Anat Perez is a resident of a south Tel Aviv neighborhood in favor of deporting African asylum seekers, and she knows there are those who think that is racist.
“We’re not violent or racist — it comes from a place of pain and distress,” said Perez, 54, who has lived in Neve Sha’anan for the past 25 years, and works at a local center for troubled teenagers.
“They call us Nazis and they compare the deportations to the Holocaust, but we just wanted to live our lives in quiet before the Eritreans came,” she said.
Perez belongs to a small but vocal group, called the Central Bus Station Citizen’s Watch, a group of local activists who advocate for deportation of African asylum seekers.
There are approximately 38,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, the majority of whom arrived between 2006 and 2012.
According to police statistics, 90 percent of African asylum seekers live in south Tel Aviv, with the remaining 10% spread across the country. Neve Sha’anan, the neighborhood located next to the Central Bus Station, has absorbed the most asylum seekers out of any neighborhood in the area.
As the discourse over the deportations reaches fever pitch, Perez watches her side, made up of veteran Israeli residents and right-wing religious activists, pushed farther and farther into a corner, and dismissed by activists on the other side of the issue as extremist and racist.
Asylum seekers and activists working to stop the deportation charge that the Central Bus Station Citizen’s Watch group brought the label of “extremist” upon themselves. The black-shirt clad group are well known in the neighborhood for “citizen patrols,” during which they harass black residents on the street or interrupt community events. They are at every event that could remotely be connected to the situation with asylum seekers, from an Israeli-Eritrean Shabbat service or a documentary screenings about refugees at a coffee shop to a children’s Hanukkah candle lighting ceremonies in the park.
Their cellphones raised aloft — recording shaky, angry videos — shouting obscenities and yelling, the small group of about 10-20 activists have harassed children of asylum seekers as young as 4 by yelling at them, “Go home, because no one wants you here.”
While Perez said she disagrees with some of the violent tactics of Sheffi Paz, the ringleader of the citizen’s watch group, she is also increasingly frustrated with the lack of attention being paid to the central problem: south Tel Aviv. There’s a reason why they support the deportations, she said. They truly believe that the only way to solve the neighborhood’s problems is by first deporting as many asylum seekers as possible.
Perez said she is afraid to leave her house at night. During the weekends, men in the area drink so heavily they pass out in the street. Informal churches blast traditional music until 4 a.m.. The asylum seeker community has a very high birthrate, and the municipality has been unable to keep up with construction of sufficient nursery schools. That means that thousands of asylum seeker children are placed in what the Israelis have started calling “baby warehouses,” un-monitored and unsafe illegal kindergartens. These kindergartens can have up to 50 children in a single apartment, and operate from 5 a.m. until late into the night. In 2015, five children died in such illegal nursery schools, because there was no enforcement or oversight to ensure a safe ratio of staff to children.
Perez has lived for 25 years in Neve Sha’anan, a poor neighborhood whose infrastructure was crumbling before the African asylum seekers arrived. The neighborhood was planned for 6,000 people, but is now home to 35,000, including Israelis, asylum seekers, and foreign workers from Nepal and the Philippines. It is the most crowded and impoverished part of Tel Aviv.
“We’re hearing that south Tel Aviv was always bad, it doesn’t matter if we have [asylum seekers] or not,” said Perez. “But people in south Tel Aviv lived with foreign workers from all sorts of places for years, and the problem is only now with the Africans.”
“The media is filled with the side of people who don’t live in south Tel Aviv,” said Perez. “They’re still not listening to us. Now the media are giving a platform to the pilots and the actors and the restaurant owners opposed to deportation. Of course, restaurants want them to stay, because it’s cheap labor. All these people have no understanding of south Tel Aviv.”
Activists with the Central Bus Station Watch group say crime has gone up since the African asylum seekers arrived. According to police, African asylum seekers account for 70% of the population of Neve Shaanan, but are responsible for 40% of the crime, countering reports that they are responsible for the rise in criminal activity.
Perez said that some of the violent actions of Paz and other activists in the group make her uncomfortable, including Paz’s aggressive confrontations at community events and demonstrations. But Perez is also realistic: without Paz’s theatrics, no one would be paying attention to south Tel Aviv at all, she said.
After security guards removed Paz from a State Control Committee meeting about the asylum seeker deportations on February 19, south Tel Aviv resident Gilad Halahmi testified in Paz’s place and echoed Perez’s statements.
“You can’t talk about ‘you guys the racists and you guys with no compassion,’” Halahmi, a 7-year resident of south Tel Aviv, told the committee. Halahmi, who was banned from neighborhood social media groups for harassing and incitement, added, “You don’t give us an alternative. With the money from this campaign you could really disperse the asylum seekers in north Tel Aviv.
“Give us specific solutions, don’t try to pull a fast one on us. We’re not racists, we have no problem with color and the Africans living in our neighborhood. We have a problem with illegal migrants who are damaging our neighborhood,” he said.
“It has really gotten to a situation that something has to change, there’s no alternative,” said Perez. “We can’t keep going on like this, the neighborhood is really falling apart. We want to be safe, we don’t want to take taxis for a 10-minute walk. We want to feel like we live in our homes.
“We know it’s hard for [the asylum seekers], but you can’t put that all on us,” she said. “If they were really taking them in the beginning to north Tel Aviv, maybe it would be different.”
Most asylum seekers were dropped off at the Central Bus Station in south Tel Aviv upon arriving in Israel. They stayed because rents are cheaper and many of the services they need are concentrated in the area. Their lack of status in Israel means they cannot drive, so they need public transportation accessible at the bus station. Asylum seekers do not have legal work permits, although the government has said they will not prevent them from working. But it means that many rely on employment agencies for finding contract, low-paying work, and the employment agencies are concentrated in south Tel Aviv.
Many do not have health insurance, so they need places like a Terem clinic at the Central Bus Station or the Physician for Human Rights clinic in Jaffa, which have Tigrinya and Arabic translators, where they can access healthcare.
Some people, including some asylum seekers, are advocating for Israel to implement a policy of dispersal. This would assign asylum seekers to certain geographic areas, in order to relieve the burden on south Tel Aviv.
Activists with the Central Bus Station Neighborhood Watch group are opposed to the dispersal idea. They said they suggested it years ago, but the government dismissed it, and now they want total deportation. In Europe, where many countries use dispersal policies for their refugee populations, studies have found that poorer neighborhoods of each city are still receiving the majority of refugees.
Amnesty International opposes the plan to forcibly disperse asylum seekers because it would deny them access to health and welfare services, which are currently only available in south Tel Aviv.
In order for a dispersal policy to be effective in Israel, the government would need to allow refugees work permits, health insurance, and drivers licenses.
Perez finds it frustrating when politicians focus on new arrivals to Israel rather than veteran residents, ignoring the very real problems the neighborhood faces due to overcrowding and poverty, which have been exacerbated by the influx of thousands of asylum seekers into an already struggling neighborhood. “They’re infiltrators, and the state is trying to worry about them. But what about us?” she asked.
“If someone is a refugee who fled from a difficult reality, and he’s looking for sanctuary, then he should treat this place like a sanctuary,” Perez said. “But they’re not treating this state like a sanctuary. They’re treating this place like a trash can.”