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human rights

Israel's Africa Problem

All photos by activestills.org


SRAEL likes to indulge in the illusion that it is part of Western Europe or one of the United States. Its border with Egypt, however, serves as a reminder concerning its location: in the Middle East, adjoining Africa.

For years this country has benefited from bloody African conflicts. Israeli arms merchants found in the neighboring continent a booming market for lethal wares. Retired army officers made fat salaries training the forces of dictators. Diamond scalpers earned big from dubious deals.

Today, however, Israel is forced to cope with some of the humanitarian ramifications of the crises next door. An estimated 8000 African refugees have managed to enter through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Many bear scars of torture and persecution. Some saw their families murdered. Israel insists, however, that most come here for economic reasons. Even if this were so, the distinction is morally awry. The global economic order has left most Africans without hope for a decent life on their torn, impoverished continent. The delegitimizing of economic refuge is merely an attempt by the First World to safeguard privileges gained by exploiting the global South.

Most of the refugees reaching Israel originally sought shelter in Egypt. Some fled the genocide in Darfur, some the persecutions in south Sudan. Some escaped from Eritrea after deserting from the army, where service is compulsory and unlimited; if they go back to where they started, they can expect imprisonment and torture. Others are from other African lands.

In Egypt the refugees encountered a policy of hostility, including discrimination, arbitrary arrest, deportation contrary to international law, and violence – as in December 2005, when at least 25 were massacred during a peaceful demonstration in Cairo. Some of those who make it to Egypt, therefore, choose to continue fleeing. They cross the Sinai to Israel. For its part, Israel does all it can to prove to them – and to those who are still in Egypt – that the journey is not worthwhile.

The people crossing from Egypt are not refugees in official Israeli parlance, rather “infiltrators.” (This term was originally used for Palestinian refugees who attempted to return to their lands after the naqba, catastrophe, of 1948.) They are incarcerated, when space allows, in the notorious Ketziot Prison, built during the first Intifada. Ketziot is deep in the Negev desert, heavy with heat in summer and freezing on winter nights. Among these African prisoners are newborns, toddlers and children of all ages. They are kept in khaki tents, exposed to the winds, surrounded by barbed wire and wasteland. In February the High Court rejected a petition by human rights organizations concerning the conditions of the children’s imprisonment. True, there are urgent problems, wrote Justice Miriam Naor, but there is no need for judicial intervention. She blessed the organizations that are helping to improve the refugees’ lot (taking over what should be the government’s task).

The prisons often lack space. In that case the army simply drops the refugees on the streets of the cities to fend for themselves. The state shrugs off responsibility. It provides no medical treatment, no initial shelter, no equipment, no food, and no clothing. Help comes rather from private citizens and voluntary organizations. They host the refugees in their homes; collect food, clothing and equipment for them; and help them fight for their rights. These voluntary groups, including the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) founded in 2004 by earlier African refugees, have also established shelters for them in Tel Aviv. The municipality likewise was recruited to aid them. Physicians for Human Rights put its clinic at their disposal.

None of these measures suffice, however, as long as the government sits on its hands. Physicians for Human Rights was forced to close the clinic, which could not handle the need. The organization demands that the Health Ministry do its part in finding solutions for the refugees’ medical problems, but the government has budgeted nary a shekel. Living conditions in the shelters are miserable. This winter the crowding was unbearable. Illnesses spread with ease. Many had to live on the streets and in parks. There was a lack of clothing and food. The refugees verged on starvation. There is no indication that next winter will be different.

Tel Aviv, May 2008. Shelter housing refugees.

Instead, the government occupies itself with the question of how to stop more “infiltrations.” Proposals are various: open fire; use means of dispersing demonstrations; build better fences along the 158-mile border with Egypt; send them back on their arrival, without letting them seek asylum. For the present very few of these ideas have begun to be implemented at all. The main technique has been to embitter the refugees’ lives.

The government assumes they escaped from Africa in order to improve their quality of life. Israel fears a wave of migration, prompted not by political persecution but by Africa’s economic crisis. The hope, therefore, is that Africans will hear about the cruelty here and erase this country from the map of viable destinations.


SRAEL first came into being as a state of refugees. Among its Jewish citizens are many former refugees, migrants or their descendants. In the past Israel took part in efforts to strengthen the obligation of nations to absorb refugees. What transforms this country, then, into one that views refugees as a national “problem,” whose prime minister describes them as a “tsunami”? What transforms it into a state that throws them into prison and makes life hell for them? One answer may be found in the xenophobia and racism endemic to Israeli society: Zionists fear that a massive influx from Africa, together with other sources of non-Jewish immigration, will erode the Jewish state.

But there are also more immediate economic considerations. The African refugees threaten the cozy trade in migrant workers taking place in Israel. Regular migrants, today largely from East Asia, are a gold mine for exploitation. They pay thousands of dollars to middlemen—many thousands more than is legal—going deep into debt at home, all for the right to work here. Hannah Zohar from Kav la’Oved (Workers’ Hotline) estimates that the income from mediation alone amounts to more than a billion shekels annually (ca. $300 million). Their bargaining power is zero. They have so much to lose that they are willing to put in long hours for low pay in subhuman conditions. This entire apparatus makes it possible to reduce labor costs throughout the economy.

