At the start of 2014, thousands of African asylum-seekers in Israel took part in a weeklong ‘strike for freedom’. The protest was against a newly amended law stating that any individual considered an ‘infiltrator’ (read African asylum seeker) can be held indefinitely without trial. Approximately 30,000 people took to the streets, demanding an end to indefinite detentions and arrests, and that the government process their claims for asylum. Marching across Tel Aviv and outside the Knesset (Israeli parliament) in Jerusalem, thousands of protesters chanted ‘No more prison’ and held up banners stating ‘We are refugees, not infiltrators’.
The protests were sparked by the transfer of imprisoned migrants to the newly opened Holot detention centre in the Negev desert. Currently 3,000 migrants can be detained at Holot but public security minister Yitzhak Aharonovith has said, ‘We hope it will eventually hold 6,000 or even 9,000 people’, making Holot the world’s largest detention centre. Referred to as an ‘open facility’ by the Israeli authorities, to all intents and purposes it is a prison, says activist Shana Krakowski: ‘This “open” facility in the middle of the desert is guarded by prison guards, locked at night and detainees are required to check in three times a day. The nearest town is a six-hour walk away, so given its remote location, detainees are effectively unable to leave.’
Since 2006 approximately 55,000 African migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, have sought asylum in Israel. Fleeing repression, poverty and civil war they are often forced to pay traffickers extortionate sums to smuggle them across the Egyptian border into Israel. A 2011 report by Physicians for Human Rights revealed the systematic abuse of east African migrants attempting to enter Israel by their traffickers. Horrors included being burnt, branded, hung by the hands or feet and raped. Some are arrested or shot at by the Egyptian military as they attempt to cross the border. And those who finally arrive in Israel to seek refugee status can be little prepared for what awaits them.
Until 2012 official state policy had been to not process asylum claims for refugee recognition; anyone who enters Israel without permission is considered an ‘illegal infiltrator’. Out of the 1,800 asylum applications submitted in 2013, none was approved. Few applications are even reviewed. Instead, claimants are summoned to report to Holot to be held there indefinitely, or face arrest. Dawit Demoz, from Eritrea and one of the leaders of the recent protests, tells me, ‘We come to Israel as refugees, to seek asylum, but instead of processing our claims, Israel tells us that we are criminals.’
In 2012 the Israeli government updated its so-called ‘anti-infiltration law’, first passed in 1954 to prevent Palestinian refugees from returning to their properties. The recent amendment allowed for all non-Jewish migrants to be detained indefinitely without trial. In the same year, Israel finished building a barrier along the 140-mile border with Egypt to physically stop anyone crossing into Israel, at the cost of around $400 million. According to human rights groups, Israeli forces have been detaining asylum seekers just inside the Israeli border before unlawfully transferring them to Egyptian custody.
In the latest twist, the interior ministry’s population and immigration authority has confirmed that under a ‘voluntary departure procedure’, detainees from the Holot detention centre who ‘agree’ to leave the country are given a $3,500 grant and deported to a third country, reportedly Uganda, in exchange for weapons and military training. Damit Damuz says ‘they call it “voluntary return” – but that’s not true. When there’s no other possibility, there’s no such thing as voluntary and there’s no such thing as choice.’ It’s unclear what happens to the migrants on arriving in Uganda, but human rights groups say they are given no legal status and face deportation to their repressive home countries.
African migrants who aren’t detained or deported face an increasingly hostile environment, criminalised by the government and forced to live on the margins of Israeli society. Although most are not permitted to work in Israel, African migrants form an essential part of the workforce. Most are forced into low-paid precarious jobs; they live fearing arrest by Israeli immigration officials and are routinely refused access to housing. In December 2010 hundreds of state-appointed rabbis issued an edict forbidding Jews from renting apartments to African asylum seekers and other non-Jews.
Much of the xenophobic discourse within Israel previously directed towards Palestinians and Arabs is being extended towards African migrants. Israeli officials report that migrants spread disease, steal jobs and cite media reports of gang rapes by migrants.
With the backing of some politicians, Israeli far-right groups that have previously focused their hostility on Palestinians are now turning their attention to African migrants. Nationalist rallies in Tel Aviv have called for the expulsion of ‘infiltrators . . . to protect Israel as a Jewish state’. Following one rally in May 2012, vigilante groups roamed through African neighbourhoods, attacking migrants, looting African businesses and smashing up property. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu recently stated, ‘If we don’t stop their entry, the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state.’
Since Israel signed the refugee convention in 1949 it has recognised just 170 people as refugees. With African migrants now being placed alongside Palestinians as a ‘demographic threat’, it is clear that this represents a new face of racism in Israel. The migrant communities, meanwhile, are continuing to organise and are determined to force the Israeli state to acknowledge their rights, whether as refugees or asylum seekers – and, importantly, as human beings.