African Refugees in Israel

By Miri - 

Mob attacking Ethiopian bar, South Tel Aviv, May 2012
This year's May saw an unprecedented level of violence during riots that originated in the working class neighbourhoods in South Tel Aviv. The protest expressed the residents' anger and fear regarding the increasing number of African refugees, many of who had settled down in their neighbourhoods. During the course of and also following those protests, a number of African owned businesses and homes were vandalised and people, both refugees and their Jewish-Israeli supporters, were harassed and attacked on the streets. The protests were supported and even fueled by individual members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, who refer to the refugees as “infiltrators”, an expression that strips them off their legitimate refugee status and turns them into criminals, and as a “cancer” that is slowly growing and expanding within Israeli society.

While it is a well known fact that Israel's Jewish population is consisting of former refugees and immigrants and that the state's very historical foundation, the war of 1948, created more than 700,000 Palestinian refugees, less attention has been paid to the more recent waves of non-Jewish refugees and migrants coming to Israel from African and Asian countries.
In fact, the whole of the Middle East, apart from the rich Gulf states, is usually not considered to be a destination for migrants. With its ongoing civil wars and  foreign military interventions, the region however does host a fifth of the world's growing refugee population, excluding the Palestinian ones. Syria for instance, which by now itself created a large number of refugees fleeing the violent repression of the uprising against the Assad regime, ranks as the world's third largest refugee hosting country.
The number of refugees in Israel is smaller, compared to those in its neighbouring countries, yet Israel's relative prosperity and democratic structure continues to constitute a strong pull factor for a lot of refugees.

Homeless refugees sleeping on a playground, South Tel Aviv, Jan 2012
By March 2012, the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) reported more than 58,000 registered asylum seekers that had entered the country, with a vast majority having crossed the borders during the last five years. This sum does not include undocumented migrants, which would increase the number considerably. The majority of those recent refugees come from Eritrea and Sudan, but also other Sub-Saharan countries and mainly enter the country through the Sinai desert, where Israel borders with Egypt.

The Sinai has always been a route for the trafficking and smuggling of drugs, arms and also people, but only during the recent five years has it become one of the main human trafficking routes from Africa to the Western World. Migrants are usually smuggled or trafficked for big sums of money paid to Bedouin networks who collaborate on both sides of the border.

The dangers that the refugees encounter during their journeys are manifold. A survey conducted by PHR revealed that a large number of the refugees crossing through Sinai are subjected to torture, slavery, systematic rape, extortion, violence, including branding and forced labour at the hands of their traffickers. Other reports also mention organ harvesting and forced abortions following the systematic rape. The refugees' relatives in Israel, who have already accomplished the dangerous journey, are frequently extorted large amounts of ransom money for their loved ones in the desert.

Barbed wire with the leftovers of the clothes of refugees, Sinai
The main responsibility to intervene in this violence lies with the Egyptian authorities, who however deny having knowldege of the locations of the camps of the traffickers. At the same time, the Egyptian authorities themselves have been reported to pose a risk to the refugees' lives. Israel and Egypt had entered an agreement in 2007 whereby Egypt committed to clamp down on the influx of refugees on its side of the border. Since that time at least 85 people have been reportedly shot and killed by Egyptian border guards. In addition to that, thousands of asylum seekers and migrants have been prosecuted before Egyptian military tribunals for entering into the restricted military zone in the Sinai. There are furthermore reports on torture in Egyptian detention centres and on the refusal of the Egyptian authorities to identify asylum seekers within the groups of migrants, who are frequently deported without being able to access assistance or to lodge an asylum claim.

Protest against the deportation of refugees, Tel Aviv
In Israel, on the other hand, refugees seeking asylum face slim chances of obtaining statutory recognition. Just like the USA and the EU, Israel is trying to solve the refugee crisis by setting up a fortress, which includes the building of a 240 kilometres long fence comprised of thick metal bars.
More recently, Israel introduced the “Anti Infiltration Bill”. Couching it as a security measure, the bill will allow the immediate expulsion and/or imprisonment without trial of any person entering the country without a permit.
In June after the riots in Tel Aviv, Israel speeded up the building of a detention centre for African asylum seekers in the Negev desert, which will eventually be capable of absorbing up to 12,000 people and deter them from moving and settling down in the cities.

Israel's strategies on how to deal with refugees and asylum seekers are not unique and resemble very much the measures taken by other Western states. None of those measures actually target the root causes of the problems. Curbing migration by criminalising it usually only increases the risks associated with migration and the price paid by migrants.

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