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Out of Place

Thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees, fleeing genocidal persecution and military conscription, are seeking asylum in Israel, which is struggling to manage and acclimate this influx

Daniella Cheslow
April 01, 2011
An African refugee rests atop a sun shelter in Tel Aviv's Lewinsky Park.(Photographs by Mati Milstein)
An African refugee rests atop a sun shelter in Tel Aviv's Lewinsky Park.(Photographs by Mati Milstein)

A hundred African men silently stared at two Israeli medics who were closing a black plastic body bag in southern Tel Aviv. Like many of the spectators, the dead man had no documents and had gone to sleep on the grass in Lewinsky Park. After a chilly Tuesday night last February, he didn’t wake up. One medical worker said he was 22 and probably from Eritrea.

African migrants have been flowing across the Egyptian-Israeli border in increasing numbers since the mid-2000s. The Israeli Interior Ministry estimates there are 33,000 Africans in Israel today. At least 1,200 arrive each month, although there was a dip in January and February during the unrest in Egypt. More than 80 percent are from Sudan or Eritrea, and those migrants say they are fleeing genocidal persecution in Sudan and indefinite mandatory military service in Eritrea. Israel grants them entry because according to international law the migrants hold protected status and cannot be returned to their countries of origin. But only 140 of these African migrants have refugee status in Israel, said Sabine Haddad, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry. Another 600 Sudanese migrants received temporary residence in 2007, entitling them to work and receive benefits. The rest reach Israeli cities, mostly Tel Aviv, and search for work and housing. And although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to close his country’s porous border and build a 10,000-bed detention center for the migrants already here, those proposals will take time to be effective. In the meantime, the ambiguous Israeli policy of granting migrants entry but little else is leading to hostility, crime, and homelessness in Tel Aviv’s poorest areas.

On a Saturday night in February, Haileh Tewelde, 29, and Sami Bisrat, 21, walked around Lewinsky Park, their hands shoved deep in the pockets of hooded sweatshirts. They were killing time before going to sleep next to the library in the park, where a canvas awning would shield them from rain. They had arrived in Tel Aviv the day before. Bisrat wore brown sandals even though it was cold. Neither man had a blanket.

A few feet away, Abdulkarim Yawab Ibrahim, 24, leaned against part of a children’s playground, sipping from a can of cheap beer. Next to him, Ahmad Ismaile, 27, played Sudanese music off a tinny cellphone speaker. Rats crawled across the rubbery grey playground flooring. The two Sudanese men had arrived in Tel Aviv five months earlier and had not found work or housing. Ibrahim said his brother bought his five-shekel (about $1.40) cans of beer, which he said keep him warm before going to sleep.

William Tall, the representative of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees in Israel, says the Jewish state follows international law when it comes to granting entry as protected individuals to Eritrean and Sudanese migrants, meaning they cannot be deported from the country. But Tall says Israel has not interviewed all the migrants to see whether they meet criteria to be considered refugees. They are stuck in limbo in Israel, and that limbo is made worse by a spottily enforced ban on working. By contrast, France, Italy, England, and Spain have interviewed and granted refugee status to an average of 80 percent of the African arrivals claiming asylum, he said, meaning the right to work and access medical and social services. Israel, on the other hand, regards the bulk of the African migrants as illegal aliens until proven otherwise.

“There’s a hardening environment toward them here,” Tall said. “We say [Israeli politicians] need tools to deal with the different categories of people, whether they are economic migrants, asylum seekers, immigrants or infiltrators who are people trying to come to Israel to do harm to the state.”

Yet the situation could be worse, Tall said.

“When you talk about crime or people sleeping outside, it’s actually a small percentage compared to the amount of people in the country,” he said. “What happens now is the government will catch them, and if they are determined to be Eritrean or Sudanese, they release them from Ketziot [prison], give them bus tickets to Beer Sheva, and they make their way to their own networks. Is it a good and proper situation? No, they should be cared for. But on the other hand, they can go wherever they want and work.”

For the Israeli government, though, the newcomers are not refugees but infiltrators who must be stopped. “It’s clear from all the data that the overwhelming majority of the people coming to Israel are not asylum seekers but economic migrants,” said Mark Regev, a government spokesman. “Israel is a country built on immigration, but it has to be legal immigration. We can’t have borders people just cross at will.”


