Israel's African Refugee Dilemma
From the May 2013 PNL #824
Editors’ note: This piece was originally published in September 2012 in Interaction’s Monthly Developments magazine.
The beaming smile on Sunday Dieng’s face disguises a lifetime of struggle living as a refugee. Yet the scars covering his arms reveal a darker past. When he came to Israel five years ago, Sunday thought he could put these hardships behind him, but he has only faced a new series of crises as he fights for his right to be recognized as a refugee.
Since Israel has never established a system for non-Jewish immigration, it has proven nearly impossible for African asylum seekers like Sunday to gain refugee status in the country. His only saving grace while living in Israel was his right to not be deported, but this past May  that right was stripped away.
In April , the Israeli Interior Ministry called for the deportation of all South Sudanese migrants. Human rights groups immediately petitioned to stop the deportation, insisting that the continued armed conflict between Khartoum and Juba would put the lives of the estimated 1,500 South Sudanese refugees in Israel at risk. Despite these protests, in May the Jerusalem District Court ruled that Israel was no longer obligated to provide blanket protection for South Sudanese asylum seekers. Immediately following this decision, hundreds of South Sudanese migrants were arrested and put on planes to Juba.
The deportation of South Sudanese is part of a broader effort to force out all non-Jewish African immigrants in Israel. Since 2005, Africans have been flooding into the country through its border with Egypt. Today there are upwards of 60,000 African asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan. Never having been a destination country for non-Jewish migrants previously, the Israeli government has hastily developed a course of action to halt the flow of African migrants into Israel. Its policy of deterrence does not take into account the oppression and torment these asylum seekers have experienced, and their claims to be recognized as refugees have fallen on deaf ears. Instead they are regarded by the Israeli government as infiltrators. With their ever-growing numbers; vastly differing ethnic, religious and linguistic backgrounds; and no rights or government assistance; asylum seekers are generating a violent backlash from certain members of Israeli society.
Although Eritreans and Sudanese have more than a 90 percent acceptance rate when applying for asylum in Europe and North America, only 0.01% are accepted by Israel, says Israeli asylum attorney Yuval Livnat of the Tel Aviv University Refugee Rights Clinic. Only nine people were granted refugee status from 2008-2010. Yuval believes these inadequate numbers “scream human rights violations” and reflect a hopeless system that was never meant to be effective.
While it is nearly impossible to gain refugee status through the official Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process, Eritreans, Sudanese, and, until May , South Sudanese, have all been given a conditional release visa—otherwise known as group protection status. If able to prove their nationality, all people from these countries receive blanket protection that allows them the right to not be deported as long as their visa is renewed every one to three months. Group protection has the short-term advantage of preventing deportation, but it also bars them from going through RSD. Thus, Eritreans and Sudanese with conditional release visas will never be able to gain their full rights as refugees as mandated under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which Israel helped to draft and sign. While stuck in a bureaucratic grey area, the refugees cannot cross international borders, work legally or access government assistance. These Eritreans and Sudanese are stuck with a call for their deportation while at the same time being barred from resettling.
Why Israel? Why now?
Of the over 60,000 African asylum seekers in Israel, 85% come from Eritrea and Sudan. These countries have been bleeding refugees for years, but it is only in the last few years that this flow has reached Israel.
The refugee situation in Israel today is emblematic of the broader South-to-North migration occurring all over the world. Typical destinations like the US and the EU—overwhelmed by continued illegal migration—have tightened their border security. These changes have forced migrants to choose riskier routes and alternate destinations. Today, Israel has become one of these new migrant hotspots. While many see Israel as a land of conflict, for African refugees, Israel is the closest thing to safety and stability that can be reached on foot.
