Drawing a global audience, Nigerian cinema highlighting issues close to the society’s heart.
Tel Aviv – They have fled war and repression, forced conscription and ethnic cleansing. Yet the vast majority of the estimated 45,000 African asylum seekers in Israel – mostly Eritreans and Sudanese – are not granted refugee status.
Between 2009 and 2013, Israel recognised just 0.15 percent of asylum claims, a rate far lower than in other developed countries.
Israel’s government argues that the Africans are economic migrants, not refugees. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has labelled asylum seekers as “infiltrators” who could demographically overwhelm Israel’s identity as a Jewish state .
However, because international law prohibits the deportation of asylum seekers to countries where they are likely to be persecuted, Israel does not expel them. As a result, many remain stuck in a legal limbo.
The Israeli government, by not assessing individual asylum claims or granting refugee status, effectively bars asylum seekers from work permits, healthcare and welfare services that refugees are entitled to under international law. Without an official status, asylum seekers in Israel can be held without trial for as long as a year in the Holot detention facility.
Asylum seekers and Israeli activists say this treatment is designed to break asylum seekers’ spirits and pressure them into being “voluntarily” deported to countries such as Uganda and Rwanda. Although asylum seekers who agree to leave Israel are given $3,500, recent accounts indicate that they rarely find safety in the third country, and are not guaranteed that they will not be deported to their countries of origin.
Since 2013, when Israel completed building a fence between its territory and Egypt, attempts to enter the country illicitly have nearly come to a halt. Nevertheless, Israel’s strict policy towards asylum seekers remains virtually unchanged.
Three Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel told their stories to Al Jazeera.
Shiden, a 29-year-old economics graduate and former high-school business teacher, fled Eritrea because of religious persecution: The denomination of Christianity he practices, Pentecostalism, is illegal in Eritrea.
The country’s government considers followers of this and other unrecognised denominations as foreign agents for western countries. Pentecostals live in constant fear of arrest or of being reported on by their neighbours and colleagues.
“They say we betray our country, that we get money from the United States. Most of the followers of the Pentecostal Church in Eritrea are educated people. And if you are educated, the government doesn’t want that – that you become strong, with power,” Shiden told Al Jazeera. “Of course the [Eritrean] government doesn’t believe we get money from the US. But they believe that if we have education, we are a risk for its power.”
Shiden spent months in Sawa Military Prison after having being found praying with other believers. At that time, there was a shortage of teachers during the exam season, and he was released and deployed to oversee the national exams. Shiden and others in the same situation seized the opportunity and escaped to Sudan.
But when war broke out between the Sudanese government and rebels in what is now South Sudan, they had to flee once again. “I thought: The only democratic country in the Middle East is Israel. Maybe there would be a safe haven for us. Let’s try to go to Israel. That is what we expected,” Shiden said.
After crossing the Sinai Desert on foot, Shiden was shot seven times by Egyptian border guards in late 2011. He was then rescued by the Israeli army. His asylum request has still not been assessed, and he has only a temporary visa that he needs to renew every few months.
“Once we entered, the reality was completely different … It is a democracy, but for only a part of the population and for their party.”
Shiden now lives in fear of detention and deportation with every amendment to the law regarding asylum seekers. He believes this lack of certainty is aimed at making their lives miserable, to force them to leave. In the meantime, Shiden dreams of returning to Eritrea should political and social changes there allow for it.
I love my country ... It is my destiny. I don't like being a refugee. It is not a matter of choice.
“I love my country, because my country will never substitute another country. It is my destiny. I don’t like being a refugee. It is not a matter of choice. I have a very beautiful country, and very rich,” he said. “The people of Eritrea deserve a peaceful solution for our country, and we demand this. We don’t want to be refugees, we don’t want to be parasites in another country. We need to be able to determine our future for ourselves … If this government [in Eritrea] would be eradicated, I would not sleep another night here.”
However, it is not only the government that Shiden fears. When living in Eritrea, Shiden said that he even feared his own family after he converted and began attending secret group prayers. In Israel, he said, other Eritrean asylum seekers discriminate against Pentecostals, too.
“They don’t like us. You have to hide from sight all the time. But I don’t blame the people, because they are very brainwashed. [In Eritrea] we only have one newspaper, one TV network, one radio station. The only source of knowledge is the government. And they broadcast very bad things about us.”
Many Sudanese asylum seekers have escaped repression, imprisonment, genocide or ethnic cleansing at the hands of the government or government-backed militias. Non-Arab African people in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile region make up most of these asylum seekers, and some have fled to Israel.
Walyaldin Suliman, a 33-year-old barber, first left his native Darfur in 2003 to study psychology in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. While at university, he became active with the Sudanese opposition through the Independent Students’ Congress, the student branch of the Sudanese Congress Party.
He left to visit his native village on vacations from university. But during one of these visits, things took a turn for the worse.
“In 2005 when I went on a holiday, I found that my village and many others in my area were destroyed. The Janjaweed [a government-backed militia] destroyed the village for the government. The villagers I met took me to a refugee camp and my parents were there. All the people from the villages and my parents still live today in the Gereida Um Zakharat refugee camp,” he said.
