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Refugees rally against Israeli crackdown

Asylum seekers claim that they live under constant fear of deportation and imprisonment.

Last updated: 07 Jan 2014 19:27
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Thousands of asylum seekers are protesting against harsh penalties levelled at those crossing the border without a permit [Eduardo Soretas/Al Jazeera]

Tel Aviv, Israel - Every morning, Anwar Suliman heads down from his small apartment to the neighbouring Levinsky Park - a green square located in south Tel Aviv, which over the years has become an open sky community centre for African refugees and asylum seekers in Israel.

Anwar Suliman [Eduardo Soretas/Al Jazeera]

The 33-year-old Sudanese refugee, who ten years ago escaped genocide in Darfur, speaks fluent Hebrew. More and more people approach him, telling him their problems - expiring visas, trouble with finding a job; someone complains about an employer who refuses to pay their salary; another worries about getting his sick child to a hospital. Anwar has lived in Tel Aviv for five years now, and knows his way around.

He tries to help his fellow asylum seekers - and there are 53,600 of them living today in Israel, according to the estimate of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, given in a press release issued on Monday. The vast majority, around 95 percent, are from Eritrea and Sudan.

In the evening Anwar would usually head to work at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv, but since Sunday, he and thousands of other asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea are on strike.

Instead of rushing to work, he was in a hurry to join a community meeting of African and Israeli activists planning the next steps of their protest. The three-day strike has disturbed the regular operation of many hotels, restaurants and cafes in Israel. Anwar told Al Jazeera that 100 people did not show up for their shifts in his own workplace.

Widespread protests

On January 5, tens of thousands of people demonstrated in the centre of Tel Aviv; the organisers say it was the largest protest of asylum seekers in Israel's history. The following day, thousands marched to western embassies. Protesters called on world governments to exert pressure on Israel to give asylum seekers fair treatment.

The protests were sparked by the latest amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, passed in December by the Israeli parliamentm, the Knesset. It allows for a year's imprisonment of those who crossed the border without a permit, followed by an indefinite detention of asylum seekers in a holding facility named Holot, in the Negev desert, that critics say is a prison.

Thousands of asylum seekers protest in Israel

The government argues that Holot is an open facility, because asylum seekers are allowed to leave during the day. But as human rights groups point out, there is a roll call three times a day, the facility is locked at night, and the nearest city, Beer Sheva, is more than an hour away - which makes it impossible to reach it and return in time for roll call.

"We have fled persecution, forced military conscription, dictatorship, civil wars and genocide. Instead of being treated as refugees by the government of Israel, we have been treated as criminals," read a public statement by protesters, which also includes a short list of demands. The most basic is to have their asylum claims checked individually.

People from Eritrea and Sudan, instead of going through an individual procedure of determination of refugee status, were awarded group protection by the Israeli government.

"Israel tries to balance the need to control its borders with the need to protect the human rights of those who enter. Due to its adherence to international law, Israel granted protection to approximately 60,000 people without the need to prove prima facie that they have an individual claim to stay in Israel," declared Israel's Ministry of Foreign affairs in a January 6 statement.

At the time of publication, the Ministry of the Interior had yet to respond to this reporter for further comment.

Only a few hundred claims have been considered individually, and most of those were reportedly rejected.

'Under constant threat'

In practice, it means that Eritreans and Sudanese are not being deported, and receive temporary visas, renewable every few months. But they are not granted any social services or permission to work. Due to a ruling from Israel's High Court of Justice (HCJ) in 2011, the ban on working has not been enforced until now. With the recently passed amendment, however, the government is planning to implement the working prohibition - claiming that the new holding facility at Holot will provide asylum seekers roof over their heads, food, and medical care.

Many asylum seekers are held in the torture camps run by the Bedouin smugglers, until their family or friends manage to collect ransom money.

Dawit Damouz, protest organiser

Kidane Isaac was also en route to another small meeting on January 6, where leaders of the protest planned the next steps. On Tuesday morning they met with the rest of the community in Levinsky Park to discuss the plan. Isaac came here from Eritrea. He is bitter about the treatment he received over and over again from governments that, he says, are obliged by international law to award him basic rights.

"We are under constant threat of deportation and imprisonment. Finally, at this point we were given two choices: either to do self-deportation or indefinite imprisonment in the so-called open facility. But I don't see the open part of it - it's run by a prison authority, you have to sign in three times a day, and you should not be away for more than 48 hours from that compound,"  he told Al Jazeera.

Since 2006, as the situation of refugees in Egypt has dramatically worsened, thousands of people crossed the border between Israel and Egypt every month up until 2012, when the flow of asylum seekers was cut by a fence built by the Israeli government along the 200km border.

Dawit Damouz from Eritrea, one of the organisers of the ongoing protest, reached the Israeli border in 2009 with the help of Bedouin smugglers.

"Many asylum seekers are held in the torture camps run by the Bedouin smugglers, until their family or friends manage to collect ransom money," he told Al Jazeera. Damouz added that, every few weeks, the African community in Tel Aviv had to organise money to pay ransom for those being held in Sinai.

Damouz, like many others, was picked up at the border by the Israeli army and taken to a military camp, named "Sudaniya" by the soldiers - the first stop of Sudanese and Eritrian asylum seekers arriving in Israel. After two days, he was transferred to the Saharonim detention centre in the Negev desert and was later released.

'The hotel'

Sara Robinson from Amnesty International Israel explained that, after a few weeks people would be released from the Saharonim prison with a bus voucher to Tel Aviv.

"The bus drivers would drop them off at Levinsky park - a famous park, that the refugees call 'the hotel'," she told Al Jazeera.

"People would get off the bus holding a plastic bag, with an extra shirt and a yellow slip of paper. They would look left and right, and, as I would come up to them, they would ask: 'Where is the UN? Where do I go? What do I do?'"

The government prides itself on stopping the flow of refugees and plans for systematic deportations of those already in Israel.

"I'd like to make clear that protests and strikes won't help," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, quoted by Haaretz.

"As we were able to stem the illegal infiltration of our borders, we are steadfast in our commitment to evict those who entered before we closed the border," he added.

In Levinsky Park on January 6, asylum seekers from Sudan stood in a small group and discussed the events of the day. One of them, who refused to be named out of fear, presented a document in which the Ministry of Interior instructed him to report to the new detention facility, Holot.

"What can I do? My visa will expire in a month. If I don't show up in Holot by then, they will come to arrest me in Levinsky, as they have been doing over the last weeks with hundreds of others," he told Al Jazeera.

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Al Jazeera
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