. It is this fence that U.S. President Donald Trump is referring to when he cites Israel as inspiration for his proposed wall along the Mexican border. 

As new arrivals dried up, officials became more proactive in encouraging those already in Israel to leave. “Until I can deport them, I’ll lock them up to make their lives miserable,” said then-Interior Minister Eli Yishai in 2012. This would be “for the good of the State of Israel,” he explained, adding, “The infiltrator threat is just as severe as the Iranian threat.” 

In 2013, the Israeli government opened the Holot detention center, a facility in the Negev desert operated by Israel’s prison service. The intention was to hold Sudanese and Eritrean men there indefinitely, but that plan was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2014. Until its closure, which took place in March as the government prepared to carry out mass deportations, detainees could be held in Holot for up to a year without trial. 

Also in 2013, the government began its policy of “voluntary return,” in which African asylum-seekers were assisted in returning home or relocating to Rwanda and Uganda, under an arrangement that was kept secret until it was exposed in news reports. Various bodies and organizations, including the U.N., condemned the policy. A report by the International Refugee Rights Initiative concluded that those who left under this scheme were doing so “as a result of severe pressures and violations of their rights.”

Israel’s Voluntary Return Department continues to offer plane tickets and $3,500 to “eligible applicants who have been classified as ‘infiltrators.’” It also promises travel documents that enable “infiltrators” to live legally in their receiving country. According to journalists and human rights organizations, however, this last promise is an empty one. Many asylum-seekers had their documentation confiscated upon arrival at their receiving countries. Some were deported to Sudan and Eritrea, where they were tortured, jailed or killed. Others continued their journeys in search of asylum, braving rough seas and smugglers en route to Europe.

Israeli officials appear unmoved by these findings, however, having dismissed them as fabricated. In a radio interview last November, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said the countries that agreed to receive the deportees were safe, and that claims to the contrary came from aid agencies that were actually “left-wing organizations in costume.” 

Stuck in Limbo

All told, the “voluntary return” policy has led to the departure of 4,500 Eritrean and Sudanese migrants and asylum-seekers. The deportation policy that proved so controversial came about in response to the government’s inability to find a solution for those who remained. 

Observers attempting to follow and make sense of the policy could be forgiven for getting confused, as the past six months have seen a dizzying array of contradictory government statements and decisions. 

Under the deportation policy announced in January, women, children, elderly men and men with families would have been allowed to stay. But all Sudanese and Eritrean asylum-seekers who were young, single and male—the majority of them—would have been deported. 

The next three months saw mass protests throughout Israel. Demonstrations in south Tel Aviv pitted local residents who support deportation against asylum-seekers and their supporters. Each week seemed to bring a new response from civil society: a letter sent to Netanyahu by Holocaust survivors calling for a more humane approach to people seeking refuge from persecution; a petition signed by employees of the Israeli airline El-Al stating their refusal to cooperate with deportation flights; initiatives organized by rabbis and Kibbutzim to match asylum-seekers with Israelis wishing to shelter them in their homes.

On March 15, the same day Israel closed Holot, the Supreme Court froze the government’s deportation orders. Soon after, both Rwanda and Uganda appeared to back out of secret deals made with Israel to take in deportees, denying they had ever agreed to do so. 

On April 2, Netanyahu disclosed that he had scrapped the deportation plan and that, instead, he had reached a deal with the U.N. refugee agency to resettle 16,000 Eritreans and Sudanese asylum-seekers in Western countries. The remaining asylum-seekers were to be absorbed in Israel. Yet just as quickly and unexpectedly as that deal was announced, it was reversed. This was in large part because it enraged Netanyahu’s right-wing base, whose viewpoint appeared to be shared by the majority of Israelis. According to a January poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 69 percent of the Jewish public supported the original deportation plan. 

Since April, the government has been exploring other options, and has renewed talks with the United Nations. Possible next moves include finding other African countries to deport asylum-seekers to and reopening detention centers like Holot that were closed to pave the way for mass deportations. 

The government is also pushing the so-called “Override Clause,” a bill that would allow it to re-pass laws previously struck down by the Supreme Court. The bill was introduced as a direct response to the Supreme Court ruling in March that blocked the government’s deportation plan. 

The lack of a resolution has left African asylum-seekers in limbo. 

Taj Haroun, a leader of Israel’s Sudanese community, fled Darfur in 2004, after Janjaweed militias destroyed his village. As a 14-year-old boy, he saw his home burned to the ground. His aunt was burned alive, and his sister’s husband was also killed. “Today,” he says, “My village does not exist.”

A member of the Fur tribe, Haroun spent four years running from Arab militias and regime forces. After being jailed and tortured, he decided to flee Sudan. “My mother told me to run and come back when it’s safe,” he says. “We thought it would be a few months. It’s been 14 years.”

