Over 20,000 people demonstrated in Tel Aviv Saturday night against plans to deport African asylum seekers.
Protesters flocked to the city’s central Rabin Square to voice their opposition to the government’s plan to begin deporting migrants to third-party countries (widely reported to be Rwanda and Uganda), with jail time facing those who refuse to go.
“There is no difference between their blood and our blood,” chanted the demonstrators.
Speaking at the rally, Sudanese immigrant Monim Haron said he had “survived genocide” at home. “For 14 years the government has deliberately attacked its citizens with chemical weapons,” he said. “Just this week the region where I was born and raised was attacked again, and again dozens of people were killed, mostly women and children.
“And I’m not a refugee? So who is a refugee? There are many like me in Israel,” he told the gathered crowd. “They go on the bus with you, they wash the dishes in your restaurants, they clean the streets you walk. And they are in daily fear for the people they love.
“But the government of Israel doesn’t want us here.”
Still, Haron said he was hopeful due to the high turnout at the rally.
Zionist Union MK Merav Michaeli told the crowd that “the thousands who have come prove to the government that there is another way.” She said it was “imperative to rehabilitate south Tel Aviv and it is imperative to give asylum to those who ask it of us.”
Reuven Abergel, a former leader of the Israeli Black Panthers, said: “I have come to send a message to this government, to protest… the incarceration of innocents and the deportation of people who life is in danger.” He told the migrants: “You are not alone. You are our brothers… We will stand by your side in this fight, until justice is done.”
Dror Sadot of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrant Workers, one of the groups responsible for organizing the protest, told the Times of Israel: “With the last protest, last month, we saw that the pressure of the public is really massive against the deportation. There is a sense of emergency because the plan is supposed to start in April, but we believe we will be able to stop this.”
The expulsion policy, which offers each migrant $3,500 and a plane ticket, has been condemned by the United Nations as chaotic, poorly executed, and unsafe. Asylum seekers previously deported to Uganda and Rwanda have told the Times of Israel they faced serious danger and even imprisonment after arriving in Africa without proper documents.
There are approximately 38,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, according to the Interior Ministry. About 72 percent are Eritrean and 20% are Sudanese. The vast majority arrived between 2006 and 2012, illegally crossing the border from Egypt. The Africans say they fled for their lives and face renewed danger if they return.
Israel considers the vast majority of them to be job seekers — economic migrants whose lives were not in danger in their countries of origin — and says it has no legal obligation to keep them. Israeli officials commonly refer to them as “infiltrators.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week that the “flood” of migrants was worse than Sinai terrorists, and that the asylum seekers threaten Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Amir, a 67-year-old resident of Tel Aviv, told the Times of Israel his mother had been a refugee from Poland. “She was in a camp in Germany and came to Israel. I understand the experience of a refugee,” he said. “The story of Jews is as refugees. I don’t think it will be moral or practical to deport” the migrants.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett wrote on Twitter that “The government must not fold in the face of the campaign to keep the illegal job infiltrators in Israel, otherwise we will become the world’s public employment service.”
The Jewish Home party leader said, “The rules are simple: refugees who escaped danger will be accepted. Illegal job infiltrators will be expelled.”
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri also insisted in a tweet that “Job infiltrators will be sent away, war refugees and children will be allowed to stay.
“I will continue to care for the residents of [south Tel Aviv] neighborhoods and the character of the State of Israel, despite the pressure and the lies,” wrote Deri.
In mid-March, Israel’s High Court of Justice temporarily suspended the plan. The day before, the government said it would freeze the planned deportations in advance of the expected court ruling, while it worked to address legal questions surrounding the campaign. The emergency injunction was issued in response to a petition signed by 120 refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan.
The court gave the government until March 26 to respond to the petition and, in the meantime, instructed it to suspend its controversial plan to deport migrants to third-party countries.
Organizers said ahead of Saturday’s protest that its goal was to make clear the widespread support for asylum seekers in Israeli society, and highlight some possible alternatives to deportation, such as helping some of the Africans to move to areas of Israel outside of south Tel Aviv, where the majority currently live.
“We don’t know exactly what’s going on next week. The state is supposed to give some answers on the 26th and we’ll see if the freeze will continue or whether the deportation will start,” Sadot said. “But we believe if we continue our fight…publicly and legally, considering all the options, that there is a chance to stop it.”
Earlier this month Israel closed the Holot detention center, an open air facility where the state housed illegal migrants largely from Eritrea and Sudan. The move is seen as a major step toward implementing the deportation plan.