After graduating in 2009, Suliman said that he wanted to fulfil his national service as a teacher, but the government tried to force him to fight as a soldier against the people of Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. He balked at the idea, and during general elections in 2010, he participated in activities supporting the opposition in Darfur.
“In our region the government didn’t get any votes there, but they messed with the ballot boxes and won the election. The government then began always following me, and so I decided to flee to Europe,” Suliman said.
“I travelled to Egypt in 2012, but there was no way to Europe from there, and there was war in Libya. So I decided to go to Israel. When I came to Israel, I was really optimistic, but unfortunately the dream died. The situation was bad – people [refugees] were living in Levinski Park [a park in Tel Aviv] with no food.”
Amid this dire situation, Suliman said that he began to speak with members of the media and to organise demonstrations, but nothing seemed to change.
“At the end we made a strike,” he said. “Managers here didn’t have workers. All of these refugees work for them in restaurants, hotels, building sites – everywhere. We also held a big demonstration with more than 30,000 people. We protested in a way of peace and democracy; nobody made violence. Still the policy of the government remains; the people are still in Holot [detention centre].
When there is peace in my country, when my country will be free to build a good democracy, I would like to go back.
“Now they try to pressure refugees to register and go back, saying this is ‘voluntary’ deportation,” he added. “When you arrive in Uganda or Rwanda, they take the Israeli documents away from you and leave you without any document. You only keep your passport with no entry stamp. When immigration catches you, they send you back to your country immediately.”
According to Suliman, the Israeli government has “forgotten history”, turning a blind eye to refugees that need its help.
“Many people suffer in the world, like the Jewish people suffered during the Holocaust in Europe … I know many Israeli Jewish Holocaust survivors that support us. Democracy is about respecting each other, but now democracy in Israel is only for the Jewish people,” he said.
Suliman said that some of his friends travelled to Europe in 2015 and have since obtained refugee status, while he has continued to languish in Israel. Sometimes he thinks about returning to his home country to fight for freedom, despite the threat that he could get arrested.
“If I were in Sudan, I would have finished my doctor’s degree,” he said. “I feel very sad I couldn’t continue further with my education, but I’m always optimistic that one day I will go back and rebuild my country, live with my friends, colleagues and my family. When there is peace in my country, when my country will be free to build a good democracy, I would like to go back.”
When the police came for her in 2009, Ksenet made a quick decision to flee her native Eritrea. She had expressed resistance to conscription in the Eritrean army, and feared being imprisoned, tortured and raped as a result – the fate of many who try to evade mandatory national military service.
Ksenet’s husband, Awat, has a similar story: After becoming an orphan and being forcibly conscripted, he fled Eritrea at the age of 16.
Ksenet, now 22, and Awat, now 29, met in Israel, fell in love and were married in a traditional Eritrean ceremony. “What we have together is really, really great. It is like an anchor in what is a really tough situation. I’m always stressed, but at least I know that we are good. It is a relief. We are really happy that we met each other. It would be much harder if we didn’t have each other,” Awat told Al Jazeera.
Shortly after their wedding, Awat was summoned for a hearing at the Ministry of Interior to determine whether he would be sent to the Holot detention facility for African asylum seekers, even though married men are exempt. The couple gathered all of the necessary documentation for the hearing to prove their marriage.
Other refugees who have gone through a similar process say the interviews are often conducted by officials who use intimidation tactics. Ksenet recalled being interviewed by a group of men who shouted at her; she anxiously bit her nails as they asked about her intimate life with her husband.
“From the beginning, the clerk said: ‘You’re not together, I can’t believe this is your wife.’ From the beginning, we felt hostility from the start,” Awat said. “When I spoke slower, the clerk would bang on the table and order me to speak faster … I sat there for four hours in the room. The questions were really hard and private. It was extremely uncomfortable.”
Awat said the official began the interview by saying that he would be sent to Holot regardless, before giving Awat the chance to speak. Awat offered to show his wedding photos, but the official refused.
The thing I'm most frightened about is that he would go to Holot and that I'll be alone.
In the end, Awat was ordered to be detained for 12 months in Holot. The couple turned to Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an Israeli NGO, for help.
Although the organisation made repeated attempts to obtain a copy of the interview transcripts, the ministry did not respond. As a result, Hotline filed an appeal with the administrative tribunal, which issued renewed residence permits for both Ksenet and Awat, and froze Awat’s summons to Holot until a further ruling.
“The thing I’m most frightened about is that he would go to Holot and that I’ll be alone. I’ll be by myself and I don’t know what I will do,” Ksenet said.
Like most asylum seekers in Israel, their status remains uncertain. Awat said the only alternative offered by Israeli authorities was “voluntary” deportation.
“They were always asking, ‘Why don’t you go to Rwanda and Uganda?’ All the meeting they would suggest that,” he said. “I don’t want to go there. I heard about people who went there and the situation is really bad: First they only get a visa for one month, after that they have nothing and so risk prison.”