A day after the UN’s refugee agency backed their claims, thousands of African asylum seekers rallied Monday morning at a handful of foreign embassies in Israel, stepping up a two-day-old protest against Israeli policies.
The migrants, who are also taking part in a three-day strike, are angry at the government’s incarceration rules, which have seen tens of thousands of them held for long periods in prison facilities in the Negev, and long delays in processing their refugee applications.
“We don’t want to live here for the rest of our lives. We want basic rights until we can return,” Dawit, an Eritrean who is one of the leaders of the protest, told Channel 2 on Monday morning.
“I love my country, the land I grew up in. My family is in Eritrea. But I can’t live there now,” he said, citing his home country’s political turmoil and repression, including a policy of forced lifelong military service. “Until I can, I only want Israel to treat me like a human being.”
The migrants, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, demonstrated Monday morning in front of embassies and diplomatic offices of the United States, European Union, France, Canada, Sweden, Britain, Germany, Italy, the African Union and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The main demonstration took place in front of the American embassy on Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Street, where thousands of migrants had gathered by mid-morning.
According to spokespeople for the demonstrators, they had delivered a letter to US ambassador Dan Shapiro asking him to use his influence on the Israeli government to bring about the cancellation of the law allowing their incarceration in the Negev.
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Israel’s regulations on employing or providing aid to African migrants can be confusing. The migrants are generally forbidden from working until they are registered as asylum seekers, but getting that far in the process can be onerous, critics say.
Tel Aviv’s Mayor Ron Huldai urged the government to face up to the problem, and to allow the migrants to work. He warned that the friction in his city would lead to violence if the asylum-seekers’ complaints were not dealt with properly. The government is “not merely ignoring them, it’s branding them criminals,” the mayor protested in an Army Radio interview.
Israel’s government says most of the 50-60,000 migrants are not refugees but rather economic migrants, and that they will not be allowed to stay in Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that the vast majority of the arrivals were “not refugees” but, rather, “economic migrants” who had crossed illegally into Israel before the border fence with Egypt was reinforced, and vowed that the “full weight of the law” would be used to ensure that they did not remain. He would not be moved by demonstrations and protests, he said.
“I would like to clarify that these are not refugees, whom we handle according to international treaties, but rather infiltrators in search of work who are illegal, and we will fully bring them to justice,” Netanyahu said at the opening of Monday’s Likud-Beytenu faction meeting. “In 2013, we expelled 2,600 infiltrators from here, six times more than we did in the preceding year. This year we will remove more — that is our commitment and we’ve been conducting ourselves accordingly.”
“[Only] a small minority of these people are really refugees,” Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Ofir Akunis (Likud) insisted on Monday afternoon. “Other countries, including those they’re turning to, America and European countries, don’t recognize them as refugees either,” he insisted in a Channel 2 interview.
Some 3,000 people marched from Levinsky Park in South Tel Aviv toward the center of city on Monday morning, before dispersing to the embassies. Orit Marom, an activist in Assaf, the Aid Organization for Refugees, said thousands had been expected at the protests.
The protesters called on the world “to help us in the face of Israel’s harsh policies against us,” according to a statement released by the protesters.
“We will call on the international community to support our struggle against Israel’s violations of basic human rights,” the statement added.
On Sunday, an estimated 30,000 migrants participated in a march that began in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park and ended with a demonstration in Rabin Square at which the crowd chanted “No more prison, no more deportation. We are refugees, we need asylum.”
“We know the situation isn’t ideal in any country,” the protesters wrote in a statement announcing Monday’s protests. “It’s clear to us that all nations have difficulty absorbing masses of people, survivors of genocide and war, but with that, the nations of the world must honor international conventions and respect human rights.”
In Israel, they added, “we don’t get a proper examination of our asylum requests or recognition of our basic rights that will allow us to live in dignity. Instead, the Israeli government sees us as a threat that must be removed quickly. It arrests us in the streets as though we are criminals, incarcerates us for indefinite periods, leaves us on the fringes of society without access to basic rights, and continues to incite against us repeatedly.”
Interior Minister Gideon Saar responded to the ongoing protest on Monday, repeating the government’s position that most of the migrants were not refugees.
“They are demanding collective recognition as refugees in order to plant roots in Israel,” he told Army Radio. The state was checking their requests on a case-by-case basis, he added, and its work was “showing results. We’re seeing a sharp rise in the number of infiltrators who are leaving Israel. They understand that the government is serious, that we are serious.”
Most of the asylum seekers, he concluded, “are labor migrants, and the state of Israel is not their home.”
But the protests were being heard internationally this week. The UN’s refugee agency called on Sunday for Israel to reform its policies toward African asylum seekers, saying the involuntary detentions and rules treat them as criminals.
In a statement, the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, criticized the conditions at the Holot detention center in the Negev and appealed to policy makers to consider alternative measures to deal with the asylum seekers.
The statement said Israel’s policies were sowing fear, and Jerusalem should stop defining the refugees as ‘asylum seekers’ and grant them protection.
In their statement Monday, the protesters called for “the direct involvement [of UNHCR] in examining asylum requests,” and for “the nations of the world [to] verify that the government of Israel respects its international commitment, to tell [Israel] that it is possible to [behave] otherwise, that it is only right to treat refugees as human beings, that international laws establish the standards for dealing with refugees. Don’t allow the government of Israel to repeatedly violate our basic human rights, its own commitment under international law, and basic standards of human decency.”
Marissa Newman contributed to this report.