Migrants mass in Tel Aviv demanding refugee status

Thousands of Africans from Sudan and Eritrea pursue their campaign for better treatment by the government

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

African migrants gather during a protest in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2014. (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)
African migrants gather during a protest in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv, on January 7, 2014. (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

A day after marching on the Knesset, thousand of African migrants converged in a Tel Aviv park to protest for a fifth straight day against government policies.

The demonstrators have held protests throughout the week demanding to be recognized as refugees — with the accompanying international rights — rather than treated as illegal migrants.

The migrants packed into Levinsky Park, in the south Tel Aviv neighborhood many of them call home.

The director of the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, Michal Pinchuk, told Israel Radio that while the Interior Ministry has relaxed the qualifications for refugee status it has not publicized the new regulations, leaving many migrants unsure of their future. As a result, she said, some migrants agreed to leave for Sweden instead.

The voluntary deportation was carried out earlier this week in coordination with the Swedish government after an agreement between Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar and the United Nations High Commissioner on Human rights and marks the first time Sweden has accepted asylum-seekers from Israel, according to Israel’s Channel 2.

On Wednesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a discussion 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.

The series of demonstrations by the migrants have been unprecedented in scope.

On Sunday, there was a march and mass protest in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square. On Monday thousands of demonstrators marched on embassies in Tel Aviv to appeal for assistance from the international community.

On Wednesday about 10,000 people, many of whom came by bus from Tel Aviv, gathered at the Rose Garden in Jerusalem across from the Knesset.

“We are refugees; we need protection,” they chanted within sight of the Israeli parliament building. 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.

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein bowed to pressure from within the Knesset and 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.” Edelstein noted in interviews Thursday that the migrants’ representatives had previously attended many Knesset meetings and discussions and would be invited to do so again.

The migrants, mostly asylum-seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, are demanding official refugee status and are protesting the government’s policy of holding some of them for long periods in the new Holot detention facility in the Negev.

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. “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.

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