Troubled refuge

In Tel Aviv, an incendiary mix of African migrants and locals who want them gone

Criminal incidents linked to Israel’s ballooning 70,000 migrant population trigger an outpouring of anger and fear

A protest against African migrants in Tel Aviv in April. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
A protest against African migrants in Tel Aviv in April. (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The bright yellow, green and red children’s playground at Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv is full at all hours, but not with children: On the swings, on and under the slides and on the benches are dozens of young African men, sitting in clumps, watching the passing residents of a city where they are not wanted.

Several instances of crime and rape reported this month involving African migrants have brought these newcomers into the spotlight more than at any time in the past, and the growing friction between them and native Israelis has increasingly assumed tones of racial fear and hatred.

The proprietors of a Tel Aviv kindergarten for migrant children that was firebombed in late April (Photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
The proprietors of a Tel Aviv kindergarten for migrant children that was firebombed in late April (Photo credit: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Those tensions erupted Wednesday in Tel Aviv in a violent protest that saw a mob vandalize African stores and smash the windows of a car with African passengers. One woman posed for a newspaper photographer wearing a white tank-top on which she had written the words, “Death to the Sudanese.”

That followed a firebomb attack targeting a Tel Aviv apartment housing migrants in early May, which followed a similar attack against a kindergarten for migrant children in late April. No one was hurt in those incidents.

Residents of the working-class Tel Aviv neighborhoods where many migrants have clustered describe a growing threat of street crime as a result of the ballooning migrant influx, which has now seen close to 70,000 people enter the country from the Egyptian border, according to Interior Ministry statistics.

Most of the migrants reaching Israel come from Eritrea, with a minority from Sudan, Congo and other African countries. More than 1,400 crossed into Israel from Egypt in the first two weeks of May alone, according to a ministry spokeswoman, Sabine Haddad.

The migrants tend to term themselves “refugees,” while to the Israeli government they are “infiltrators.” Their unhappy meeting reflects a broader clash worldwide between millions of impoverished people desperate to leave the Third World and relatively prosperous and liberal Western countries trying to balance the competing impulses of humanitarianism and self-interest.

The majority of the newcomers end up here in south Tel Aviv, the poorer section of Israel’s economic capital. In the streets around the city’s hulking bus station one hot morning this week, it seemed that nearly every piece of shade was occupied by several quiet African men seated on the curb or on the ground. A few had positioned themselves under a decorative palm tree on a traffic island.

The first of the two recent incidents of rape took place in a dark Tel Aviv courtyard on the night of April 25, and the second in a parking garage on May 14. Three young Eritreans, one of them a 14-year-old, were arrested in the first incident, and four in the second. In both cases the victims were also robbed.

Those incidents reflect what police say is a rise of more than 50 percent in crime linked to African migrants last year. There has been a more general public concern growing about violent crime, but the vast majority of the incidents recently reported — like the fatal stabbing last month of a man in Beersheba who had asked a group of youths to stop making noise — had nothing to do with migrants, and police have not said crime rates among the migrants are higher than among the population as a whole.

“The commissioner decided that we would heighten patrols in south Tel Aviv and other areas in order to support communities and minimize the number of incidents involving illegal migrants,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said. But he said police were not the solution.

“Different organizations, such as social services and municipalities, are coordinating and looking for ways to deal with this social and economic problem,” he said.

Ayala Sinvani, a resident and activist in the Hatikva neighborhood in south Tel Aviv, described an “atmosphere of fear” caused by the presence of the unemployed and impoverished young men.

Sinvani blamed a failure of government policy: The state allows the migrants to cross the border, buses them to Tel Aviv, drops them off and then forgets about them, she said.

“The government has to decide. Whoever doesn’t have a permit should be sent home. Those who stay should be scattered around the country and not concentrated here,” she said.

The genuine crisis linked to the migrants’ presence has attracted right-wing Israeli politicians drawn like moths to any glimmering of ethnic tension, and the migrants have become a new target for the more xenophobic elements of Israel’s body politic. Lawmaker Michael Ben-Ari, formerly affiliated with the Kach party, which was outlawed in Israel for anti-Arab racism, has become a leading anti-migrant voice and spoke at Wednesday’s rally. Israel’s interior minister, Eli Yishai of Shas, who asserted in 2009 that foreign workers and migrants carry “a profusion of diseases,” said this week they should be deported “without exception.” Miri Regev, a Likud lawmaker, termed them a “cancer.”