It is difficult to mix the African refugees into this brew of exploitation. First, they dare to enter the country without payments to mediating agencies. Once they are here, it is very hard to be rid of them. Legally, Israel is obligated to the principle of non-refoulement: a nation is forbidden to expel a person to another nation where he is liable to suffer persecution. Israel is obligated, accordingly, to allow the refugees to sojourn and work here as long as their applications for refugee status are under consideration. Israel does not itself probe these applications; it relies on advice from a United Nations agency. The treatment of the applications can drag on for years. Even if a person does not at last receive the status, it is not always possible to deport him or her: in the case of certain countries, the very fact that someone sought refuge in Israel may bring a death sentence in the country of origin. A lack of diplomatic relations between Israel and the country of origin may also nullify the option of deportation.

Both legally and financially, it is hard to imprison all the refugees for ever. The inability to deport them gives them a bargaining position superior to that of other migrant workers. The aid organizations and the community of earlier refugees grant them an additional safety net. Kav la’Oved quickly discovered that the refugees are much less hesitant to sue their employers than other migrant laborers.

Israel has taken measures to bring the status of the refugees into line with that of the migrants. One method was to send them from the prisons to “alternative detention facilities” in kibbutzim and moshavim. This turned out to be problematic. The “freed” refugee found himself under a kind of house arrest in the kibbutz or moshav, and he was forbidden to leave, on penalty of returning to prison. He became, in effect, a prisoner of his employer and typically wound up earning less than the legal minimum. Some of their bosses proudly categorized themselves with the Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews from the Nazis. They were surprised, therefore, by demands that they should pay for the labor they received.

Alternative detention has gone out of use. Legally one cannot thus limit a person’s freedom when there is no prospect of deporting him. As the number of refugees increased, it became ever more difficult to find and supervise places to put them. Increasing numbers were simply bussed to Tel Aviv and dropped, joining those who, for lack of prison space, had been sent there earlier. The authorities were forced to act.

In March 2008, the migration police, on the order of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, undertook a massive operation to arrest refugees in Tel Aviv. The police had to meet a quota of 300 per day. They did not balk at including those with protective papers from the UN forbidding their detention. Even refugees holding sojourner permits from the Interior Ministry found themselves behind bars. Without warrants, the police entered the shelters established by the voluntary organizations. It even arrested refugees at a meeting convened by the UN Commissioner. Many were soon released, but only after receiving a map of the country. On it two straight lines had been drawn: one north of Tel Aviv at Hadera, the other south of it at Gedera. As a condition for their release, the refugees were forbidden to enter the area between these lines. They were forbidden, that is, to enter Tel Aviv and its environs, the so-called “center” of the country.


By distancing the refugees from Tel Aviv and the center, the authorities accomplish a number of things. First, they prevent them from getting jobs in the center, and they will again be subject to the mercies of the peripheral kibbutzim and moshavim. Without the possibility of work in the center, they will lose their bargaining power and will have to get by on wages below the minimum. The atmosphere of terror generated by the mass arrests, and the hint that UN documents do not grant immunity, further push them into an inferior position. Access to the voluntary organizations will be more difficult. The refugees will have a harder time learning their rights and fighting for them.

To this end the police have also attempted to drive a wedge between the refugees and Israeli activists. For example, they arrested activists who hindered them from entering the shelters without warrants, later releasing them under an order to distance themselves from those places. The police also tried to cancel a march organized by the ARDC, claiming that “anarchists” were expected to participate. (Anarchism is in any case legal, and eventually the police withdrew the objection.)

The government has something additional to gain by pushing the refugees to the periphery: their plight will be far from the public eye, saving the state the shame of its own callousness.

As this article is being written, the Hotline for Migrant Workers is struggling against the exclusion of the refugees from the country’s center. The Hotline has petitioned the District Court in Tel Aviv in the name of a refugee from south Sudan, who is raising his two sons alone. They are three and seven years old. In the summer of 2007, he and the children crossed the border from Egypt and sought asylum in Israel. The army arrested them, and after two days they were dropped in the streets of Beersheba. A group of volunteers found them and took them to temporary quarters in the Bedouin town of Lakiya. Two days later they were driven to Jerusalem. Then work was found for the father in a kibbutz. Here, however, nothing was done to keep the children busy or educate them. In August 2007, he deserted the kibbutz with his sons and went to Tel Aviv. At first they stayed at a church and later with a refugee who had preceded them. The father found work, and after six weeks he managed to rent a modest apartment. His seven-year-old began to study in a nearby school, Rogozin, which had accumulated experience in merging Israeli, migrant and refugee children. With the help of donors, the school provides special support for refugee children, including psychological counseling and a longer school day. The father found a place for his younger son in a nursery that requires a very small fee – another part of the social safety net provided by the earlier refugees in Tel Aviv, but only here.

In March the father was arrested by the migration police as part of their massive campaign, despite the fact that he has a protective document from the UN. He was released on condition that he stay out of Tel Aviv in accordance with the aforementioned map. The Hotline for Migrant Workers is asking the court to cancel this illegal requirement and enable the father and his sons to live in Tel Aviv, where they have an apartment, a source of livelihood and a supporting framework.

Even if the petition succeeds, however, this will not prevent the steps to come. These will seek to establish Israel not as an asylum state, rather as a locked fortress, one that is willing to open its gates only to people it can exploit. "end"

Tel Aviv, May 2008.

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