Seeking Refuge

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092614_coverstory1Mutasim Ali fled the Darfur region of Sudan in 2009 seeking refuge from a government undergoing a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

“I’m ashamed to see that happening in my country, but because of your race, you feel you don’t belong to that place anyway,” he said. “That’s one of the major problems we face there.”


So Ali, 27, like many other non-Arab Sudanese people and Eritreans, journeyed to Israel, the nearest democratic country. Five years later, Ali is, by his description and that of monitoring groups, a “prisoner” at the Holot detention center in the western Negev, about 37 miles from the nearest city, Beersheva. While he and about 2,000 other detainees are free to come and go, they must check in with authorities three times a day and are subject to a 10 p.m. curfew at the facility; failure to follow the rules leads to imprisonment.

The detainees, say activists, remain in a state of sociopolitical limbo in a country largely unreceptive to an approximately 44,000-strong group of African immigrants; Jerusalem takes little action on granting asylum seekers the legal and social protections of refugee status.

On Monday, the Israeli High Court of Justice ordered the closing of Holot within 90 days and voided a measure the Knesset passed last December that allowedincarceration without trial for those who illegally entered the country. Asylum seekers and advocates counted it as a small victory in an uphill battle for refugee rights.

“While we are content with the court’s ruling, the Right Now coalition will continue to advocate for greater change and more protections … including a fair Refugee Status Determination process, a cessation of Israel’s deterrence policy of coercing asylum seekers to ‘voluntarily return,’ social residency and the right to work, including work permits, health care and welfare benefits and the condemnation of all racist rhetoric and violent incitement towards the asylum seekers,” said Maya Paley, co-founder of the Right Now coalition, a volunteer-run group working to raise awareness of the issue in the United States.

Mutasim Ali (left) at a news conference in Tel Aviv in January. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)
Mutasim Ali (left) at a news conference in Tel Aviv in January. (Gideon Markowicz/Flash90)

Paley’s comments alluded to life outside of Holot, which is still rife with obstacles for African asylum seekers.

“We didn’t expect this from Israel,” Ali said, explaining that he and other asylum seekers thought Israel’s history and democratic government would make it a welcoming place for those seeking refuge.

That people like Ali have received anything but a welcome embrace from the Jewish state has sparked protests within Israel and spurred activists and rabbis in the wider Jewish community, including in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to take notice. And while Israel determines what to do with the influx of asylum seekers, more than 6,000 have reversed course and headed to their home countries where, according to a new 83-page report by Human Rights Watch, they face possible criminal charges, torture and imprisonment.

Israeli law

Israel’s 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Act, also known as the “Anti-Infiltration Law,” referred to Palestinians trying to cross into Israeli territory from neighboring countries, as well as all sub-Saharan Africans who entered Israel illegally, as infiltrators.

Bill Frelick, refugee program director at HRW and editor of the organization’s recent report, said the language in the law itself may be part of the reason Israel has been so unwelcoming to those seeking asylum.

“These are not people that have any intention of doing any harm to Israel,” he said. “The legal framework in the statute itself frames this as a security and legal issue.”

In January 2012, the Knesset passed an amendment to indefinitely detain anyone entering Israel illegally. This was struck down by Israel’s High Court in September 2013, but other regulations have since allowed for the arrest and detention without trial of anyone entering the country suspected of committing certain crimes.

092614_coverstory3Detainees would end up at Holot. As of mid-June 2014, HRW determined, there were 2,369 of them there.

Israelis and the Jewish community should demand better, said Columbia native Anna Rose Siegel, coordinator of the Right Now coalition’s regional activities in Baltimore and Washington.

“As Jews our commitment is to those who have experienced parallel persecution,” she explained. “Israel was founded as a refugee nation.”

Rabbi Sid Schwarz of Rockville similarly keeps human rights at the forefront of his concerns. He is on the board of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization, is a senior fellow at Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and serves as director of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program, a one-year educational program on Judaism and human rights for young professionals. For the last couple of years, the fellows have spent a day of their study tour in Israel exploring the issue of African refugees.

Whether drawing from halachic, rabbinical or historical sources, Schwarz said, they all point to Israel being a place of refuge.

“We are a people who in our history oftentimes needed refuge. The Holocaust is the most recent example, perhaps even more recently that Israel has been a haven for Jews from the Soviet Union, Argentina and France,” he said. “I think just from the perspective of history, a Jewish state should have as compassionate a policy towards refugees as possible.”