In February 2008, Haroun arrived in south Tel Aviv. He applied for asylum at the U.N. refugee agency’s office the next day. Israel’s Ministry of Interior took over the asylum process several months later. To this day, Haroun’s asylum request remains pending, meaning he has been living in Israel for 10 years on a succession of two-month visas. “It has no single right,” he says, holding his visa. “It’s just a paper that says I’m legally in Israel. They call me illegal, while they are issuing me a paper that says I’m in Israel legally.”

More recently, Haroun has tried to leave on his own. In 2014, after earning a bachelor’s degree at a top Israeli university with the help of a Jewish American philanthropist, he decided to pursue his master’s abroad. In 2015, he was accepted to King’s College London, the University of East London, SOAS and the University of Lincoln. He crowd-funded his travel costs, and the same philanthropist pledged to pay his tuition. 

“This place was built as a refuge for Jews. Not a refuge for just anyone, as a refuge for Jews.”

Yet Israeli bureaucracy prevented Haroun from trying to start a new life. He couldn’t fly on a temporary visa, and when he requested proper travel documents, he was rejected by every government agency. “If you want me to leave, and I want to leave, why don’t you let me leave?” Haroun says, exasperated. “It was my dream to study there. It was really my dream.” 

‘Being a Refugee Is Not a Source of Pride’

Israel is not alone in grappling with an influx of asylum-seekers, nor is it the only Western government that paints asylum-seekers as illegal immigrants. Yet this particular story is also uniquely Israeli. To fully comprehend it, one must understand the extent to which Israel’s deeply ingrained identity as a nation founded by Jewish refugees of the Holocaust shapes its treatment of modern-day refugees—in two very different ways. 

On one side, there are those who believe Israel has a moral obligation to help others fleeing persecution and genocide. On the other side are those who would apply the lessons of the Holocaust differently. The Jewish state, they argue, was established to ensure that Jews would never again need refuge. Until 1948, Jews were the minority everywhere they lived, and thus had nowhere to run from oppression. Israel, which is roughly the size of New Jersey, cannot be expected to absorb the world’s refugees, they say.

Sheffi Paz, the anti-migrant activist, falls into the second camp. Paz was born in Poland to Holocaust survivors. Her mother survived Auschwitz, and her father’s entire family was murdered by the Nazis. They emigrated to Israel when Paz was just 4 years old. 

“They came here because they wanted to be in a place that is a home for the Jews,” she says. “This place was built as a refuge for Jews. Not a refuge for just anyone, as a refuge for Jews.”

This view is espoused by Netanyahu himself, who has called African asylum-seekers a threat to Israel’s identity and “our existence as a Jewish and democratic state.”

The irony here is that the global failure to assist the Jews during the Holocaust resulted in the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, the first international agreement on the rights of refugees and nations’ obligations to them. Israel was among the first countries to sign this agreement, but critics say it is no longer abiding by it. 

“There are people who say that because we were refugees we should sacrifice ourselves for others like we wished people did for us,” Paz says. “I have a totally opposite thought. No one will help us. The world hates us. The only reason we have survived is by taking care of ourselves.” 

Haroun says he understands the frustrations of Israelis like Paz, and doesn’t resent them. “The situation in south Tel Aviv is never going to change, unless the government has a refugee policy,” he says. “All I’m asking for is protection as a human being until my country is safe and I can go back. Being a refugee is not a source of pride. If I could go home I would not stay here begging for protection.”Asylum-seekers march during a protest outside a prison in the Negev desert,

In the absence of any such policy, protests in south Tel Aviv picked up again in June. The first week of the month saw dueling demonstrations, as Paz and her group renewed their calls for deportation, while pro-refugee activists accused the government of hypocrisy. 

Meanwhile, Hagos, Haroun and other African asylum-seekers are going about their lives as best they can. Hagos runs a daycare in south Tel Aviv for refugee children. Haroun is the co-founder and CEO of the African Students Organization in Israel, a nonprofit for asylum-seekers pursuing higher education. 

Between calls and texts from friends worried about the latest news of their uncertain future, Haroun says the government could benefit from the asylum-seekers’ clear desire to contribute to society. “Instead of trying to make our lives miserable, Israel could invest in us and we could actually be an asset, and be ambassadors between Israel and Africa,” he says. 

As he waits for something to change, he tries to be optimistic. “Every day, I look at myself and thank God I’m safe,” he says. “Even with all these challenges, I’m just grateful for the ability to live.”

Yardena Schwartz is an award-winning freelance journalist and Emmy-nominated producer based in Tel Aviv. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Rolling Stone and other publications.