Tel Aviv, Israel - South Tel Aviv's Neve Shaanan Street, dubbed by many Israelis as "little Africa", is deserted. This once-bustling area is riddled with panic as immigration officers ferret out African migrants and asylum seekers to detain and consequently deport them. One South Sudanese woman who lives in an apartment in the neighbourhood is terrified to leave home to even collect her daughter from nursery. Her neighbour was arrested the previous night and she is in a panic over what to do.
Israel's Population and Immigration Authority recently arrested scores of African migrants, officials have said. The majority of those imprisoned are South Sudanese nationals while the others are migrants from Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and Ghana. The crackdown, known as "Operation Going Home", comes in the wake of a court decision last week to expel all South Sudanese migrants.
Isaac, a South Sudanese asylum seeker, was detained on Sunday by Israeli authorities. He desperately contacted the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) based in Tel Aviv from Saharonim detention centre to try to understand his legal status. However, the ARDC and similar relief organisations feel helpless in this situation. These aid organisations recently lost a petition in court against the collective deportations of asylum seekers from South Sudan.
"It is a frustrating job, because we know we are not going to succeed sometimes, and we are trying to help them [the asylum seekers]," Yael Aberman, the legal project manager at ARDC, said.
'Scared to go home'
The Israeli government is determined to reverse the flow of the estimated 60,000 African migrants living in the country, starting with those from South Sudan. Israel recognises South Sudan as an independent state and maintains that it is no longer life-threatening for them to return. This week's arrests are the first step by Israel's interior ministry to detain, deport, and prevent illegal migrants and asylum seekers from entering or staying in the country. According to the government, there are 1,500 South Sudanese in Israel, yet relief organisations say there are no more than 700.
On June 17, the first plane will take off for Juba, the capital of South Sudan, with about 200 migrants on board.
"The situation in South Sudan is not stable yet, and the people are really scared to go back home," said Adam Ibrahim, a 28-year-old asylum seeker from Darfur currently in Israel.
Those who agree to leave Israel voluntarily will receive free airline tickets and a grant of 1,000 euros ($1,255), the interior ministry announced. While voluntary deportation exists officially, in reality many choose to leave because they have no choice, activists say.
"People who are being picked up on the street or who approach the immigration authority are being told that if they don't sign the document, they won't be allowed to collect their belongings and will remain in custody, so I have my doubts about how many are leaving of their own free will," Rami Gudovitch, a migrant rights activist, told Israel's Haaretz newspaper.
The detention and deportation is only one of the measures to stop the influx of African migrants and asylum seekers. Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, has pledged to erect a 241-kilometre-long and 4.9-metre-tall steel wall at the Israeli-Egyptian border to stop migrants from illegally entering the country. Additionally, a law went into effect last Sunday that grants Israeli authorities the power to arrest and detain illegal migrants for up to three years. These migrants could face jail time, without trial or deportation. Anyone assisting them could also be detained for anywhere between five and 15 years.
In Israel, the government does not consider the Africans as refugees and has deemed them to be "infiltrators" or "economic migrants". Netanyahu listed "infiltrators" as a threat to the security and identity of a Jewish state. "This phenomenon is very grave and threatens the social fabric of society, our national security and our national identity," he said on May 29.
It is not only the government that is cracking down on the African migrants: the local population of South Tel Aviv, incited by right-wing politicians, is also embittered by the influx of outsiders taking over their neighbourhood. Racial tensions escalated in late May, when hundreds of residents led by Jewish settlers marched into African areas of Tel Aviv, looting, attacking and chanting discriminatory slogans.
It is difficult to trace the bitter animosity in South Tel Aviv. Some migrants say the violence began when two Molotov cocktails were hurled at their building in April, while locals say it began with a series of crimes and rapes on the part of the Africans.
Abdullah Mustafa, a Darfuri asylum seeker who owns a Sudanese restaurant on Neve Shaanan street, told Al Jazeera: "Israel is not safe for us".
Mustafa blames the Israeli government for the violence against his community.
"The [Israeli] government is mobilising the community against the refugees," Mustafa said. "We don't have a problem with the public, but with the government."
Economic migrant or asylum seeker?
Some Israelis believe that the government has neglected the issue of African migrants from its onset, and are only dealing with it in a reactionary form.
"One thing which is a common denominator for all government activity regarding the refugees is the problem that it is more reactions, instead of thinking ahead, and thinking systematically about the whole issue," said Dvorah Blum, the director of the Ruppin Academic Center's Institute for Immigration and Social Integration in Israel.
"Given a choice between being called 'an enlightened liberal' without a Jewish and Zionist state, and being called a ‘benighted racist' but a proud citizen, I choose the latter."
- Interior Minister Eli Yishai
With no official policy for asylum seekers, African migrants who were smuggled into the country by Bedouins through the Sinai, were initially granted papers upon their arrival. These documents gave them temporary protection and allowed them to stay, but did not provide them with work permits or healthcare. After administrative work, migrants were able to get temporary employment permits, usually valid for three month at most. However, the government has not examined these cases individually, to distinguish between asylum seekers and economic migrants.
"It [the policy] is not logical - the big mistake is the collective temporary protection. They [the government] need to interview us and see who is a refugee and who is not," Mustafa said.
There is no official system for asylum seekers in Israel. According to Blum, Israel's immigration process is based on two laws - the right of return for all Jews to the land of Israel, and the law of entrance, which gives power to the interior ministry to decide in an ad hoc manner who can enter and on what terms.
"Given a choice between being called 'an enlightened liberal' without a Jewish and Zionist state, and being called a ‘benighted racist' but a proud citizen, I choose the latter," Eli Yishai, Israel's interior minister, said on Sunday. "The era of slogans is over, the era of action has begun."
Migration is a universal phenomenon. But the way the issue has been treated in Israel has fuelled passionate arguments. While some Israelis say that Jewish history means that Israel should bear the responsibility for these asylum seekers, others maintain that Israel has been overrun at its borders and should evict these foreigners to maintain the territorial integrity and national identity of the Jewish people.
"We know that the Jews were persecuted, and they have a right to a state. Sometimes when a lot of refugees come to your state you have to host them; they will not stay forever." Mustafa said. "They just need protection and when they get the stability or peace they will go."