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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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While the center is a relative success, she does not feel much more secure in Tel Aviv. “You don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Tomorrow the government may send you to prison.”

“Prison” means Sahronim, a massive complex near the Sinai border. Just about every African asylum-seeker who makes it into Israel will spend time there. It’s the first stop, where the government processes the people it calls “infiltrators.” Lately it’s also become the last stop for nearly everyone, after the government passed legislation that imprisons every new illegal arrival for three years. Just driving up to the main entrance brings out several officers. “This is a closed military zone, do not to take any pictures,” they say.

In between the prison and the lawlessness of the Sinai, there is a part school, part refugee camp in Nitzana for underage Eritrean migrants. It is the unlikely offspring of law, bureaucracy, and a few good hearts. Inside, 50 Eritrean teenagers study Hebrew and English, mathematics and sciences. The bureaucratic term for them is “unaccompanied minors”—their parents and relatives are missing or struggling back at home in Eritrea. Here the teenagers recuperate, some from their journeys, some from the beatings and torture they endured in Sinai, within sight of the desert and prisons they escaped.

In this lonely corner of Israel, Sahronim and Nitzana make plain the contradictions of the country’s response to a situation that no one asked for and no one saw coming. In June 2012, the government amended the Prevention of Infiltration Law, empowering the state to imprison new migrants for up to three years. The law also gave the police sweeping powers to detain any African suspected of crime—a procedure called administrative detention.

Sahronim Detention Center, above, and Nitzana. (Asher Greenberg)

Asaf Weitzen, a lawyer who handles asylum cases, explained the legal rationale: “If I go to Israel and I do something illegal, the state has two options. It could put me on trial but why waste the money? They could say instead, ‘I’m sorry this isn’t working out. It’s not you, it’s us. Take care.’ So, they’d put me on a plane, stamp my passport 10 years denied entrance to Israel, and end of story.” But the asylum seekers cannot be deported. “So they say, ‘It’s not you, it’s us, it’s not working,’ but instead of expelling them, they just put them in detention for an unlimited period of time.”

In the past, the government has argued that the purpose of this law was security. “But in the last version, they did not ‘hide’ anymore,” Weitzen told me. “In this law it was clearly stated that the purpose of the law is to deter work infiltrators from entering Israel. They didn’t say anything about security anymore. Because they realized it’s a joke. None of these people ever attempted to violate our security.”

Most of those involved in migrant issues believe the core of the asylum-seeker problem lies with Israel’s refugee status determination, or RSD, process. That’s the process by which any state decides which asylum seekers are genuine refugees and which can be safely deported. In Israel, the RSD process is barely functional. The acceptance rates are among the lowest in the world: only 0.2 percent of claims processed. Since the state was created in 1948, only about 170 non-Jewish refugees have been officially recognized. And since 2009, only one African migrant has been declared a refugee—an albino baby born to parents from the Ivory Coast.

“No country really likes refugees,” Weitzen said. “But what is amazing is that in other countries, the recognition rates are 10 to 30 percent. The refugees are the same refugees. How come there is such a huge difference?”

The majority of Israel’s migrants are from Eritrea and Sudan. Until very recently, their claims weren’t even being processed. Weitzen argues that the government isn’t in a hurry to assess claims because recognition rates for Eritreans and Sudanese are high in the developed world. In Canada, 97 percent of Eritreans seeking asylum have been recognized. In the United Kingdom, 76 percent. In the United States, 86 percent. “That’s a good indication that even here in Israel, the ratio could be the same,” said Sharon Harel, the representative in Israel of the U.N.’s High Commission for Refugees. “If people’s cases could be documented and heard, you know if they will have an interview.”

Many of the migrants feel the same way. “I want the Israeli government to check us, to interview us, to make the refugee status determination and to interview every individual to know why he is leaving his country, why it made him run away,” said Gabriel Tekli, an Eritrean shop owner and political activist in South Tel Aviv. “And based on that, to make a decision, whether he is a refugee or not. But giving us a collective name—work infiltrators—without checking individual stories … ” He trailed off, and then added: “It does not feel good.”

For additional reporting on Israel’s migrant problem, please click here.


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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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