On his first two nights in Tel Aviv last November, Eritrean activist Kidane Tukue also slept in Lewinsky Park. Other newcomers sprawl on the floors of the nearby central bus station. About 45 women can find shelter at the African Refugee Development Center or in the 250 beds provided by local churches.

“The thing I hate most about Israel is they label us as bad people,” Tukue said. “The government lets us come here. On the border they welcome us, they send us to Tel Aviv, but they don’t care for us. They complain we are intruders and threats. We are helpless people.”

Tukue, 25, worked as a civil engineer in road construction in Eritrea. He now lives in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, and works in a factory about 15 miles south. He is also on the five-member Eritrean Political Asylum Seekers Committee, a Tel Aviv group that helps teach new arrivals English and helps them adjust to life in Israel. Tukue fled mandatory open-ended military service in Eritrea in 2006 and spent a year in Sudan and two and a half years in Libya before trundling toward Egypt in a two-week odyssey spent packed 20 people to a sedan. In Libya, Tukue said, he tried to sneak across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy about six times, but each time he was caught by Libyan police.

“When I left Libya in 2010, we had no choice,” he said. “We couldn’t work, we couldn’t live safely, and we saw that Israel is the only solution to our life.” Once he eluded trigger-happy Egyptian border guards, Tukue stumbled across the frontier before being picked up by Israeli border police. “That was the best experience we had yet in Israel, they hosted us like humans,” he said. “They gave us first aid, water, food, everything.” But since then things went downhill.

“I thought Israel could be a democratic, secure country to live in,” he said. “But it is not as I planned.” In fact, the African influx is not as anyone planned because Israel has never faced a wave like it. And while asylum seekers continue to stream in, no interim government policy has been enacted to stem the tide until more permanent immigration policy and infrastructure can be put in place.

In the absence of a government policy for asylum seekers, Tel Aviv created an organization called Mesila, where 22 part-time staff help migrants register children for school and navigate life in the city. Social workers and art and educational therapists aid the children in processing the trauma of relocation. About 800 children of asylum seekers learn in Tel Aviv public schools. Mesila Director Tamar Schwartz said the organization’s 2.5 million-shekel (about $700,000) budget is funded by donations from foundations, businesses, and individuals, including the Joint Distribution Committee. Tel Aviv covers the remaining 20 percent.

African asylum seekers mainly land in the grittiest areas of south Tel Aviv, such as Hatikva, a neighborhood that has long been the heart of Israel’s underworld, with a reputation for drug use and delinquency. Police commander Yoram Ohayon, whose Yiftach district includes Hatikva, the Central Bus Station, the southern Florentin neighborhood, and historically Arab Jaffa, said the arrival of an impoverished group of newcomers to a crime-ridden area has only made matters worse. Last year, Tel Aviv police established a new 78-officer Lewinsky Station in south Tel Aviv, near the Central Bus Station and Lewinsky Park. Two of the officers are Ethiopian-Israeli police officers who speak the Eritrean language of Tigrinya.

In the last quarter of 2010, that new police force opened some 2,000 criminal files. Four-fifths of these involved Africans, Ohayon said. The most common crimes were property theft and trade in marijuana and hash, which carry lighter sentences than those for dealing hard drugs like cocaine and heroin. However, Ohayon said, there has been a moderate increase in crime over recent months, and evidence of a budding trade in harder drugs. He also said he had identified two African drug trading gangs. Of nine murders reported in the sub-district from 2009 to 2010, five involved African perpetrators, one a Chinese man, and the other three Israelis, he said. In January and the first half of February, police shut down 50 brothels in the neighborhood—some little more than a bed in a room. The prostitutes are Israeli women, but “a serious portion” of their clients are African, Ohayon said. And because the migrants do not receive refugee status or state privileges, they do not have identity cards or public records save for a database of DNA and biometric information the police are slowly cobbling together, case by case.

“It’s the nightmare of every police commander,” Ohayon said. “You’re dealing with people with no faces, no names, no identity papers, and no evidence.”

