By Mya Guarnieri in Tel Aviv
Traffic came to a stop in the centre of Tel Aviv on Friday as hundreds took to the streets for May Day. African refugees were amongst them. They carried hand-painted signs reading “Refugees’ rights now” and “Let us work to survive” in bold, red letters.
Their words point to a political environment that is increasingly hostile to asylum seekers.
Israel is home to some 20,000 African refugees. About half come from Eritrea, a country gripped by a brutal dictatorship. More than a third escaped civil war and genocide in Sudan.
But Israel has granted asylum status to less than 200 since its 1948 establishment.
“Israel, in the past few years, has only approved four or five out of thousands,” says Oded Diner of Amnesty International.
“If you talk about statistics, it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Western countries, non-Western countries, bigger countries, smaller countries, you could say that Israel is one of the cheapest in the world.”
In 2008, for example, France recognised 9,648 refugees. In the same year, Israel recognised only four, despite the fact that several hundred asylum seekers enter the country every month.
According to Tally Kritzman, an assistant professor at the College of Law and Business in Ramat Gan and an expert on immigrant and refugee law, not one application has been approved since July 2009 when the interior ministry set up a new office to deal specifically with asylum requests.
“Basically what the government is afraid of is the pull factor,” Kritzman explains.
“If the asylum seekers get status here, that has rights attached. They are supposed to get temporary residency, national health care, and social security.”
The state fears that this will encourage more to come.
“The Israeli government is experiencing this as a mass influx and is trying to control it,” Kritzman adds. “The main tool of control is to keep people in a legal limbo.”
Refugees face uncertainty from the moment they enter Israel. That is, if they make it.
Bowing to Israeli political pressure to stop the flow of refugees, Egyptian soldiers sometimes shoot at asylum seekers. Scores die on the border every year.
There are other abuses. Some African refugees have been subjected to harsh work conditions, similar to slavery, in Egypt. Some have been raped by the Bedouin men that smuggle them through the desert. Egyptian soldiers have also been accused of committing rape, beatings, and executions.
Once they are in Israel, asylum seekers face the possibility of “hot return” – instant deportation back to Egypt. From there, they could be deported back to their home country to face persecution, torture, or death.
Because of this, the “hot return” policy has drawn harsh criticism from both Israeli and international human rights organisations, with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) calling it a violation of international law.
The policy is troubling to Amnesty International for a variety of reasons. “They don’t have any chance to ask for asylum,” Diner says. “The interview is done on the ground by soldiers …. Sometimes there is no interpreter.”
Soldiers then relay a brief report to headquarters. An officer, sitting behind a desk, makes the final decision. “It’s all within hours,” Diner says.
“We know in the past few months, this policy has been used and even increased,” he adds.
Those that are not returned to Egypt are considered “infiltrators” and are sent to Kziot and Saharonim, detention centres near the border.
The tent camps have limited capacities; refugees are released when authorities need to make room for more.
“The length of detention is arbitrary,” Kritzman remarks. She also points out that men, women, and children are all held together.
Last week the Israeli daily Haaretz, reported that 10 unaccompanied minors are being held in the same living quarters as men at Saharonim prison.
Yael Kitzis, an attorney for the justice ministry, called the conditions “a blatant violation of state regulations”.
“They’re in terribly crowded tents of 18 people in the extreme heat and cold of the desert day and night,” Kitzis stated.
“We were there in the winter and it was cold in the daytime. We didn’t want to think about what happens there at night.”
In February, The Jerusalem Post reported that two dozen unaccompanied minors, aged from 13 to 17, were being held in Givon prison, a facility intended for criminals.
While the children were not being housed with adults, they were locked up for 21 hours a day. Many were depressed. Those thought to be suicidal were put into solitary confinement and, The Jerusalem Post states, “sometimes chained to the bed”.
Attorneys at the justice ministry filed a petition against several governmental bodies, including the interior ministry, to protest against the children’s treatment, stating that it was unlawful.
After African refugees are freed from Israeli detention centres, they continue to find their rights extremely limited because they lack legal status.
“When they are getting out of detention after a few months, they have no rights at all,” Diner says.
“No right to health [care], no right to work, no right to housing. The only right they have is not getting arrested again. They are allowed to live on the streets but that’s about it.”
Left without work permits and government assistance, African refugees must resort to taking any job they can.
While Israeli labour laws apply to anyone who works, regardless of their legal status, employers sometimes take advantage of asylum seekers, who do not know their rights or are afraid to speak up.
Common violations are excessive work hours, underpayment and non-payment of wages.
Policy of deterrence
Yohannes Bayu, the founder and director of the African Refugee Development Committee (ARDC), says: “Everyday their rights are violated because of the lack of status.”
He recalls a time when a Tel Aviv park popular with refugees resembled a slave market. Employers would drive up and pick them, judging by “who is the strongest,” he says.
Due to media attention, this has improved slightly. “Still, the people are confessing so many problems,” Bayu says. “You can’t even imagine.”
Bayu, himself a recognised asylum seeker who fled the Ethiopian civil war, emphasises that the refugees are not asking for handouts. Just as much as his organisation is a “refugees’ for refugees programme”, the community is able to support itself – if the government will give them a chance.
“You’re talking about 20,000 refugees here,” Bayu says. “[The government is] bringing hundreds of thousands of foreign workers from the outside, but they don’t give the 20,000 [permission to] work …. Put them in the system, give them means to support themselves, at least.”
Bayu says that in Egypt, the refugees worried about their physical safety but had little trouble earning enough money to survive. In Israel, they feel safe, but they tell Bayu: “‘I don’t have anything to eat. I don’t have anything and I don’t know how to survive.'”
The ARDC does its best to help. It runs two shelters, Hebrew and English classes, and offers counselling. In the past, the organisation has helped coordinate food distribution, as well. But the underlying problem remains the same.
“The main problem here is policy,” Bayu says.
“It’s not by accident, it’s not by a lack of policy,” Diner says.
“That’s the policy – a policy of deterrence. It’s being made clear by the authorities that they want to prevent more asylum seekers from coming, so they want to make the lives of those who have already come as hard as possible.”