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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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The first order of business was to keep out new “infiltrators.” Israeli soldiers were ordered to turn back as many migrants as possible at the border while the government constructed a 140-mile-long, $400 million fence. The barrier was completed earlier this year. It has been so effective that the government has halted plans to expand detention centers. According to the latest figures from the Israeli Immigration Authority, only 36 migrants had crossed into Israel by September 2013. By the same point in 2012, 6,357 migrants had crossed.

But when it came to the tens of thousands of migrants who’d already made it in, the government was stuck. The Sudanese could not be deported because Israel had no official diplomatic relations with the country—they are technically at war.

This was made clear when South Sudan became a country in 2011. The new state developed ties with Israel and roughly 1,000 South Sudanese migrants were “voluntarily deported” there in short order—each was offered 1,000 euros to go. Rozen believes there are only about 60 South Sudanese left in Israel. For many of the other migrants, the hasty removal of the South Sudanese is a window into their own future.

As for the Eritreans, who make up the bulk of the migrants, they cannot be deported directly to Eritrea because of the oppressive practices of its pariah government. And Israel did not want to be ejecting or seen to be ejecting probable refugees directly to a place where they may be in danger. But on the other hand, granting the Eritreans refugee status would have enabled the migrants to stay in Israel, an untenable political position for most Israeli politicians by the late 2000s.

So instead, the explicit plan was this: Make life as difficult as possible for those who’d already made it in, in the hopes that they would leave on their own.


In a metropolis without a subway, Tel Aviv’s central bus station is a nerve center for fleets of local and intercity buses. In a neighborhood of three- and four-story apartments, the station’s ramps stretch out like tentacles into the surrounding neoghborhoods: Neve Sha’anan to the north, Florintin to the west, Shapira to the south, and Hatikva to the east.

African barber shops and convenience stores stand adjacent to Israeli-owned furniture stores and auto-body shops. The sound of Tigrinya, an Eritrean-Ethiopian language, fills the air. This reality was born out of political and economic factors beyond Israel’s borders. “In no other place in the world does a refugee camp ‘sit’ on top of an existing neighborhood,” said Haim Goren, who recently moved from a West Bank settlement to Shapira together with his wife, whose great-grandparents lived there, and sees it as his religious and national duty to turn things around. He is a clean-cut geography teacher at a local religious high school.

Haim Goren in Shapira. (Asher Greenberg)

He pointed out a public park in the middle of the neighborhood, a playground in the center of a grassy square. There were dirty blankets and clothing on the plastic slides. A gated kindergarten building was adjacent to the park. The central bus station loomed just a few blocks to the north. Over the last three years, the park has become a home for African migrants, he said. “In the morning the park seems pretty peaceful and empty, but in the afternoon when I pick up my kids, there are many immigrants in the garden.”

Goren is a member of the neighborhood association. The migrants, despite their numbers, are not able to join. “It is a matter of status,” Goren told me. “They need now to move people, check them and see who is a refugee and who isn’t. If they get temporary refugee status and live here, then they are part of the community.”

One evening last summer, South Tel Aviv boiled over. Politicians revved up a protest crowd of nearly 1,000. Miri Regev of the governing Likud party infamously referred to the Africans as cancer. (She later apologized.) After the rally, mobs roamed Hatikva, beating up Africans and looting African stores.

Rahwa Hayle remembers that night. “They threw a lot of stones. Even when I called the police, they didn’t answer.” Hayle lives in the heart of Hatikva. It’s a small house; two beds share one room, one for herself and one for her 5-year-old son, Nachum. To distract him, Hayle plays videos on her computer. She speaks to her son in a mixture of Hebrew and Tigrinya.

Like the other Eritreans in Israel, Hayle’s life here is unstable. Her visa doesn’t permit her to work, but she works anyway as a housekeeper, bringing home the equivalent of just under $1,500 per month. Nachum goes to school in the local gan, or kindergarten.

Hayle left Eritrea in November 2007. She was 23. Like many others, she paid Bedouin traffickers to smuggle her through Sudan and Egypt on her way to Israel. Hayle’s reasons for making the trek are more complicated than others. Her story tumbles out episodically, but without chronology. Hayle married in 2004, when she was 20. But she was not allowed to marry the man of her choice. When she became pregnant after an affair, she fled the country. The plan was for her lover to join her in Israel, but he never made it. He was caught on two attempts, spending years in jail. He can’t risk trying again.

Hayle’s story is unique but exemplifies the difficulty in defining Israel’s African migrant population. They didn’t all appear at once because of a war next door, as did Syrian refugees in Jordan. Nor did Hayle run away from famine. Instead, she escaped a loveless marriage, an infidelity, and, like everyone else in Eritrea, a life with no future.


Zabib came to Israel in 2009, leaving behind her family in Eritrea. She came on the advice of a friend, who told her Israel was a safe place. “I was thinking it is like a democratic country and a developed country so I can work and study. And when I came here I found it difficult. It’s just different from what I was thinking.”

She cleaned houses for $6 an hour before starting an Eritrean daycare and women’s center in a decrepit building in Florintin in June 2012. The room is lined with cribs and babies. As she gets into the details of her current work and what she is doing for the community of Eritrean women, there is a growing sense of warmth in her voice.

Besides looking after children, the center runs English and Hebrew classes, health, family planning, and human-rights courses. Everything in the center—the toys, the cribs—has been donated by the U.S. embassy and Israelis, she said.

She doesn’t make as much money in the center as she did from housekeeping. “It’s not enough but I’m OK. You can’t do two things at the same time. You have to pick one. Less money and contribute something to the community,” she began and paused. “It’s important.” Zabib said she does not like to dwell too much on plans for the center, because for her the future is uncertain. Though, in a way, her future has never been certain. “Even in Eritrea, [a woman] can’t plan for the future,” she said. “You can’t move by yourself. If you want to leave to visit family far away you are not allowed. You need a document to visit the other part of Eritrea. This, in my home, my country.”

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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