Ohayon said the Africans’ housing problems are also reaching the police. In December, a homeless Eritrean woman with two children slept on mattresses in Ohayon’s reception room at the Tel Aviv police headquarters for two nights until the city welfare office found them housing. Ohayon complained that this welfare work wasn’t his job. “I need to catch thieves and criminals, not be dealing with Similac,” he said.


Shlomo Maslawi is one of the most vocal critics of the government policy on African migrants. He grew up in a two-room shack in south Tel Aviv as the fourth of 13 children born to Iraqi parents. Now he is a city council member from the Likud party.

“You think the city has a solution for the tens of thousands of Africans?” he said with skepticism. “Tel Aviv can’t deal with her own residents.”

Maslawi said the migrants cram into apartments, raising rents for young Israeli couples in Hatikva. Not having work leads to idle time, he contended, while abundant Eritrean-run bars offer a place for the migrants to spend it. Maslawi complained that Hatikva’s residents fear walking around at night because of drunk or homeless vagrants. Maslawi’s idea is to close the border and send the migrants already in Israel to work on kibbutzes. He said he has not proposed it to any Israeli body because “there’s no one to talk to.”

“They have no housing, no work, no access to education or to health services,” Maslawi said of the African migrants here. Remembering his own impoverished childhood in Tel Aviv, he said about his family, “We had these conditions, but at least we had basic services. And we didn’t come in these numbers. This is a population bomb.”

But while Maslawi parses his frustrations in terms of the need for humanitarian services and work, his sympathizers have brought out the ethnic tensions of Jewish neighborhoods. In July, 25 Tel Aviv rabbis signed an edict preventing Jews from renting to African “infiltrators” and foreign workers. Shortly after, 10 Tel Aviv real estate agents signed a petition agreeing not to rent to African migrants as well. Mayors in the cities of Eilat and Arad echoed calls to expel the migrants. In December, Maslawi organized a protest called “Send the infiltrators home!” that drew more than 1,000 Israelis to Hatikva’s vegetable market to slam the government’s slow response to the thousands of migrants arriving in Tel Aviv. Knesset Member Michael Ben-Ari, who also grew up in Hatikva, called from the podium for the government to give each migrant $200 and a plane ticket home. “These people are not asylum seekers, they are foreign invaders,” Ben-Ari shouted.

“I didn’t invite him,” Maslawi said of Ben-Ari. “We just say, whoever is illegal is illegal. Period.”

Refugee aid organizations reacted swiftly to the march. “This creates discrimination and a racist situation,” said Yohannes Bayu, who directs the African Refugee Development Center. Bayu, from Ethiopia, has refugee status. “It’s laughable that Israel has recognized around 140 refugees when Israel is a country established by refugees. This is what happened in many European countries to the Jews who were not accepted, kicked out, and not given their rights not long ago.”

But Maslawi brushes off the accusations. He said the Israelis who advocate for the migrants do it from the comfort of plush areas of Tel Aviv, far away from sidewalks teeming with unemployed, frustrated migrants who crowd schools and vital children’s vaccine clinics. “This problem isn’t in their house,” he said.

The migrants agree with Maslawi and Ohayon that the current situation is unsustainable. Activist Tukue organized a protest in December against the government’s idea to build a detention camp, currently in planning, said a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Defense. In March he organized a 200-person demonstration against the Eritrean embassy, calling for an end to the draconian regime. Without refugee status, Tukue said he struggled to find work. He said he has written to his brothers in camps in Ethiopia and Sudan, telling them not to come join him. Asked about Maslawi’s idea to send the migrants to kibbutzim, he said, “Sure. That’s a good idea.” Moreover, he said, he doesn’t want to stay in Israel forever, but rather until the Eritrean political situation improves.

“If this regime leaves the country, or is overthrown, I would prefer to go back to my country, because I know my country is my home and I can go travel everywhere legally,” he said.

Tukue said he has taken advantage of living in Israel’s culture capital and danced in drag at the raucous annual Purim holiday street festival in south Tel Aviv. But the daily grind of eking out his existence in hostile territory is wearing on his patience.

“Whatever we are, whatever status we have, even if we are strangers, [Israel has] to deal with us. We are just asking them to host us for some time until our country gets stable,” he said. “And everybody I know on the committee never imagined Israel can be like this nation. We had some other idea.”

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.

Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist covering the Middle East.