Prison or exile? The stark choice facing African migrants in Israel

Prison or exile? The stark choice facing African migrants in Israel

African migrants demonstrate in Jerusalem on 26 January 2017. Faced with the threat of a policy of “deportation” to third countries where their rights are not guaranteed, these Sudanese and Eritreans are awaiting the judgement of the Israeli Supreme Court.

(Chloé Demoulin)

“The [Israeli] government is doing everything to make our lives difficult and force us to leave,” said Hayos Tekle, a 33-year-old Eritrean who arrived in Israel six years ago. Like him, tens of thousands of undocumented African migrants, mostly Eritrean and Sudanese, have entered Israel since the late 1990s.

According to the Israeli NGO the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants (HRM), today there are some 40,000 of them in the country.

These people have fled poverty or violence in their own country. They have risked their lives by crossing the Sinai desert on foot, a route along which thousands of other migrants have been abducted by criminal groups in recent years. This vast trafficking of human beings has been condemned repeatedly, notably in 2014 by the European Parliament.

Although a signatory of the Geneva Convention on the status of refugees, the Jewish state has refused to accept any nationality, including the Syrians fleeing the civil war raging in their country. In fact, it has done little since the seventies, when it made a lukewarm gesture by allowing in 360 Vietnamese boat people.

As for African migrants, Dror Sadot, a HRM spokesperson, says: “Since 2013, only seven Eritreans and one Sudanese from Darfur have been granted refugee status.”

Overwhelmed by the influx, the Israeli authorities first left most of these migrants to go free, with a temporary residence permit that did not allow them to work. Thousands of them have nevertheless found precarious jobs in catering, hotels or maintenance. For several years, Tekle worked for a company that plans weddings, in Petah Tikva, a suburb of Tel Aviv.

But in 2012, the Israeli government changed its policy. A wall was first erected along the border with Egypt, drastically reducing the number of new arrivals.

An administrative detention centre, Holot Camp, was also built in southern Israel, in the Negev Desert. Since 2013, more than 4,500 migrants have been sent there, after refusing to return to their country of origin.

A Holot resident since November 2016, Tekle describes a “hellish” structure, where “it’s too hot in summer and too cold in winter”.

“There are several of us to a room, the food is not good and we have nothing to do,” he laments.

Free during the day, but far from everything, the Holot ‘inmates’ rarely have permission or simply do not have the means to go to Beer-Sheva, the nearest town, still less to Tel Aviv, a two-hour drive away.

“I do not understand how Israel can treat these migrants as criminals,” says Israeli activist Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg, a regular Holot visitor. “For me, the State of Israel, as a Jewish state, has a moral obligation to them. Do not oppress foreigners, because we have been foreigners in other countries: it is one of the fundamental values of the Torah,” he insists.

Preserving the Jewish identity of the State of Israel

In Israeli public opinion, however, this call for empathy towards African migrants has barely struck a chord. “It is not because the Israelis were once refugees that they are not afraid of foreigners,” Sadot said.

The activist believes the government is “adding to this fear” and “dehumanising” the migrants, for example by calling them “infiltrators”, an expression originally used to describe Palestinians who entered Israel illegally to carry out attacks.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu considers most of these Africans as economic migrants and believes the country is “too small” to accommodate them. But for a large section of the Israeli right, the challenge is mainly to preserve the Jewish identity of the State of Israel.

In 2015, following a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court, Holot’s previously unlimited detention period was reduced to a maximum of 12 months.

A total of 1,700 migrants were released. But it is freedom with a bitter taste. The government has banned them from returning to Tel Aviv and Eilat, where the concentration of migrants is considered too great. But it was in these two major cities that they developed their professional and personal ties.

Once released from the camp, African asylum seekers now have to begin their lives again from scratch: to find work and housing in cities that are less attractive or more hostile to migrants, without any certainty that they will one day be given refugee status.

Since the end of 2013, Israel has also offered migrants the possibility of going to two other countries in Africa, Uganda or Rwanda. But according to the NGOs, only 1,200 Sudanese and Eritreans took part in this not very transparent procedure between 2013 and April 2015.

“Israel promises them a status by telling them that they are going to a friendly country, that they can study, have a job. But they have none of that," says Yael Orgal, a member of the NGO Jerusalem African Community Centre. "In Rwanda, they steal their papers and their money. In Uganda, 99 per cent of those deported have had to flee to another country," she says.

This chaotic experience is confirmed by the testimonies of several migrants.

The Israeli government has been regularly questioned by NGOs and journalists but refuses to respond to these accusations. Far from showing any sign of backing down, in 2015 it even decided in to make the measure tougher, offering two options to migrants: either agree to go to a third country or be sent to prison indefinitely.

While waiting for the Supreme Court to rule on the application of this new measure, after the matter was brought to its attention by several NGOs, 300 migrants gathered in Jerusalem on Thursday 26 January 2017 to draw the attention of the judges.

“We are not criminals!”, “No more prison, no more Holot”, chanted the demonstrators. “Black Lives Matter!” said some of the placards, linking the treatment of African migrants in Israel to the campaign to stop police violence against African-Americans.

The protesters also brandished portraits of some of the migrants sent to Uganda and Rwanda. “Many of them died trying to reach Europe, were killed by Islamic State in Libya, or perished while crossing the Mediterranean,” said Tekle, who had been allowed to leave Holot’s camp to participate in the rally.

Despite everything he is trying to remain hopeful: “All we ask of Israel is to study our asylum applications in a legal and open way. They will see whether we are economic migrants or refugees.”

This story has been translated from French.