Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel

RYOT Report: Why are African Refugees Marching Through the Streets of Israel?

Date: 29.1.14 Source: RYOT News, Yardena Schwartz

Until about a month ago, you could be excused for having absolutely no idea about Israel’s African refugee problem. Even Israelis weren’t aware that there are nearly 55,000 of them living here.

That changed almost overnight earlier this month, when tens of thousands of asylum seekers went on a work strike, marching through the streets of Tel Aviv, rallying in front of foreign embassies and the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, demanding that the government consider their asylum requests.

Now, a once below the radar, hidden population has become one of the most talked-about subjects in Israeli society. The issue has spread beyond Israel — international solidarity marches took place in London, New York, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles. So, what exactly is going on with refugees in Israel? Here is a simple guide to this very complicated situation:

Who are the African Refugees in Israel?

When most people hear the words “Israel” and “refugees,” they likely think of the Palestinians who fled their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Or maybe they think of the millions of Jews who sought refuge around the world during and after the Holocaust. Or perhaps their thoughts turn to the Jewish refugees who fled persecution in Arab countries, finding safe haven in Israel.But in today’s Israel, there’s another set of refugees that gets far less attention.


According to Israeli government figures, there are approximately 54,000 African asylum seekers living in Israel today. The majority of them are refugees of Eritrea and Sudan, two North African countries located relatively close to Israel.

Sudan, as nearly everyone knows, has grappled with genocide and civil war for years, leading many Sudanese to flee the country. Eritrea is a lesser-known hotbed of inhumanity, but is nevertheless one of the most repressive nations on earth. The country of 6 million people has no freedom of speech, religion, or press, and hasn’t held an election since it achieved independence in 1991, after a long war with Ethiopia.

Amnesty International estimates that there are 10,000 prisoners of conscience in Eritrea, often held without trial, and tortured in underground prisons.

What exactly are these refugees protesting?

The refugees in Israel are protesting many things, all of which relate to their treatment by the Israeli government. For one, the government refers to them as “infiltrators,” because they enter the country illegally, through the Israeli border with Egypt. In the wake of the massive protests in early January, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu declared, “We are not talking about refugees. They are illegal infiltrators looking for work.”

Yet the Israeli government has no facts to back up that claim, since it hasn’t published the results of its Refugee Status Determination process (RSD).  It has examined just a small fraction of the thousands upon thousands of asylum requests it has received. Only a handful of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers – 0.2 percent – have been granted refugee status.

In other parts of the world, Eritreans have a refugee status recognition rate of 88 percent, and Sudanese are recognized as refugees at a rate of 64 percent. Comparing international figures to Israel’s, it’s hard to argue that the Eritreans and Sudanese who seek asylum here are really just economic migrants. Unless of course all of the real refugees are seeking asylum elsewhere, while the 55,000 Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel are merely here for economic reasons.

But the people marching through the streets chanting “We Are Refugees” aren’t merely protesting the fact that they are referred to as “infiltrators” by the government and the media. They are also protesting the country’s “Anti-Infiltration Law,” which until September allowed the country to imprison asylum African asylum seekers for up to three years without trial.

When Israel’s Supreme Court struck down that law in September, on the grounds that it was unconstitutional and inhumane, Israel’s Interior Minister came up with a plan to circumvent the ruling. Passed in December, the new law allows the country to imprison asylum seekers for up to a year without trial, and then place them in indefinite detention in an “open facility”, also without trial. The government has already begun transferring around 500 African migrants to this new facility in the Negev Desert.

While technically allowed to come and go freely, resident-detainees are required to present themselves for a roll call three times a day, so there’s no going very far. Furthermore, they’re forbidden to leave between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

In mid-December, approximately 150 Sudanese refugees walked out of the “open facility” to show the Israeli public that this center was no different from a prison. After their two-day “March for Freedom” through the desert’s brutal winter cold, the refugees reached Jerusalem, where they rallied in front of the Israeli parliament. Protesting their imprisonment and demanding that their asylum requests be considered, they were arrested by immigration authorities within hours, and sent to a closed prison as punishment.


Israel is not only a signatory to, but also helped craft the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Formed in the wake of the Holocaust, which resulted in millions of Jewish refugees, the Convention was meant to protect future generations of refugees.

Since its inception, Israel’s primary concern has been to remain a home for the Jewish people. In recent years, the Israeli government has portrayed the Eritrean and Sudanese population as a threat to Israel’s Jewish character. Yet in a nation of 8 million people, 55,000 African asylum seekers represent less than 1 percent of Israel’s population.

Still, in the name of retaining its Jewish character, Israel has chosen not to comply with the rules of the UN Refugee Convention. For one, Israel doesn’t grant Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers access to the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process, a primary condition of the Convention. Instead of granting these individuals the opportunity to apply for refugee status and make their personal case to officials, Israel has given them “group protection,” confining them to a detention center in the desert upon their entrance into the country.

Once released from prison, asylum seekers have been given a “conditional release,” meaning that, recognizing the danger to their lives back home, Israel won’t deport them to their country of origin right away. This conditional release, however, only gives them a temporary visa that they must renew every three months, and which can be revoked at any time. The visa also states that they’re not permitted to work.

So, while Israel allows these non-Jewish refugees to stay in the country, they’re essentially forced to live in poverty. Without status, they’re excluded from the national health care system and their children are often restricted from enrolling in schools. They can’t open checking accounts or credit cards, so the chance of buying a house is nearly impossible, and even renting an apartment can be extremely difficult. If they’re able to find work, they’re systemically exploited, since employers know that they have no rights and officials won’t protect them if they go unpaid.

“Voluntary” Deportation

In recent years, some refugees have agreed to “voluntary repatriation” — signing documents that allow Israeli authorities to send them back to their countries of origin in return for cash. For them, living in an Israeli prison is the only alternative, so they choose this “voluntary” option, which conflicts with the very principal of non-refoulement, also a primary piece of the UN Refugee Convention.

Israeli human rights organizations such as ASSAF have learned that Eritreans and Sudanese who return to their countries from Israel are often tortured, imprisoned or killed upon their return, regarded as traitors to an enemy country.

Third party exploitation

Another layer to this story is the torture many of the refugees endure on their journey through the Sinai Desert to reach Israel. Since the mass exodus of refugees from Sudan and Eritrea began, a highly profitable and horrific enterprise of human trafficking has taken hold in the lawless Sinai Desert.

Smugglers bringing asylum seekers to Israel are then selling people to torture camps in the Sinai, where they’re held for ransom and tormented until their demands are met. The practice has become so successful that ransoms have grown as high as $40,000 as asylum seekers are tortured for months until they’re able to raise enough money from family and friends abroad. Torture includes the rape of both men and women, and brutal beatings with metal rods and electrical equipment.

Refugees in Israel have scars that tell their stories. Almost every woman who has gone through these torture camps has been raped multiple times a day — every day — for months, often brutally beaten while on the phone with family members so that their screams expedite fundraising. Those who can’t raise the money in time are killed.

In recent years, more and more refugees in Israel have arrived not by choice, but because they were kidnapped from refugee camps and then sold to torture camps, where they go through the same horrific treatment only to be dropped off at the border and imprisoned by Israeli authorities. Once released, they’re stuck in Israel with no status and no rights in a land they never chose.



Yardena Schwartz is a freelance journalist based in Tel Aviv. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Miami Herald, Haaretz and NBC News, among other news outlets.  This article is based on three months of research and interviews she conducted in partnership with ASSAF, The Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel.