Stories from South Tel Aviv: The Plight of African Asylum Seekers in Israel

In 1948, the newly established Jewish and democratic State of Israel asserted in its Declaration of Independence that

“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice, and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…”1

However, since the first African asylum seekers entered Israel in 2005, the state has failed to properly process refugee status requests and provide social services for 60,000 Darfuris, South Sudanese, and Eritreans, engendering social and political inequality across racial and religious lines. 2 Given the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, looming tensions with Iran, and strain in relations with the United States dominating the attention of the Israeli public, it is perhaps unsurprising that there should be little outcry against the state’s mistreatment of asylum seekers, even though such treatment violates international law as set forth in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees Even more unfortunate than the current condition of tens of thousands of impoverished, neglected asylum seekers is the missed opportunity for a positive model that Israel could set internationally by instituting sound, comprehensive refugee policy. Given the timing, scale, and concentration of African immigration to Israel, Israel could be one of the world’s leaders in refugee assimilation, but its government and citizens have not taken action.  Unfortunately, as explained by Noa Ben Ya’acov, Senior Protection Agent of the UNHCR in Israel, world bodies like the UNHCR are equally ineffective.3

According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is someone who

“owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”4

Significant numbers of Africans seek asylum in Israel from South Sudan, an area that has suffered decades of bloody civil war.  It is still engulfed in conflict and poverty despite its newfound independence, achieved in July 2011. Asylum seekers come also from Darfur, a region that has lost millions to genocide, and, most numerously, from Eritrea, a country controlled by a totalitarian military regime well known for its gross violations of human rights. Refugees from these three regions  seek asylum in Israel because of its geographic proximity and the relatively low smuggling price charged by intermediary Bedouins. Israel is also perceived as less racist and offering more abundant educational and economic opportunity than nearby Egypt.5

Rosy prospects aside, asylum seekers undergo a rude awakening once they reach Israel, should they survive the dangerous journey through the Sinai and then across the Egyptian-Israeli border. A minority of asylum seekers (600 people) was inexplicably pushed back into Egypt by the Israeli Defense Force, and was not given the chance to apply for refugee status—or even cross the border.6 Having endured great trauma in their countries of origin, these asylum seekers underwent the arduous journey to Israel by foot, car, and plane, all the while being exploited, beaten, robbed, and raped by Bedouin smugglers.7 Having at last reached the Israeli-Egyptian border and avoided the Egyptian soldiers, who open fire at them, these asylum seekers were denied entry to Israel. This unofficial IDF practice has reportedly stopped in recent months, and was heavily criticized by human rights organizations such as The Hotline for Migrant Workers for its illegality (the 1951 UNHCR Convention deemed it legal to deport asylum seekers only after their requests for refugee status were rejected, allowing all who seek asylum to enter the country and appeal for proper status.)8

Once in Israel, asylum seekers are held arbitrarily and indefinitely in prison-like detention centers in the Negev. This practice is illegal under the conditions of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which forbids countries from detaining asylum seekers whose applications for refugee status have not already been reviewed and rejected. Asylum seekers are released only as new waves of immigrants arrive, and are given bus tickets, typically to Tel Aviv.9 They are then left to fend for themselves.  10

Though clearly there are major problems in Israel’s reception of refugees, its greatest failing is its lack of infrastructure to legalize and integrate the asylum seekers who arrive. Since July 2009, the Interior Ministry has been responsible for determining refugee status; prior to this date the UNHCR reviewed asylum requests with the intention of handing over the task to the Israeli government. However, only a handful of the tens of thousands of applicants have been granted refugee status in Israel, while 99% of Eritrean asylum seekers in Canada, 66% in the United Kingdom, and 97% in the United States were recognized as refugees in 2009.11Asylum seekers in Israel are granted protection against deportation in the form of temporary visas, which state that they can live in Israel until conditions in their countries of origin change. They are not, however, granted access to public Israeli social, medical and welfare services. The Israeli government has also failed to institute refugee-specific aid programs, as other democratic countries have. For example, both Australia and the United States have established refugee family reunification programs.12 The Israeli government, meanwhile, issues visas requiring frequent renewal, and the confusing legal statuses of refugees make them vulnerable to employer abuse and render them constantly fearful of deportation.13 In December 2010 the government started printing “this is not a work permit” on 2A5 visas. Though it is not illegal for refugees to work, the marking renders them unemployable as employers often misunderstand the qualifying statement.14

