The Cost Of Is­rael’s Anti-Mi­grant Poli­cies

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Ilan Ben Zion

On the face of it, Tek­lit Michael is sim­i­lar to so many Is­raelis liv­ing in Tel Aviv. He just marked 10 years liv­ing in the city, works at a non-profit, and speaks flu­ent He­brew and English.

But af­ter a decade in Is­rael, he might get sent pack­ing to a coun­try he’s never been to be­fore, where he doesn’t speak the lan­guage, doesn’t have friends or fam­ily, and has no prospec­tive fu­ture.

Michael was one of thou­sands of African asy­lum seek­ers who protested out­side the Rwan­dan em­bassy against Is­rael’s plan to de­port tens of thou­sands of peo­ple who en­tered the coun­try il­le­gally.

The Is­raeli gov­ern­ment has given the coun­try’s 37,000 African asy­lum seek­ers 60 days to ac­cept $3,500 and a plane ticket to Rwanda or face in­car­cer­a­tion start­ing in April.

The vast ma­jor­ity of the nearly 40,000 Africans in Is­rael are Eritre­ans and Su­danese who fled their coun­tries for Is­rael from 2005 to 2015. Is­rael’s con­struc­tion of a fence along the bor­der with Egypt’s Si­nai Penin­sula, com­pleted in 2013, dras­ti­cally re­duced the num­ber of refugees en­ter­ing the coun­try. None en­tered in 2017.

Ac­cord­ing to the Pop­u­la­tion, Im­mi­gra­tion and Bor­ders Author­ity, there were just over 37,000 asy­lum seek­ers and refugees in Is­rael as of De­cem­ber 31, 2017, af­ter 3,375 left the coun­try vol­un­tar­ily in the pre­vi­ous year. Of those 37,000, 92% are Eritrean and Su­danese.

Since then they have worked in me­nial jobs that most Is­raelis don’t want: wash­ing dishes, cook­ing in res­tau­rants, clean­ing and main­te­nance at ho­tels. The Is­raeli gov­ern­ment con­tends these peo­ple are job-seek­ing mi­grants, and refers to them a s “in­fil­tra­tors.”

Michael ar­rived in Is­rael in De­cem­ber 2007, mak­ing him one of the van­guard of the tens of thou­sands of African asy­lum-seek­ers who came to

Is­rael in the decade fol­low­ing. He called it “com­plete non­sense” to call African asy­lum-seek­ers “in­fil­tra­tors” or “eco­nomic mi­grants.”

Michael, 29, grew up in the Eritrean cap­i­tal, As­mara, which he de­scribes as a blend of Europe, Africa and the Mid­dle East – not too dif­fer­ent from Tel Aviv. But the coun­try “is com­pletely ruled by fear,” he said. To es­cape the coun­try’s re­pres­sive dic­ta­tor­ship and ope­nended mil­i­tary draft that has been likened to slav­ery, at the age of 18 he em­barked on a trek across Su­dan and Egypt to reach Is­rael.

“I never had a dream or a choice to come to Is­rael first,” he said. Af­ter ar­riv­ing in Su­dan, he faced dis­crim­i­na­tion and hard­ship, so he set out for Is­rael through Egypt. Be­douin smug­glers in the Si­nai tor­tured and tor­mented the mostly Chris­tian Eritre­ans be­cause of their faith.

Af­ter ar­riv­ing in Is­rael, he worked odd jobs in con­struc­tion, clean­ing, cook­ing in res­tau­rants, all the while liv­ing in down-and-out south Tel Aviv neigh­bor­hoods. To­day he works as a com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer for the Eritrean Women’s Com­mu­nity Cen­ter in Is­rael, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that of­fers English and He­brew lan­guage classes, le­gal aid and vo­ca­tional train­ing.

“Most of my friends are Is­raelis, that’s why I learned He­brew well,” he said, “and there are a lot of peo­ple who have no idea what they’re talk­ing about, just hate.” But there are peo­ple like that ev­ery­where, he says, and they’re not the ma­jor­ity. Michael said he brooks no ill feel­ings to­ward Is­raelis, but can­not abide by the gov­ern­ment’s poli­cies to­ward peo­ple like him.

