The African asylum seeker issue may have faded from the headlines since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled forced deportations last month, but hundreds are still waiting hours each day under the hot sun in a trash-filled compound in Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv in order to renew their temporary visas.
Disgusted by the conditions, a small group of religious activists in the neighborhood has taken it upon themselves to organize shade, bathrooms and chairs for the waiting crowd.
“There were huge piles of garbage here, it stunk of urine, old mattresses everywhere,” said Faigy Lifshitz, the central organizer of Haredim Against the Deportations, who is using a fake name due to threats she has received for her involvement. “It was worse than a zoo in a third world country.”
In February, the Population and Immigration Authority abruptly moved the office for filing asylum requests from south Tel Aviv, where the majority of asylum seekers live, to Bnei Brak. The Bnei Brak facility is where all foreign workers, including asylum seekers, must go to renew their visas. Asylum seekers receive temporary visas from three to six months and must renew them before they expire in order to avoid deportation or imprisonment.
Because of low approval rates, asylum seekers have been reluctant to submit requests for asylum. The Population and Immigration Authority has only approved 10 Eritreans and 1 Sudanese, an acceptance rate of only 0.056%, according to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. But Netanyahu’s plan to deport thousands of Africans have encouraged many to rush to submit requests.
The combination of visa renewals with asylum seeker requests, however, has created an untenable situation at the Bnei Brak facility. Lifshitz said the fenced compound outside – where people must wait in line to go into the government office – sometimes holds over 3,000 people without shade or protection from the rain. Some people spend days waiting in line.
“This is the first time I have really felt shame as an Israeli, that I was embarrassed to be an Israeli citizen,” said Lifshitz. “Even someone who is in favor of the deportations, at least treat them like human beings. This is a government office, people have to come here.”
A number of other activists and volunteers have also come forward to assist with the situation. Yonit Naftali of Elifelet, an organization assisting asylum seeker children in Tel Aviv, oversees a force of 60 volunteers who take shifts at the compound. The volunteers help ensure asylum seekers can understand the documents they receive from the office and ensure that there is an Israeli activist presence at all times.
Others have made donations, including Times of Israel blogger Diana Lipton and her husband Chaim, who donated NIS 18,500 ($5,200) for shade tents, and Phillipa Friedland, the deputy director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, helped raise more than NIS 10,000 ($3,000) to ensure there are portable toilets. Friedland and a representative from the Eritrean community clean the toilets themselves because the weekly maintenance from the company is not sufficient for the heavy use.
The asylum seekers have also organized themselves. An informal shop has sprung up, as well as people hawking everything from perfume to a plastic pouch for the temporary visa. Last week, the Bnei Brak municipality dismantled some of the shade tents where vendors had set up their wares, arguing that the informal market had gotten chaotic.
Out of the chaos, Atakliti Avraham Michael, an Eritrean asylum seeker, has become the de facto mayor of the compound. For the past four months, Michael, who used to work as an aide at an elderly home in Herzliya, now comes to the Bnei Brak compound every day between 6:30 a.m. to 4:00 pm to organize the asylum seekers. He keeps order in the unruly line, mediates conflicts that arise among people waiting for hours, and acts as the main point of contact between the Population and Immigration Authority security guards and the asylum seekers.
Haredim Against the Deportations is a relatively small group of about 20 active members, said Lifshitz. But Michael said their presence was one of the things that touched the asylum seekers more than other activists. When the members of Haredim Against Deportations came to paint over racist graffiti that was spray painted on the aluminum fences, Michael sent photos of the Haredim painting the fence to hundreds of people. He wanted all of his networks to know who was helping their community erase things like “Infiltrators go home!” and “Yes to deportation!” which people had painted on fences surrounding the compound.
“To see Haredim painting over the graffiti really gave us this feeling of ‘wow,’” said Michael. “Our community already knows the organizations like ASSAF [Aid Organization for Asylum Seekers and Refugees] and Elifelet and others. But no one knows Haredim are doing this for us.”
Lifshitz noted that it was an unusual position for Haredim to take. “Usually, the Haredi community doesn’t take a stand on issues that don’t directly affect us,” she said, noting that most of the political action of the religious community focuses on Jewish issues. “Now, we’re taking responsibility for things outside of the Haredi sphere, and even out of the Jewish sphere,” she said.
