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Israel, Designed To Absorb Jewish Refugees, Now Struggles With African Migrant Wave

This week’s protests in Tel Aviv are the fruit of nearly a decade of government indecision about how to handle an influx of strangers

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Rahwa Hayle holds her conditional release permit; in the background, her son Nachum watches videos. (Asher Greenberg)
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Meir Ya’acoby owns a shop in Neve Sha’anan, a neighborhood of South Tel Aviv. Once a gateway for Greek and later for Iranian Jewish immigrants, the neighborhood’s reputation is one of poverty, drug-dealing, prostitution, and neglect. But today, it’s mostly known as the landing point for a massive wave of African—mainly Eritrean and Sudanese—illegal migration.

An immigrant from Iran, Ya’acoby speaks in a deliberate authoritative tone, in his native Farsi. “They have been let loose here,” he said. “They do anything they want here. They steal bikes, they get into fights. They are vahshi.” That’s a Farsi word suggesting the feral or uncivilized, something between wild animals and savages. It can be used jokingly or as a more serious insult; Ya’acoby seemed serious.

Unlike the vast majority of Israelis, Ya’acoby interacts with the migrants, who are his customers, on a daily basis. “There are good people amongst them, but they all came here, all in Tel Aviv, and have gotten together in one group and they have made a mess of life here,” he told me. “The government should take care of them. I cannot take care of them.”

Since its inception, Israel has been a state uniquely designed to handle refugees from all over the world. But the influx of non-Jewish African migrants is a new problem. Israel had never been a serious destination for African migrants. They started trickling into Israel over the border with Egypt in 2006—at first mainly from Sudan, and later, mainly from Eritrea.

As to why the migrants came to Israel, that is less clear. The crisis in Darfur, blocked routes to European countries, crackdowns on African migrants in Egypt and Libya all played a role. Once a few had settled safely in Israel, family networks encouraged more migrants to make the trip. Today there are 54,000 non-Jewish African migrants in the country, according to the Immigration Authority.

Initially, migrants were dropped off at city centers around the country. But as the number of migrants grew to the tens of thousands, virtual ghettos developed in places like South Tel Aviv, prompting protests from Israeli residents against the transformation of their neighborhoods into “refugee camps.”

Whether the Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel are actually refugees is the core of the public debate. While the term refugee is used loosely in the press, its official use would have legal implications, indicating that the migrant is protected under United Nations guidelines. Israel is one of the original signatories to the 1951 U.N. refugee convention, which defined the meaning of a refugee according to international law and the responsibilities of states in granting asylum. The convention defined a refugee as someone who would be persecuted upon returning to their homeland because of their identification with a particular ethnic, political, religious, or other group.

As the public mood has soured against the African arrivals, the government, first under Ehud Olmert and now under Benjamin Netanyahu, has employed popular and legal strategies to avoid labeling them as refugees. In official statements, the migrants are referred to as “economic infiltrators,” suggesting they are job seekers rather than asylum seekers. African migrants from Eritrea and Sudan are given a temporary protection visa, which allows them to stay in Israel—but without the legal right to work or access to the state’s social security, although under a promise made to the Supreme Court, the state mostly turns a blind eye to under-the-table employment. Since June 2012, new migrants are jailed upon entry into the country. Under a recent amendment, they can be held indefinitely at an open-air internment camp in the Negev.

January 8 protest
Migrants protest in front of the Knesset in Jerusalem on Jan. 8, 2014. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

With no official body actively resolving the migrants’ refugee claims, there has been debate, racially charged at times, over why the migrants are in Israel and what to do with them. This week, thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese protested in Tel Aviv, demanding an end to migrant detentions, the right to work, and the processing of their asylum claims. In response, Prime Minister Netanyahu said, “I’d like to make clear that protests and strikes won’t help. … I would like to emphasize that these are not refugees, but people who are breaking the law and are being dealt with to the fullest extent of the law.”

***

African migrants—“economic infiltrators,” according to the government’s official designation—started sweeping across Israel’s Sinai border in the mid-2000s. Propelled by wars in Sudan, misery in Eritrea, and facing closed doors in Europe, some would go east, through Egypt and the Sinai. Migrants paid traffickers, often Bedouin, to cross the Sinai and hide from Egyptian army patrols. Israeli soldiers would find them sitting in little groups on the highway near the border.

At first there was empathy for the new arrivals. The human-rights catastrophe in Darfur represented an echo of both the Holocaust and the Israeli situation. And Darfur, like the Holocaust, was being ignored by the West. And, while this wasn’t explicit, it resonated that the Darfuris were being slaughtered by Arab militias, just as Israel was beginning to come out of the bloody intifada. In 2006, there were just 200 Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel. “There was a lot of sympathy in the Israeli street,” said Sigal Rozen, a founder of the Hotline for Migrant Workers. “They are genocide survivors and the number was small and not threatening.”

But what began as a trickle soon turned into a steady stream—not just Sudanese, but Eritreans too. Yet, the Eritrean story was not so widely known in Israel. To Israelis, Eritrea was just another poor African country. Most Eritrean asylum seekers were army deserters, a cultural taboo in Israel. By June 2007, only a quarter of the African migrants were from Darfur. And 600 more were crossing into Israel every month.

There was no real policy in place for handling the influx. Most migrants were kept in prison or small settlements. But soon there wasn’t enough room in the prisons. By the end of 2007, there were close to 8,000 migrants in the country. The government had to do something: So, after being documented and checked, many migrants were just dropped off in front of police stations in cities like Tel Aviv, Be’er Sheva, and Eilat.

It was in 2007 that stories first started appearing in the press about ghettos in places like South Tel Aviv. The media and the public started using the government term for the asylum-seekers: “infiltrators.” “We totally lost the fight on this,” Rozen said. “Even when [the media] are on our side, they call them infiltrators. The choice of word is influencing a lot. We believe after we lost the fight in the terminology, we lost it with the audience, with the Israeli public. Because the term infiltrator reminds Israelis of al-Qaida or the fedayeen.”

Meanwhile, more kept coming.

Between 2008 and 2011, a period of just four years, another 45,000 crossed the border, many of them Eritrean. The African population in Israel quintupled from 2007 to 2011. Tel Aviv, Eilat, and Be’er Sheva grew restless. Protests broke out, and the government was under pressure.

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Israel, Designed To Absorb Jewish Refugees, Now Struggles With African Migrant Wave

This week’s protests in Tel Aviv are the fruit of nearly a decade of government indecision about how to handle an influx of strangers