The asylum seeker community lives in poverty, enduring homelessness and hunger with little hope for future generations given the lack of educational opportunities for asylum seeker youth. Though asylum seeker children are allowed to attend municipal schools, scholarships for higher education are non-existent, save for twelve scholarships awarded by an NGO, Israel at Heart, in 2011.15 Depression and other psychological disorders abound, and many asylum seekers are too fearful of deportation or consumed with job-hunting to seek aid from NGOs or appeal to the Israeli government, according to African asylum seekers Adam Bashar and Oscar Olivier, both of whom live in South Tel Aviv.16 In fact, the government-funded programs for asylum seekers largely restrict their ability to find safe haven in Israel. As opposed to funding social programs, the government spends millions of dollars annually in the upkeep and expansion of detention centers in the Negev, and also funds voluntary repatriation flights to the asylum seekers’ tumultuous countries of origin.17

The government criminalizes refugee status in the minds of Israelis: Minister of Interior Affairs Rabbi Eli Yoshai claims that African refugees threaten Israel’s Jewish majority, as reported by Israel National News in August 2012.18 Knesset member Danny Dannon, in a May 2012 Ha’aretz interview, called for their deportation.19 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu referred to this community as a threat to Israeli safety at the December 4, 2011 Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs meeting, as recorded by the Cabinet Secretariat.20 The media also propagate anti-refugee sentiments, which have led to increasing public hostility directed towards asylum seekers, with many Israelis refusing to hire or rent apartments to them.21 This past spring and summer, there were violent attacks in asylum seeker neighborhoods perpetrated by Israeli citizens. In May, several crude firebombs hit homes and a kindergarten in Shapira, an African neighborhood,22 followed by protests against Africans in Tel Aviv in response to recent crimes against Israelis linked to the asylum seeker community. Protestors beat African passersby, or looted and shattered the windows of African businesses.23 Israeli minors have been arrested in South Tel Aviv for attacking asylum seekers with clubs and pepper spray. Attacks continued through the summer, with arsonists setting fire to asylum seeker homes, injuring residents and bringing the violence to Jerusalem for the first time.24

Given the poor social and political climate in which African asylum seekers live, typically amidst extreme poverty, they lead bleak, unproductive lives. In Israel, over 60,000 people are treated in a fashion that is not only illegal (under international law set forth by the UNHCR and signed by Israel) and inadequate but also unnecessary. Should Israel expand its Refugee Status Determination bureau, and should the UNHCR expand its efforts in Israel, real progress could be made. The millions of dollars funneled into detention centers and flights back to Africa could allow asylum seekers access to vital resources and services, ultimately fostering a strong African community that contributes to Israeli culture and the nation’s economic vitality. Though the problems these asylum seekers face are vast, they have appeared only in recent years and in concentrated, accessible cities. Walking around South Tel Aviv, one sees that the need for proper refugee status, employment, and social services for these demographics is obvious and immediate. Solutions are clear, but will require a major redirection of funds, and a substantial shift in public, governmental, and media attitudes. Israel could be a symbol of hope for refugees, and a model for the just treatment of the downtrodden for other nations. But such progress also requires the outcry of the masses; change will only come when the people, and not only those whose voices are fettered by trauma and poverty, demand it.


1 The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel (1948)

2 Paley, Maya, “Surviving in Limbo: Lived Experiences Among Sudanese and Eritrean Asylum Seekers in Israel,” Assaf, June 2011, Page 9.

3 Ben Ya’acov/UNHCR, Noa, Personal interview, March 26, 2012.

4 The UN Refugee Agency,” Refugees: Flowing Across Borders,” UNHCR, The UN Refugee Agency, accessed October 4, 2012, http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c125.html.