Lifshitz said the organization has two purposes: to appeal to the Haredi community to take a stand against the deportations, and also to send a message to the rest of Israeli society that there are religious Jews who oppose the deportations.
“We are bringing the voice of the Torah and of humanity,” she said. “It is written 36 times in the Torah to remember what it is like to be a stranger.”
Their second goal, the message from within the Haredi community to the outside world, has had wide ripples for being such a small group. “We are telling Israeli society that we, the Haredim, have a voice, and we are taking responsibility for this,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if we are in the minority in the community, we have a voice that is based on a deep inner faith.”
Lifshitz said she has received messages from a number of people, especially former religious people, who tell her, “If this is what Judaism is about, I can connect to this.”
But she has also received a number of personal threats after starting the organization, which is why she refuses to be photographed and uses a fake name. She said she is still trying to find the right balance, to stay relevant to the Haredi community, while making an impact on the issue. That’s why the group decided not to send a representative to the major demonstrations in Tel Aviv, but spend time beautifying the Bnei Brak compound, where they can make a concrete difference.
“The message is about Jewish compassion, that as Jews, we must accept the refugee,” she said. “But it’s not just about being compassionate, it’s also about standing up and taking action.”
Sabine Hadad, the spokeswoman for the Population and Immigration Authority, said the government agency is not responsible for waiting conditions outside of the office in the area where Lifshitz and other volunteers are working. She added that the authority is forbidden from putting any shade or chairs “on the street,” although the waiting area outside of the office is fenced off. Lifshitz pointed out that the fences prevent people shopping at the nearby Rami Levy supermarket from having to see what is going on in the waiting area, which is next to the Rami Levy parking lot.
The chaos of Israel’s asylum process has extended beyond the African asylum seekers already in the country. The long wait time for asylum status has opened the door to nearly 25,000 illegal Ukrainian and Georgian migrants who have filed for asylum in the past two years, the vast majority of whom come for economic opportunities. They arrive on tourist visas and are able to stay in the country until the Interior Ministry resolves their files, a process that can take years due to the backlog from the African asylum seekers.
In February, the Population and Immigration Authority reported there was a backlog of approximately 8,800 applications for asylum. Between 2009 and 2017, 15,400 people opened files seeking asylum with the office. Israel has denied asylum to 6,600 people. Since February, thousands of people have opened new requests.
Michael and Lifshitz hope that the rumors that Netanyahu is reconsidering a United Nations High Commission on Refugees deal might prove true. The deal, which Netanyahu proposed on April 2 before canceling hours later, would resettle approximately 16,000 asylum seekers in third countries in Europe and North America in return for permanent status for approximately 20,000 asylum seekers to stay in Israel.
On Tuesday, 64 leading Israeli businesspeople submitted a proposal to the government to solve the issue of asylum seekers concentrated in Tel Aviv’s poorest neighborhood, Haaretz reported. The proposal encouraged Netanyahu to accept the UNHCR deal, disperse the asylum seekers throughout Israel so that their population does not exceed 1% of any community, and encourage asylum seekers, rather than foreign workers, to work in industries suffering from manpower shortages such as agriculture and health care givers.
Additionally, the letter, whose signatories included former directors of the Prime Minister’s Office and Amnon Neubach, chairman of the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, encouraged the government to take concrete action to rehabilitate south Tel Aviv. The letter said that encouraging asylum seekers to work in industries with shortages would generate NIS 3.3 billion per year, increase income tax revenues by NIS 159 million and the National Insurance Institute revenues by NIS 110 million. Under the proposal, hospitals currently treating asylum seekers without full insurance could reduce their unrecoverable debt by NIS 10 million.
Lifshitz hopes that the letter, focusing on the economic benefit asylum seekers can bring to Israel, will make people reconsider their opposition to the Africans. As the daughter of Holocaust survivors, she said she still feels a bit of anger towards the countries that turned her parents away after World War II, and hopes Israel doesn’t make the same mistake.
“Are we part of the family of nations, or not? There are 65 million refugees in the world, why can’t a humanitarian, developed country like Israel deal with 35,000 refugees?” she asked.
Lifshitz said the deportation issue is so contentious because it cuts to the heart of Israel’s very identity. “It is a conflict that forces Israel to ask: ‘Who are we?’ What kind of nation do we want to be?’”