He also cites the Passover story, in which Jews were strangers in Egypt, as demonstrating why Jews should be sensitive to other strangers.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with your respond; Refugees are living in Israel with fear and abused. The African refugees are forced to leave their countries and families, can we feel that they need to have to stay and part of the socite. If Israel can not do who will do it.

  2. Barry — thanks for commenting. I too don’t think it’s right to imply that all Israelis are callous to the refugees. I also don’t think we can ignore the impact on the residents of south Tel Aviv. It seems that everywhere in the world the needs of the most-desperate are made to be in conflict with the needs of others who are politically and economically weak.

    An approach to the refugees that allowed them to work and to offer them opportunities outside of Tel Aviv could go a long way to mitigating this reality. So could government attention to the longstanding neglect of south Tel Aviv.

    I’m less comfortable with your other statements. For instance, the statistics released by the Israeli police show that the refugees do not engage in crime more frequently than others in Israel (see here: http://forward.com/articles/156804/israeli-anger-over-african-crime-wave/?p=all). It’s also not true that all of the refugees are Muslim; I believe that most are Christian.

    Factual matters aside, I take issue with the notion that Israel can’t afford to host others, or that because the refugees past thru Egypt on their way to Israel means that they are nothing more than “illegals.” My grandfather smuggled his way into Tel Aviv in the 1930s in violation of the law. It was the second border he’d crossed after leaving his hometown of Hamburg. Had he stayed in the Netherlands, like his father and brother did, he would have perished.

    Refugees in Egypt are treated inhumanely. At times their lives are in danger. It’s logical that some would continue to flee across another border. Given that so many in Israel share family backgrounds like my own, it stands to reason that Israel could serve as an example for how to treat those in need with dignity until they can go home. In fact I believe that this awareness is part of why the Israeli High Court twice struck down laws that imprisoned these refugees without trial.

  3. Maya thank you for your good work. The African community resource center want to see justice to the African refugees .

  4. The article is made to seem that Israeli’s are callous to the plight of these African refugees. First, what the article doesn’t say is that they are making the lives of people living in Tel Aviv miserable. The have been numerous rapes and robberies by these refugees, besides harassments in general. It’s pretty hard to be sympathetic when people experience such behaviors.

    These people crossed into Israel illegally from Egypt. You would think that illegals would stay under the radar and not cause harm to others in their host country, who never invited them to begin with.

    The illegals are Muslim. There are 57 Muslim countries they could have entered, albeit illegally. None of their religious brothers wanted them. Historically, Israel have allowed in people seeking asylum facing death in their own countries. Israeli’s are NOT insensitive to the plight of others, but nor are they stupid. If the illegals weren’t causing trouble, they would most likely be left alone.

    All that said, is there any common sense left in this world that constantly blames the victim? Israeli’s have enough issues with people trying to destroy us, should we be required to host others when they can’t be civilized? How much should a small country tolerate from people who were uninvited?

    • Hi Barry,

      You raise some interesting points but I think you miss the mark on some of them. Firstly, having lived in Tel Aviv for over a year, I can tell you that asylum seekers do not make the lives of Israelis/Jews miserable. Statistically, rape and robberies by the refugee population in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, and Eilat are lower than the rates of those same crimes by Israelis. According to a report by the Israeli government, the crime rate among foreigners in Israel stood at 2.24 percent in 2011 while the crime rate among the general population in Israel was 4.99 percent in 2010. While one could argue that crime is underreported within the immigrant community, if your claim that they are making the lives of those living in Tel Aviv miserable, certainly these populations being targeted would report crime.

      Secondly, it is true that Israel never invited refugees from African countries, but what county truly does “invite” refugees? The international community, and especially western countries, recognize that there are certain obligations that Western countries have to refugee populations. Namely, when refugees arrive on their borders, welcoming them in, allowing them to apply for refugee status, and properly assessing their claim. These people are facing death in their own countries and while Israel is “allowing them in,” as you say there are serious legal and ethical issues with the lives these people are allowed to live in Israel. Most countries do not accept refugees applying from Israel because Israel is seen as a viable option, meaning they can stay there and live in safety. So, even if refugees wanted to leave, most countries will not accept them until they first apply and are rejected for asylum in Israel. The problem here lies in Israel’s refusal to allow Sudanese and Eritreans to apply until 2013 and their delay in assessing refugee claims.

      I do not think Israel is the victim in this situation here. Refugees coming to Israel just want the chance to live like normal people without the threat of detainment, without their visas being stamped “not permitted to work”, and without being called infiltrators as they escape persecution in their home countries. I think if you took the time to talk to a few people you would find this to be true.

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