5 Paley, “Surviving in Limbo: Lived Experiences Among Sudanese and Eritrean Asylum Seekers in Israel,” Pages 19-21.

6 Douglas, Karen, “Hot Return: High Court Delivers Decision,” The African Refugee Development Center, July 9, 2011, and Douglas, Karen, “US State Department Critical of Refugee Treatment,” The African Refugee Development Center, April 25, 2011.

7 Physicians for Human Rights Israel, “Hostages, Torture, and Rape in the Desert: Findings from 284 Asylum Seekers about Atrocities in the Sinai,” February 23, 2011, http://www.phr.org.il/default.asp?PageID=100&ItemID=1312.

8 Rozen/Hotline for Migrant Workers, Sigal, Personal interview, March 26, 2012. Sigal Rozen is the Public Policy Coordinator of the Hotline for Migrant Workers.

9 Paley, “Surviving in Limbo: Lived Experiences Among Sudanese and Eritrean Asylum Seekers in Israel,” Page 22.

10 Ha’aretz Editorial, “Shame at Saharonim,” Ha’aretz April 28, 2010.

11 UNHCR, Satistical Yearbook 2009.

12 Paley, “Surviving in Limbo: Lived Experiences Among Sudanese and Eritrean Asylum Seekers in Israel,” Page 33.

13 Paley, “Surviving in Limbo: Lived Experiences Among Sudanese and Eritrean Asylum Seekers in Israel,” Pages 24-27.

14 “Annual Report 2010,” Hotline for Migrant Workers.

15 Nechama, Eli, personal interview, March 22, 2012, and Low, Joey, personal interview, December 20, 2012, and Paley, “Surviving in Limbo: Lived Experiences Among Sudanese and Eritrean Asylum Seekers in Israel,” pages 47-50. Eli Nechama is the principal of Bialik-Rogozin, a municipal school in Tel Aviv. Joey Low is the founder of Israel at Heart.

16 Bashar, Adam, personal interview, March 23, 2012, and Olivier, Oscar, personal interview, March 26, 2012.

17 Blumenkrantz, Zohar; Ravid, Barak, “Israel sends some 150 refugees back to their native Sudan,” Ha’aretz, December 13, 2010, and Paley, “Surviving in Limbo: Lived Experiences Among Sudanese and Eritrean Asylum Seekers in Israel,” Pages 44-46, and Cohen, Gili, “Israel Set to Start Work on Detention Center for up to 8,000 Refugees,” Ha’aretz March 8, 2012.

18 Arutz, Sheva, “Minister Yishai Promises to Deport Infiltrators,” Israel National News, December 8, 2011.

19 Weiler-Polak, Dana; Kubovich, Yaniv, “Day after Violent Anti-African Protest, Likud MK Calls to ‘distance Infiltrators’ immediately,” Ha’aretz, May 24, 2012.

20 Cabinet Secretariat, “Cabinet Communique,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The State of Israel, December 4, 2011, accessed May 28, 2012, http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Government/Communiques/2011/Cabinet_communique_4-Dec-2011.htm.

21 Bayu/The ARDC, Yohannes, “Israel’s Violation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination with Regard to Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Israel,” The African Refugee Development Center, January 30, 2012, Pages 5-6, 13-14, and Friedman, Ron, “South Tel Aviv realtors: We won’t rent to ‘infiltrators’,” The Jerusalem Post, August 4, 2010, and Katzoff, Allen, “From Africa to Tel Aviv, Part Three: Demonizing Asylum Seekers,” The Times of Israel, March 10, 2012, and Guarnieri, Mya, “Week after attacks, another African residence firebombed,” +972, May 6, 2012.

22 Guarnieri, Mya, “Week after attacks, another African residence firebombed,” +972, May 6, 2012.

23 Sheizaf, Noam, “Africans Attacked in Tel Aviv Protest; MKs: ‘infiltrators’ Are Cancer,”+972, May 24, 2012.

24 Silver, Charlotte, “Tel Aviv is no haven for asylum seekers,” Aljazeera, February 23, 2012.

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