Unwelcome in Israel, African refugees dream of home

Labeled ‘infiltrators’ and denied long-term solutions, thousands of largely Eritrean and Sudanese migrants live in limbo

African migrants take part at a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
African migrants take part at a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

AFP — Tens of thousands of Africans who fled misery at home for safety in Israel are living in limbo, fearing deportation though some have lived in the country for more than a decade.

Recognizing a rising tide of discontent among Israelis over the migrants’ presence in south Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently visited the area.

He posed for TV cameras with an elderly woman who said she was afraid to leave her apartment at night for fear of her African neighbors.

“We will return south Tel Aviv to the citizens of Israel,” Netanyahu pledged, adding that the Africans were “not refugees but illegal infiltrators.”

Adi Drori-Avraham, of the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF), says that although they originally crossed the border “irregularly,” they have since been issued short-term residence visas.

“They’re not illegal because they go every two months and they get a visa from the ministry of the interior,” she said.

“They’re here and they work and they pay taxes. They’re not illegal.”

Israeli government figures from June 30 show a total of 38,043 African migrants in the country. They include 27,494 Eritreans and 7,869 Sudanese.

A 2016 UN commission of inquiry into Eritrea’s harsh regime found “widespread and systematic” crimes against humanity and said an estimated 5,000 people flee the country each month.

African migrants walk out of the Holot detention center in the Negev desert in southern Israel, Tuesday, August 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

The International Criminal Court has indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide related to his regime’s counter-insurgency tactics in the 14-year-old conflict in Darfur.

Drori-Avraham says that among those seeking asylum in Israel are “thousands” from Darfur whose applications have yet to receive an answer.

“Some of them have been waiting for years,” she said.

‘Didn’t choose it’

Migrants started coming in large numbers across the porous border between Israel and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in 2007, when nearly 5,000 entered, interior ministry figures show.

By 2011 the number had shot up to more than 17,000 but the following year the government completed fencing the border and deploying electronic sensors.

In 2013, only 43 people were caught, while in the first six months of this year nobody made it across.

View of the fence along the Israeli-Egyptian border, June 2, 2014 (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Beyond wanting to be seen as responding to residents’ complaints, the government is also concerned with maintaining Israel’s Jewish character. (Israel’s Law of Return offers automatic citizenship to those who have at least one Jewish grandparent.)

Thousands of the migrants have since been removed — voluntarily according to the ministry, under duress according to ASSAF.

Over the years, those caught at the Egyptian frontier were detained at prisons in the Negev desert in southern Israel.

On release they were given bus tickets to Tel Aviv, arriving at the central bus station on the south side of the city.

Many stayed in the surrounding Neve Shaanan neighborhood, long rife with prostitution and crime.

Rents there are low and landlords are not choosy about tenants.

African migrants take part at a protest in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2017. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“The reason we are here is that this is the only area we know. We didn’t choose it,” said Tsgahans Goytiom, a 30-year-old Eritrean known in the neighborhood as Johnny.

“No Israeli wants to be here in this neighborhood.”

In 2012, an anti-migrant demonstration in Tel Aviv drew about 1,000 protesters.

One speaker was Miri Regev, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud party, who is now a minister in his right-wing government.

“The infiltrators are a cancer in our body,” she told the rally, which spiraled into a race riot in which there were shouts of “Blacks out!” and attacks on African-run shops.

Today the streets of Neve Shaanan are lined with African grocery stores and hairdressers alongside storefront law offices advertising advice for migrants.

‘Everybody is waiting’

Israeli residents have formed “The South Tel Aviv Liberation Front” to lobby the government for harsher measures against the newcomers.

“They brought here a Third World culture, lots of misogyny, lots of chauvinism, lots of homophobia and a lot of disrespect,” Front leader Sheffi Paz alleged.

“Disrespect towards the authorities, disrespect towards the law, disrespect towards the residents.”

Detainees at Holot detention center, Saturday, January 17, 2015. (photo credit: Nehama Shimnovic)

The migrants, who Drori-Avraham says meet the UN definition of refugees, live in a strange half-world where the rules are often contradictory.

Their visas do not grant the right to work but when the holders go to renew them every two months they are asked to produce payslips to prove they are employed, the migrants and their supporters say.

The government tacitly recognizes the Sudanese and Eritreans cannot be returned to their dangerous homelands.

So Israel has signed deals with Rwanda and Uganda, which agree to accept departing migrants on condition they consent to the arrangement.

Candidates are offered payments of $3,500 and threatened with indefinite detention if they refuse, Drori-Avraham says.

Those who accept find themselves stranded in alien countries where they have no roots and no common culture or language.

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled last month that open-ended imprisonment is illegal and that migrants can be held for no more than 60 days.

Netanyahu said he would find a way round that decision, and draft legislation has been written which would allow the deportation of migrants if passed.

Goytiom has been in Israel for eight years, arriving after a grueling trek across Ethiopia and what he says was kidnap and torture by Bedouin in Sudan and the Sinai.

With his wife he runs a kindergarten for migrant youngsters.

“If we had the option of change in Eritrea we would not stay here another month,” he told AFP.

“Everybody is waiting for the present situation to change.”

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