Special Report | Refuge Denied: African Asylum Seekers in Israel
New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Tuesday, January 15, 2013 17:05 - 1 Comment
By Derek Oakley
On a recent visit to Tel Aviv I took some time away from working on the effects of the occupation to explore a pressing social issue that has hit headlines in Israel this year: the treatment of asylum seekers.
I visited Levinski park, minutes away from the bus station where I arrived, the centre of the social and cultural life of African asylum seekers in Israel, and for many who can’t find refuge in one of the overcrowded apartments locally, a home too. Sleeping bags crowd the child’s playground as it is the only covered area that provides some shelter from the elements. Every night, rain or shine, Israeli volunteers, coming together under the name ‘Levinski Soup’, provide hot food for hundreds, the only daily meal that many have access too.
There are currently an estimated 57,000 asylum seekers in Israel, the majority of who are from Eritrea or Sudan, and are concentrated in South Tel Aviv. Most enter the country by land through the Sinai desert and until this year most were detained for a short period of time and then given a bus ticket to the central bus station in South Tel Aviv, from where, due to travel restrictions, they find it hard to travel.
The Israeli government has no system for assessing individual asylum applications or providing social services such as housing or healthcare so refugees are left with no safety net at all. Asylum seekers are treated as national groups under a policy of ‘Temporary Collective Protection’ which essentially means that they are afforded entry but then left in a ‘legal limbo’. Orit Maryom of ASSAF, an organisation that provides vital advice and support to African refugees inIsrael and advocates for policy change by the government, says: “Survival here for refugees is fragile. The moment something goes wrong it can all fall apart. There is no social security.”
Asylum seekers are not legally permitted to work in Israel, though many find work in jobs in the construction or service industries, working in insecure conditions for poverty wages with no access to employee benefits.
Returning to Levinski the next evening I arrived early to witness an anti-immigrant demo coordinated by the far right Otzma Leyisraeli (‘Strengh of Israel’) party that used the kind of ‘send them back’ rhetoric that will be known to anyone acquainted with the language of racists in the UK. A number of those present had travelled to Tel Aviv from settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, where xenophobic parties enjoy some considerable support, though there were also working class Israelis from South Tel Aviv in attendance.
Israeli flags were flown next to Hanukah candles after speeches from Knesset members and candidates promising to ‘Banish the Darkness’ and send refugees back to their own countries. Left wing and right wing activists engaged in a fiery exchange, surrounded by media cameras. It reflects a strongly xenophobic sentiment that has been partially fuelled by the underdevelopment of South Tel Aviv and government policy of sending refugees to the area. In April 2012 the first of numerous firebombings of properties used by refugees, a house and kindergarten, took place in the Shapira neighbourhood. According to a report by the Hotline for Migrant Workers a numbers of beatings have also been documented.
Oshor, from Darfur, spoke to me about the attitude of locals to Africans: “we treat them gently but they will not even sit next to us on buses”.
The views represented Otzma Leyisraeli are not marginal. An Israeli survey taken in May of this year recorded that 33.5% of Jewish respondents said that they could identify with people who take violent measures against asylum seekers. The incumbent Israeli government has a similar approach to the issue of asylum and refuge. Orit said: “The direction of the government is becoming more and more extreme.”
This year key government figures including interior minister Eli Yishai have made stridently anti-immigrant speeches stoking violent anti-refugee sentiment on the ground. For example on August 16th Yishai promised to make the lives of ‘infiltrators’ miserable. He bemoaned the limitations that other ministries had put on his powers to deport all asylum seekers and stated: “For the time being, I plan to lock them up. This I can do without anyone’s authorization. I am doing it for the good of the State of Israel.”
The government has passed a number of pieces of punitive legislation that would seem to realise these intentions, making life more and more difficult for those seeking to stay in Israel regardless of the dangers that they may face if they leave the country or of Israel’s obligations as a founding signatory of the UN Convention on Refugees that was drafted in 1951. As Oshor put it, “They refuse to recognise us as refugees. They do not want us going on to Europe or America, and they do not want us to stay here, they want us to go back regardless of what it is like there.”
For example, asylum seekers and their children into the country now face a prison term of up to three years under the amendment to the ‘inflitration law’ that was passed by the Knesset in January this year.
Additional laws that enable the collective arrest and imprisonment of groups of refugees ‘suspected of criminal activity’ are being applied widely to those already in Tel Aviv. Entrants from ‘enemy’ states such as Sudancan be held in ‘administrative detention’ indefinitely under the new law. New detention spaces are being constructed at this moment near the Egyptian border. Furthermore the collective protection of South Sudanese people in Israel was rescinded in June, and by August 800 people had been deported back to South Sudan. Orit Maryom, says: “for five years we (ASSAF) have been struggling and it has been hard work, but 2012 has been something else”.
An activist I had encountered in Levinski took an even stronger point of view: “there is a link between this and the occupation…the country is getting worse and has been since 1967…no-one told them (refugees) that we are not a democratic country anymore, we are a fascist state”.
As long as there are grassroots volunteers like Levinski soup and organisations such as ASSAF there is proof that a humanitarian spirit still exists here. A major priority for ASSAF in 2013 will be working to compliment the community organising of refugees to put their voices at the heart of advocacy efforts, as well as to reach out to the broader mass of the Israeli public “trying to show Israeli society how it harms us to mistreat asylum seekers”.
It seems that this is an essential, if uphill struggle.