The Journey to Israel
Even before arriving in Israel, many refugees face trafficking, brutality and torture at the hands of Bedouin smugglers in the Sinai desert. Refugees are smuggled from their home countries through Sudan and Egypt before being taken to torture camps set up in the northern Sinai desert. There refugees are burned, raped, starved and chained together for days. For each refugee, their torturers extort a ransom that ranges anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 by calling the captives’ loved ones to listen in on their screams. If able to pay their way out of the camps, refugees are told to sprint across the border. Once in Israel, migrants wait by the side of the road to be picked up by the Israeli army. Recounting his experience of being greeted by the Israeli army, Eritrean asylum seeker Kidane Isaac said it “reminded him he was human again.”
Once processed, migrants are given a one-way bus ticket to Tel Aviv where they get off at the central bus station. Located in the lower-income area of South Tel Aviv, the station is the entry point into urban Israeli life for most refugees. Without speaking Hebrew or having anywhere to stay, most refugees go to Levinsky Park, a nearby hub for African asylum seekers. Every night, hundreds of refugees sleep in the park, and every day new migrants arrive to gather information. Levinsky Park and the surrounding neighborhoods remain the epicenter for African refugee life in Israel.
As hundreds continue to cross the border from Egypt, the overwhelmed Israeli government has been grappling with how to manage a seemingly never-ending flood of migrants. To date, Israeli policy centers on the opinion that the vast majority of the Africans coming into Israel are economic migrants rather than refugees. The recently amended Anti-Infiltration bill lays out a three-fold strategy meant to curb the flow and reduce the incentive for African immigration to Israel.
The amended bill allocates funds for the construction of a detention facility with a capacity to hold more than 10,000 incoming refugees. It also allows for their imprisonment for up to three years, or indefinitely for migrants from enemy-states like Sudan. In addition, the bill sanctions the construction of a 160-mile electric fence along Israel’s southern border and authorizes heavy fines for Israeli employers using African labor.
Rather than follow protocols mandated by the 1951 Refugee Convention, Israel’s policy is based on the fear that an onslaught of Africans threatens not only the country’s economic and social well-being, but also the delicate demographic make-up of the Jewish state. Arguing that Israel is a state for Jews and alarmed by the possibility of “all of Africa running to Israel,” some Knesset members are leading the opposition against the refugees. With so much regional and internal turmoil, many Israelis see little place for non-Jewish African migrants in a state of only 7.8 million people. On top of this, refugees live in Israel’s most impoverished and vulnerable neighborhoods, adding stress to these struggling and marginalized communities.
While mainstream media, the government and some communities have tuned out the Africans’ humanitarian needs, some Israelis and several NGOs have a very different vision for how Israel should manage its African refugee issue. Nic Schlagman, the humanitarian coordinator at the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) in Tel Aviv, views Israel as responsible for the care of these refugees because of its own turbulent past. “As a country created for and by refugees fleeing genocide in Europe, saving African refugees escaping slaughter in Darfur or tyrannical dictatorship in Eritrea is exactly what we should be doing.” Schlagman and Israeli activists like him feel that morality, rather than demographics, are what characterize the state. They hope to see Israel live up to its moral, international and what they see as its Jewish responsibilities.
Amidst a hostile and precarious environment, it is people like Sunday who continue to instill hope into the refugee community. Even though many of his friends have been deported, Sunday remains optimistic that the Israeli government will alter its policy for university students like him. Others are much less confident. The removal of South Sudanese makes only a small dent in the asylum seeker population, and it may only be a matter of time before other groups are expelled as well.
UPDATE (April 2013): Since September 2012, Israel has completed construction of its wall along its southern border with Egypt. This, coupled with indefinite imprisonment of migrants crossing the border, has radically reduced the number of refugees seeking asylum. Compared to 1,303 refugees who entered Israel in Feburary 2012, sources say this past Febuary only five made it across the border. Additionally, tensions remain high in south Tel Aviv as there have been several more demonstrations and multiple attacks on the refugee community. Israeli residents of the southern neighborhoods still feel under threat from the Africans and claim the crime rate has sky-rocketed. Over the last few months the South Sudanese refugee community has been deported back to Juba on flights paid for by the Israeli government, including our dear friend Sunday.