Hours after more than 10,000 African migrants demonstrated at the Knesset to demand that Israel grant them refugee status, the Israeli government decided Wednesday night to maintain its policy of encouraging the 50-60,000 strong community of mainly Eritrean and Sudanese migrants to leave the country.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a discussion, also attended by Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, police chiefs and others, on the plight of the migrants after four successive days of mass protests, and decided that Israeli policy would remain unchanged. Netanyahu said earlier this week that the overwhelming majority of the asylum-seekers were not refugees, but “economic migrants” and that strikes and demonstrations would not change his determination to impose the law and have them leave Israel.
Israel’s Channel 10 news on Wednesday night interviewed one of the protest leaders, Emanuel, an Eritrean asylum-seeker who has been in Israel for six years, and who said he “would not be allowed to see the sun again” if he went home. He said he had been forced to serve 12 years in the Eritrean army, “in conditions of slavery,” building roads and prisons, and that his request for refugee status had not even been considered in all his years here. Told that similar cases had been processed and rejected by the Israeli authorities, he responded, “First of all, check [our applications].”
Critics say Israel does not process refugee applications as required by international law, and grants almost no refugee applications when it does check.
Emanuel told Channel 10 that more demonstrations were planned, but that on no account would protests turn violent. He said that if Israel continued to refuse to grant them asylum, “we will turn to the UN.”
The protests by the migrants, unprecedented in their scope, continued for a fourth straight day Wednesday with more than 10,000 people, many of whom came by bus from Tel Aviv, gathered at the Rose Garden in Jerusalem across from the Knesset. A delegation had been invited into parliament to meet with a group of legislators, but the Knesset speaker prevented this, citing a concern that confrontations would ensue.
Likud MK Miri Regev, one of the most outspoken critics of the asylum-seekers, initiated the complaint that led to the group being barred from the Knesset, and then wrote to the attorney-general seeking an investigation into who was funding the protests, which she described as “anti-state activities.”
The protesters demonstrated for several hours outside the Knesset, and their leaders met Wednesday night to decide on future protest action. Those who have jobs have been on strike this week, and some fear they will not have jobs to go back to.
“We are refugees; we need protection,” the protesters chanted. Signs carried by the protesters proclaimed: “We need protection;” ”We are not criminals, we are refugees,” and “We are not infiltrators, we are human beings.” Organizers said more than 100 buses transported the protesters from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Author David Grossman told the protesters that “for me, the name ‘Israel,’ contains the idea of refugees, of people who escaped from a terrible destiny to find refuge and shelter.” He said he was “proud to be here [but] I’m ashamed that this event had to happen.” He said Israelis should “remember all the doors that were locked in the faces” of Jews seeking to escape the Nazis, and the few doors that were open. “You are not criminals,” he told the protesters. “You are ordinary human beings… trapped in a not ordinary situation.”
President Shimon Peres noted Wednesday that international law prevented the repatriation of people to countries where they faced death and said many Israelis well-remembered “what it was like to be refugees.” Israel, he said, “will act morally” where the migrants are concerned.
“I want to ask the Israeli government to listen to our voices, to check our asylum requests, in a transparent way,” Dawit Domuz, an Eritrean migrant and protest leader, told Israel Radio earlier Wednesday. A speaker at the rally, later Wednesday, called the Israeli parliament “the injustice Knesset” for its purported ill-treatment of the migrants.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein barred protest leaders from entering the building to attend a meeting with opposition MKs Dov Khenin (Hadash) and Michal Rozin (Meretz), who had invited organizers to discuss the issues at the Knesset. A statement from Edelstein’s office said he had decided to deny the protesters access “against the backdrop of the tension and general public atmosphere, as well the fear that granting the infiltrators access will cause provocations in the parliament.”