On Thursday, Reuven Rivlin, the Knesset speaker, criticized the politicians he said were inflaming public sentiment. “We cannot use the language used by anti-Semites against us,” Rivlin said. But the violence against foreigners has drawn only limp condemnation from the government, and expressions of concern for the welfare of the migrants have been few.

Sinvani, the activist, said residents’ concerns had nothing to do with race.

“It’s easy to call us racists when this doesn’t affect anyone other than people here in our neighborhoods,” she said.

The migrants are not given refugee status, which would allow them to stay indefinitely, but are rather granted temporary asylum. Those from Eritrea and Sudan cannot be repatriated because their countries are classified as too dangerous. But they are not officially allowed to work, largely because the government fears that easing their lives here could vastly increase their numbers.

“If we don’t stop the problem, 60,000 infiltrators are liable to become 600,000, and cause the negation of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at his cabinet meeting on Sunday.

Last year the government clamped restrictions on employing the migrants and announced the planned construction of new holding camps. But there is no clear solution for the nearly 70,000 people the government says are already here, nor for all of the thousands arriving each month.

The migrants’ defenders from an array of local NGOs have said the crime reports are exaggerated.

“If a refugee does something, you hear about it multiplied many times over. If an Israeli did the same thing, you wouldn’t hear a thing,” said Yohannes Bayu, who heads the African Refugee Development Center, an aid organization run out of a cramped and hectic office at the Tel Aviv bus station. Bayu is a refugee himself — he fled Ethiopia, where his family was persecuted for ties to the ousted Derg Communist regime, and arrived in Israel 15 years ago.

The idea that restrictions on employment will stem the tide has been proven to be ineffective, he said, and Israel must understand that as bad as things get here it will still be an improvement compared to the countries the migrants come from or passed through on the way.

“Their lives have been hard in Israel for years, but they’re still coming. It’s still better here — no one is torturing and killing them,” he said.

He acknowledged the growing antagonism of residents. “I was saying years ago that without a clear government policy things will get out of control. It’s happening,” he said.

At the center of the current furor, and yet somehow nearly unseen, are the migrants themselves — displaced young people fleeing places that are poor, violent and hopeless. One of them is Kidane Isaac.

Born in the Eritrean town of Seganeiti, Isaac, a slight 26-year-old who speaks clear, intense English, has been on the run for five years. He has been beaten and incarcerated repeatedly. Three of his brothers also fled Eritrea and its repressive dictatorship, and are now in Kenya, Ethiopia and Washington, DC. Four younger siblings remain with their parents.

Sudanese refugees in Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Dima Vazinovich/Flash90)
Sudanese refugees in Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Dima Vazinovich/Flash90)

His flight started, he said, with several failed attempts to escape forced military service. Arrested in an army roundup, he found himself in the regime’s military prison at Mai Adaga, along with men who had been there for years. “Some had lost their mind,” he said.

Sent for forced labor at a heavily guarded military sorghum plantation, he fled at night with five others. The soldiers who guarded them, he said, had orders to shoot to kill. They opened fire. He and a friend made it. He does not know what happened to the other four.

After two days on foot he made it to Asmara, the capital. From there, he paid a smuggler to get to Sudan, then reached Libya, where he spent two years trying to get sea passage across the Mediterranean and illegally enter Europe.

He failed, went to Egypt, paid a Bedouin smuggler to get across the Sinai desert, and was lucky to avoid the torture, rape and extortion that are commonly reported by migrants ferried by the Sinai Bedouin. He sneaked across the border into Israel and made it to Tel Aviv last year.

Crime exists among the migrants as it does among native Israelis, he said, and might be compounded by the helplessness and frustration that are the newcomers’ lot. Many have been traumatized by their journeys, he said, and they all are far from home and facing an uncertain future.

Isaac said he is “still in a state of escape.”

“We are still intimidated and afraid of deportation,” he said. “This is not the right place. I have to save some money and keep running.”


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