Article Place & Self

Israel’s other 'others': African refugees struggle to breathe

When an alien settles with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. He shall be treated as a native born among you, and you shall love him as a man like yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. - Leviticus 19:33-34

Palestinians are not Israel’s only ‘others’. A little over a year ago, tens of thousands of African refugees took to the streets of Tel Aviv in what became the largest refugee protest in the country’s history. Confined to the shadows for years and outraged by a draconian measure aimed at their indefinite incarceration, Israel’s other ‘others’ had had enough.

Any glimmer of hope was soon shattered as police violently cracked down on the peaceful protesters. “They were really afraid of us,” says Dawit, an Eritrean refugee and one of last year’s protest organisers. “They were afraid of crowds of black people.” More than a year later, Israeli leaders still seem to be afraid. And in fact, they are only making matters worse.

No safe haven in the land of the persecuted

Approximately 50,000 African refugees are currently living in Israel. Eritreans are by far the largest group (73%), while around 19% are of Sudanese origin. After having fled repression, destitution, torture and even genocide, all these people could cling on to was the sheer anticipation of finding a safe haven elsewhere.

Many of these refugees were swayed by the idea of Israel as “the most democratic and developed country in the region”. Aware of the Jews’ own history of persecution, they were convinced their flight would thrust them into an open-armed embrace. Instead, they encountered a wall of suspicion, exclusion and outright rejection.

Israel, of course, is by no means unique in this respect. The inhospitality of Western countries towards refugees is an all too familiar narrative. But things are slightly different in the Jewish state. While the average rate of recognition of Eritreans seeking asylum worldwide is between 80% and 90%, this same rate in Israel stands at 0.16%, making it one of the lowest recognition rates in the West.

Since 2009 only four Eritreans have been granted refugee status, and not one single Sudanese refugee has been recognised for having a well-founded fear of persecution, despite this group having one of the highest recognition rates in the world. Since the founding of the Jewish state in 1948, less than 200 non-Jewish refugees have been granted official protection.

With a total absence of coherent state policies and legislations regarding procedures for asylum-seekers, Israel is in violation of nearly all articles of the 1951 Refugee Convention – which, ironically, was signed to deal with the same problems that led to the creation of the state of Israel.

And so, plunged into a legal abyss, African refugees have become deeply aware of their unwanted presence in the Jewish state.

The torment of torture survivors

A five-minute walk from South Tel Aviv’s central bus station, in the modest Eritrean Women’s Community Center, Saba is keeping an eye on a group of hyperactive children. The small space soon fills up as other women join in. After casually greeting each other, they huddle around the improvised sitting area. Together with the kids, hunched over a plate of homemade injera, it is clear these women have formed a close bond. More than a self-managed kindergarten, the centre aims to provide a space where hope and comfort can flourish within a distressed and marginalised community, of which Saba is a part.

Before entering the country’s southern doorstep five years ago, the mother of two was smuggled – like the majority of African refugees in Israel – from Sudan via the Sinai desert in Egypt. During the four-day long trek to reach the border, she describes how she drank her own urine to survive.

“I was lucky, some of my friends were raped and tortured,” she says as she points to the quiet young woman sitting next to her. In recent years, as a result of growing political instability in Egypt, a brutal trafficking industry has bourgeoned in the desert, described by the United Nations as “the most unreported humanitarian crisis in the world.”

Kidnapped in Sudan and sold to Bedouin gangs, many African refugees were held in the desert where they endured weeks or months of unspeakable torture with the intention of extorting as much money from them as possible. It is estimated that 20% of all Eritrean asylum-seekers in Israel are survivors of these Sinai torture camps.

Saba simply refuses to talk about the forms of abuse that her friends have endured. It has been reported that torture methods consist of starvation, beatings, rape (including penetration with objects), electric shocks, pouring hot plastic over the bodies of the victims, or branding them with hot irons. If their family members failed to pay up hefty ransoms – going up to $40,000 – the traffickers would kill their hostages, and at times even sell their organs.

As soon as Saba reached the Israeli border, she was detained for three months before she was put on a bus and dumped at the capital’s central bus station, along with hundreds of others who were also left to fend for themselves.

Filling the void generated by Israel’s absence of protective measures for torture survivors and asylum-seekers, the Eritrean Women’s Community Center has evolved into one of the few places in the area where women can seek refuge – both from their traumatising past of repression, war and torture and from their present reality in the ‘Promised Land’.

‘Infiltrators’ in the Jewish state

South Tel Aviv is not like your average neighbourhood. Ever since the early 1940s, following the construction of the bus station, it has been a hub of transient populations. Marked by insufficient public services and a shaky infrastructure, the area has been neglected by the authorities for decades.

The burden on South Tel Aviv was amplified with the sudden influx of African refugees in the mid-2000s, which prompted Israeli residents to blame the newcomers as the source of the neighbourhood’s ills. From crime, drugs and prostitution, the area is known today as a powder keg of social tensions.

Anti-immigration rallies are common and the threat of violence simmers underneath the surface. Hunted down in the streets, at work, and even in their homes, refugees are confronted on a daily basis with intense xenophobic rhetoric and actions.