“Asylum seekers called on the prime minister yesterday to meet with them and listen to them,” Rozin said. “The entire government and its policies should have been responsive to their request, but since this is not what happened, we accepted the challenge and called on Knesset members to come and meet with the representatives of the asylum seekers for a dialogue: to listen to their problems, to ask [questions] and get answers. They are human beings and the time has come for the government of Israel to treat them as such.”
Khenin said Israel has to change its policy toward migrants. ”The government insists on continuing to import thousands of foreign workers every year, but prohibits asylum seekers here from working,” he said. “The time has come to stop bringing foreign worker to Israel, to make these jobs open to asylum seekers whom even the Foreign Ministry admits are impossible to deport, and scatter around the country in a way that makes sense.”
Several left-wing MKs, including Labor’s Merav Michaeli and Meretz’s Nitzan Horowitz, went out to the protesters and expressed empathy for them.
Said Regev, who protested her colleagues’ intentions to meet with the organizers of the protests to the speaker of the Knesset: “They are ridiculing and making a mockery of the rule of law… I demanded that they prevent [the organizers] from entering the Knesset.”
The representatives had planned to deliver a letter addressed to Netanyahu for Khenin and Rozen to pass on, but after Edelstein’s decision, they sent it to the media.
“We, asylum-seekers, invite you and the Israeli government to enter into a direct and open dialogue with us,” the letter stated.
“In the last days we’ve told the Israeli public and the international community in a clear voice about our distress, about our lives in fear of arrest and the places we escaped. In the last days we’ve shown you and the Israeli public that we are not criminals. We are a law abiding, orderly and democratic community of asylum-seekers…
“We demand that you respect our human rights as refugees. The State of Israel was one of the first to sign the Refugee Convention [treaty]. If the Israeli government does not intend to honor the convention, transfer the process of our asylum requests to the United Nations.
“We hope to hear your response and see a sign of positive change in Israel’s policy in the treatment of asylum-seekers in the coming weeks.”
Former interior minister MK Eli Yishai (Shas), meanwhile, said that the government should take advantage of the migrants’ mass protests to round them up and deport them.
“The State of Israel must act with unshakable motivation in the face of the danger of becoming a state of infiltrators, and there is no other solution than to to put every single one of the infiltrators in detention facilities, take their work permits, put them on airplanes and send them packing to their countries or a third country,” he said.
At the Saharonim complex 119 detainees took their hunger strike into a third day, insisting that they would not stop until the state agreed to review their applications for asylum-seeker status. On Tuesday, the number of hunger strikers was pegged at 130. Officials have taken punitive measures against the strikers, such as not allowing them to shop at the canteen or use mobile phones.
Thousands of migrants launched a three-day work strike and started staging protests in Tel Aviv on Sunday, with 20,000 people showing up to a march that started in Levinsky Park and ended with a demonstration in Rabin Square. And on Monday, about 5,000 Sudanese and Eritrean migrants demonstrated outside the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, flooding the boardwalk outside the building, while others gathered at the British and French embassies. Throngs of asylum-seekers held aloft signs and Eritrean and US flags as they chanted “Freedom” and “No more prison.”
The migrants, mostly asylum-seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, are demanding official refugee status and are protesting the government’s policy of holding them for long periods in the new Holot detention facility in the Negev.
Israel’s Supreme Count on Wednesday ordered an accelerated process for deliberating the legality of the legislation relating to the detention facilities.
A UNHCR representative warned in an interview with Army Radio Tuesday that Israel was erring in its handling of the situation, but said that the UNHCR was interested in working with Israel to find an acceptable solution.
The government, however, has said that it does not plan to change its policies toward the migrants and insists that most of them have come to Israel seeking work, not asylum.
“Protests will not help. Strikes will not help,” Netanyahu said in a statement posted to his official Facebook page on Sunday, and he reiterated the comments on Monday. “We completely halted the infiltration into Israel and now we are determined to remove the illegal infiltrators that entered Israel. Last year we increased sixfold the number of infiltrators that left, to more than 2,600, and the goal this year is to increase this figure even more.”
Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.