Seeking Refuge

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Although he shares some Israeli concerns about the country’s demographic character changing, he would like the country to adopt some system of due process.

“As a rabbi, Israel is one of my highest priorities. I’m a lifelong Zionist,” he said. “It’s my family, so I take more concern in Israel’s policies than in other cases.”


But the Jewish state has the lowest asylum approval rate in the developed world at less than 1 percent, Paley’s coalition charged in a letter.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, who is a human rights advocate, would like Israel to establish due process for asylum seekers. (Provided)
Rabbi Sid Schwarz, who is a human rights advocate, would like Israel to establish due process for asylum seekers. (Provided)

A decade ago, asylum seekers didn’t generate alarm, but anti-refugee sentiment grew in Israeli government and society as more Africans came to the country, said Siegel. Asylum seekers are often painted as criminals, she added, and seen by some as threats to Israel’s security and Jewish identity.

In 2012, there were riots in South Tel Aviv, where a large number of asylum seekers live. And some Israeli officials have been less-than-friendly in their public statements about the new arrivals.

Former Interior Minister Eli Yishai said that since he could not deport those seeking asylum, he would “lock them up to make their lives miserable,” according to reports. Knesset member Miri Regev called them “a cancer in our body” during an anti-immigrant protest. And at a cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Africans threaten the existence of the Jewish state as well as “the social fabric of society, our national security and our national identity.”

Behind the flight

For their part, Israeli officials accuse the Africans of seeking economic opportunity instead of fleeing oppression. Paley tells a different story.

“Eritreans have been fleeing a very, very dictatorial government in which they can have no freedom at all and they are forced to be in the military for as long as they are needed,” she said. “They are basically treated as slaves by their government.”

Large numbers of people from Eritrea, which is east of Sudan and north of Ethiopia, have been fleeing the country since 2004. About 200,000 fled to refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan, according to the HRW report, which cited such conditions as “forced labor, extrajudicial killings, disappearances [and] torture” as behind the exodus.

A large number of Eritreans who made it to Israel, though, were kidnapped by Bedouins and ransomed. Those who escaped such a fate now await adjudication.

“These are victims of human trafficking and victims of torture, but they were not accepted as victims of torture,” said Swedish-Eritrean journalist Meron Estefanos. “They were called infiltrators.”

Those from the genocide-scarred Darfur region of Sudan faced their own oppressive conditions. In 2003, the government partnered with militia groups, accelerating the ethnic cleansing of region’s non-Arab population and instituting a scorched-earth campaign.

“These people are not coming [to Israel] voluntarily,” Siegel said. “They have no other [viable] options for the preservation of their lives.”

By December 2012, around 37,000 Eritreans and 14,000 Sudanese had entered Israel, the HRW report said. But in 2013, very few crossed the Egyptian border into Israel because a steel fence about 16 feet tall was built across it that year.

Anna Rose Siegel speaks at a Refugee Seder in April to raise awareness about African asylum seekers in Israel. (Provided)
Anna Rose Siegel speaks at a Refugee Seder in April to raise awareness about African asylum seekers in Israel. (Provided)

Advocates point to the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which defines who is eligible for refugee status and the responsibility of member nations, as proof that Israel is in the wrong.

“The Convention lays down basic minimum standards for the treatment of refugees, without prejudice to states granting more favorable treatment,” reads the U.N. text. “Such rights include access to the courts, to primary education, to work and the provision for documentation, including a refugee travel document in passport form.”

Conditions in Eritrea and Sudan likely qualify those fleeing the countries for refugee status, argued Frelick.

“When you look at the countries of origin for these two nationalities, they have profiles that overwhelmingly point in the direction of them being people with strong claims for refugee [status],” he explained. “The very presence [of Sudanese in Israel] makes them liable of up to 10 years imprisonment in Sudan, which means that really 100 percent of the Sudanese in Israel are refugees.”

Israel didn’t examine refugee claims from these two populations until late 2012. All of the Sudanese claims have been rejected, and 99.9 percent of Eritrean claims were rejected, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Two Eritreans were recognized as refugees. In September 2013, the UNHCR, which had previously opposed the government’s amendments to its anti-infiltration law, concluded that Israel lacked the proper procedures and necessary capacity to fairly and promptly process asylum claims.

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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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