“I’m proud to be racist,” proclaimed May Golan, an Anti-African mob leader during an October 2012 rally demanding the mass expulsion of refugees. Also known as the darling of the governing party Likud, she has taken a prominent role in firing up anti-immigrant sentiment in the neighbourhood.

Miri Regev, a Member of the Knesset for Likud, was famously quoted saying in 2012 that “the Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” She later apologised – not to refugees but to cancer victims, for comparing them to Africans.

The dehumanisation of African refugees has been intensified by an artificial climate of fear. Branded ‘infiltrators’ by the establishment – a term used to denote Palestinians who entered Israel in the 1950s after the first Arab-Israeli War – they are not only categorically excluded from society, but also demonized as threats to Israel’s demographic security.

More concretely, African refugees are not welcome because their sheer presence jeopardises the Jewish character of the state.

In an effort to block out the ‘infiltrators,’ a 240km fence was completed in 2013 to seal off the border with Egypt. The cost of the fence ran at an estimated $430 million, making it one of the country’s largest and most expensive infrastructure projects.

Prime Minister Netanyahu declared that “Israel has achieved the extraordinary, which I’m very proud of, in blocking illegal migration across our borders: zero illegal migrants.” Regardless of whether the refugees in question have fled war, poverty or brutality, Israel stands firm in its hostility towards the Other – those who fail to understand, as former Interior Minister Eli Yishai put it, that Israel “belongs to us, to the white man.”

No justice, freedom or dignity

Now that migration through Sinai has been brought to a near-total halt, the remaining thousands who entered the country prior the construction of the fence are now the principal targets of state persecution. Since deporting these people would be an official violation of international law, several politicians have been going on a venomous public campaign to make their lives as miserable as possible, in the hope of forcing them to leave ‘voluntarily.’

With one discriminatory measure after another, Israel ensures that refugees are excluded from the structures of everyday life. Shoved to the margins of the workforce, they are left without any access to welfare or medical services. As of May 2015, 20% of asylum-seekers’ already meagre earnings will be deducted from their income, which they will only receive if and when they decide to leave the country.

In addition, the Knesset has been passing legislation intended to severely limit the physical freedom of refugees. Approved in late 2013, the new amendment of the ‘Anti-Infiltration Law’ – which dates back to the attempt in 1954 to prevent Palestinian refugees from returning to their homes – mandated the automatic detention without trial of asylum-seekers for an unlimited period of time.

Essentially, they were given two options: to stay imprisoned in Israel indefinitely, or to ‘voluntarily’ return to their countries, where they face persecution, grave insecurity and possibly death. To encourage their departure, Israel has given them a helping hand: in the past two years alone, more than 6,000 asylum-seekers have left Israel after they were given $3,500 each.

“From the first day we arrived in this country we understood very clearly we didn’t have any rights,” says Taj, a Darfuri refugee and one of last year’s protest organisers. “But this new Anti-Infiltration Law was a major violation. That’s why the demonstration was so massive.” Taking to the streets in a collective burst of outrage, the protesters not only stood up to demand their most basic rights to be recognised, but also to reclaim their dignity as human beings.

In its ceaseless effort to restrict the freedoms of non-Jews within the Jewish state, Israel has effectively turned this dignity to tatters. After the High Court eventually ruled the law to be unconstitutional, the parliament has recently proposed to limit the time of detention to a period of 20 months.

Still, around 2,000 refugees are now locked up in the so-called ‘open-detention facility’ in Holot, the largest of its kind in the world. In the desert, far from any population centres, with no access to basic necessities like food or medical provisions, they are treated as less deserving than a great deal of convicted criminals. “And despite everything,” Dawit says, “Israel still calls itself a democracy.”

Fighting to breathe

Until now, the struggle of African refugees has been an endless process of demands, and it will continue to be so as long as Israel’s ethno-political structure remains profoundly unjust and oppressive towards its non-Jewish population. With hope for meaningful change slowly waning, people like Dawit, Saba and Taj, along with countless others, have no intention to remain in Israel permanently. All they wish for is to safely return to their countries. But at this point, they are not left with a great deal of options.

With the help of a few dedicated Israelis, the refugees will keep on trying to shift the public discourse surrounding their presence in the Jewish state. The closure of Holot prison should be a first step, and for that, the need for international solidarity is urgent.

Four years ago, on Holocaust Memorial Day, former Israeli President Shimon Peres addressed a mourning crowd: “We, of the Jewish nation, were victims of racism, persecution and discrimination. Every citizen of Israel, regardless of religion or race, knows that Israel is, and must be, the most anti-racist country in the world.”

As long as these noble words stay in the realm of wishful thinking, Israel’s Others will remain committed to their struggle – if only, as Dawit put it, “to keep on fighting to breathe.”

Tamara van der Putten has worked as a legal assistant and a volunteer with refugees and asylum-seekers in Greece, and most recently in Israel. She has a background in anthropology and is currently working as an editor for ROAR Magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @tamara_vdP.

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