Tel Aviv is no haven for asylum seekers

African refugees going to Israel take a harrowing journey to get there – only to be left to fend for themselves.

African refugees in Israel
For many refugees and asylum seekers, Israel is considered a last resort destination [EPA]

Ramallah, West Bank – The notion of a “Jewish and democratic state”, never a feasible reality, continues to unravel as its inherent racism is revealed in a new way. Any political discussion of refugees that are of the wrong ethnicity inevitably refers to African migration to Israel as an “existential threat”. Labelling these refugees as “threats” allows the state to criminalise and imprison them. Meanwhile, the country continues to solicit immigrants from East Asia to fulfil the need for cheap labour, and Jewish immigrants to battle the internal demographic war.

Brutal violence at the hands of their own governments has forced tens of thousands of people from the horn of Africa into Israel. In response the state has approved a significant rearrangement of its ministries’ budgets, allowing it to pour significantly more money into efforts that punish these refugees for seeking asylum in Israel – a place which has long advertised itself as the only democracy in the Middle East.

 Israel’s Sudanese ‘enemy nationals’

State officials estimate that around 2,000 asylum seekers enter the country every month. Most of the men end up in Levinsky Park in southern Tel Aviv. At any time during the day or night, one can find young black African men sitting on the park’s benches, swings and concrete walls. In late January, a man who lived in the park died from exposure during the night.

The majority of the men who live in Levinsky Park are from Eritrea and Darfur. They are luckier than most of their compatriots who remain in the perilous countries from which they have fled, but not so fortunate as those who manage to make it to the USA or Europe. For these refugees, Israel is considered a last-resort destination due to its rapidly worsening conditions for refugees and asylum seekers.

Alienation of immigrants

While community members and organisations have responded to the refugee-related crises developing in the country’s founding city by setting up an emergency shelter and serving warm dinners to a hungry crowd, these generous gestures are the exception in a state that fosters growing hostility to outsiders.

In late 2010, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu announced his three-pronged strategy to battle “illegal immigration”. The Knesset approved a 2 per cent cut from all ministries in order to tackle this internal “threat“. Israel’s government has allocated nearly $5.4m to build a wall on Israel’s border with Egypt and a 10,000-person detention centre in the Negev that is expected to cost $3m a year just to operate. Netanyahu’s proposed bill would also slap a $21,000 fee on corporations that hire undocumented immigrants.

Then, in the first two weeks of 2012, the Israeli Knesset approved an amendment to the “Prevention and Infiltration Act” that allows indefinite detention of immigrants from “enemy states”, and a three-year detention without charges for asylum seekers.

“This is how the public becomes racist,” Yohannes Bayu, the director of African Refugee Development Centre (ARDC), tells me, explaining the government’s campaign against African asylum seekers, who are labelled as “labour infiltrators”.

Founded in 2007 – when mass migration from Africa to Israel spiked – ARDC works directly with refugees and asylum seekers in Israel. However, Bayu explains that since the organisation’s founding, Israeli society has become increasingly antagonistic to its work.

People are attacked in the streets. People are not allowed to rent houses to African refugees.

– Yohannes Bayu, director of ASSAF

“In the beginning of 2008, the public donated and helped ARDC immensely. But now that is not there anymore, we feel it and we see it also – because the media and the government has ramped up this hatred,” explains Bayu.

But Bayu adds that overt racism in Israeli society has become common, “People are attacked on the streets. People are not allowed to rent houses to African refugees.”

But as the government rails against African migrant workers, it imports workers from East Asia – primarily the Philippines and Thailand – to make up its imperative cheap labour force. Since Israel lost Palestinians as its reliable source of low-paid, exploitative labour due to the country’s policy of separation, it has granted hundreds of thousands of temporary work permits to those non-Jewish immigrants who can afford the expensive work permit and agency fees.

Furthermore, Israel is one of the only states in the world that actively campaigns around the world to increase immigration, offering incentives to Jews who immigrate to the country.

The desperate men – and some women – who leave their families and homelands behind in Africa escape torture, forced military conscription and murder. As confirmed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Eritrea and Sudan have been two of the top producers of refugees over the past two years. These states’ betrayals of their own citizens have rendered tens of thousands stateless.

Conventions and detentions

Israeli politicians’ claims that only a “drizzle” of the African immigrants are rightfully refugees is quickly belied by the fact that almost none of the men are deported. Of the approximately 17,000 asylum seekers who reached Israel in 2011 via Egypt, only 270 have been returned to Egypt. Israel is a party to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. The country’s already shaky moral standing internationally would surely slip further if it began to ship refugees back to persecution.

 Refugees face deportation in Israel

However, allowing asylum seekers to remain in the country without rights hardly fulfills the directions of the Convention, which was composed in 1951 after the world saw and acknowledged the dangers posed to stateless human beings.

Before reaching Israel’s borders, asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan must survive a harrowing journey across the Sinai. They routinely experience rape and enslavement, and are reportedly the targets of organ traffickers.

Whether jumping the fence or walking across the border into Israel, asylum seekers are immediately picked up by border police and taken to a detention centre where they are held for weeks or months. Bayu expects that immigration authorities will begin holding these men to the extent of the new law – three years – once the new detention centre is built. Planning authorities expect the prison to be operating within the first half of 2012.

But for now the scenario for these men follows a predictable pattern: They are released in less than three months and given a three to six-month visa and then bussed up to Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv, where they are left to fend for themselves.

Levinsky Park was named after a Lithuanian Zionist who immigrated to Palestine in search of safety from pogroms in the Russian Empire at the turn of the twentieth century – yet another bitter example of the irony that Israel is anything but a haven to the dispossessed.

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in the West Bank, Palestine. She is Editor at The Palestine Monitor and a graduate of Stanford University.