A grow­ing num­ber of Is­raelis are speak­ing out against the im­mi­nent de­por­ta­tion of African asy­lum seek­ers. El Al pi­lots have said they’d refuse to fly the planes to African coun­tries re­ceiv­ing de­por­tees. Dozens of café, bar and restau­rant own­ers signed a let­ter pe­ti­tion­ing Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu to halt the de­por­ta­tion plan, ex­press­ing con­cern that “many of them are ex­pected to un­dergo dif­fi­cult tribu­la­tions and will face the threat of death.” Yossi Vardi, the en­tre­pre­neur and god­fa­ther of Is­raeli high tech, is lead­ing a cam­paign by ma­jor Is­raeli busi­ness lead­ers against the pol­icy; he re­cently called it “in­sen­si­tive, in­con­sid­er­ate and un-Jewish” in an in­ter­view with Army Ra­dio. A build­ing-sized ban­ner in cen­tral Tel Aviv op­pos­ing the de­por­ta­tion of African asy­lum seek­ers re­minds read­ers of Deuteron­omy 10:19: “Love ye there­fore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Like many thou­sands of his fel­low Eritre­ans in Is­rael, Michael sub­mit­ted an ap­pli­ca­tion for po­lit­i­cal asy­lum four years ago, which, if ap­proved, would al­low him to stay and work in the coun­try legally with­out risk of de­por­ta­tion.

The Pop­u­la­tion, Im­mi­gra­tion and Bor­ders Author­ity re­ported that it re­ceived 15,400 asy­lum re­quests from il­le­gal im­mi­grants be­tween 2009 and 2017, and that ap­prox­i­mately 2,600 Eritre­ans and Su­danese re­quested

‘Most of my friends are Is­raelis, that’s why I learned He­brew well.’

asy­lum in 2017 alone. PIBA says that it has dealt with 6,600 of the re­quests by African asy­lum-seek­ers, and has ap­proved just 11.

But the reg­u­la­tions state that asy­lum seek­ers must ap­ply within a year of their ar­rival in the coun­try. Michael calls the whole process “a hoax.” Four years af­ter he ap­plied for po­lit­i­cal asy­lum, he has yet to re­ceive a re­sponse from the Is­raeli au­thor­i­ties.

Michael said that Is­rael’s plan to de­port African asy­lum seek­ers to Rwanda or Uganda was il­le­gal and no dif­fer­ent than the hu­man traf­fick­ing hap­pen­ing across Africa to­day.

“There are peo­ple who are ac­tive, like me, who have the same con­cern like me be­cause of the re­al­ity,” he said. “Other peo­ple lost hope in hu­man­ity. From their child­hood no­body gives them a chance to live.”

With the dead­line loom­ing, Michael said he’s not con­cerned for him­self, “but for oth­ers, yes.”

“Right now, if they’re de­ported to Uganda or Rwanda, the hu­man traf­fick­ing net­work is al­ready cre­ated, and it’s eas­ier for them to smug­gle peo­ple and take them to other coun­tries, like Libya,” where they may wind up in the hands of the Is­lamic State, he said.

Nei­ther Rwanda nor Uganda have any place for him or other Eritre­ans, who don’t speak the lo­cal lan­guages or as­so­ciate with the lo­cal cul­tures there. Eritrean and Su­danese asy­lum seek­ers who “vol­un­tar­ily” left for Uganda or Rwanda in re­cent years had their tes­ti­monies pub­lished last month by Is­raeli NGO un­der the ti­tle “Bet­ter a Prison in Is­rael than Dy­ing on the Way.” The 19 peo­ple in­ter­viewed made their way from Rwanda and Uganda to Europe, af­ter the prom­ises of se­cu­rity they re­ceived from Is­rael went un­ful­filled. The in­ter­vie­wees all re­called that upon land­ing in Rwanda, their Is­raeli-is­sued iden­ti­fi­ca­tion was taken from them with­out a re­place­ment, some had the money given to them taken away, and none were granted asy­lum sta­tus.

“They told us that in Rwanda we will meet the im­mi­gra­tion of­fice... ‘You will get what you want, you can also stay in Rwanda, you will have all the things there’ ... but as we get out of the air­port, they send [us] to Uganda,” Yo­hanes, one of the in­ter­vie­wees, told the re­searchers.

The re­port au­thors said that from speak­ing to the 19 in­ter­vie­wees, “It was ev­i­dent from the tes­ti­monies that the refugees felt scared, pres­sured and inse­cure. Some stressed the fact that they had never been to Rwanda — they don’t know the coun­try, don’t know the lo­cal lan­guage, have no con­nec­tion to peo­ple liv­ing in it and don’t have a way to nav­i­gate the coun­try on their own.”

The re­port painted a grim picture of what may await the thou­sands of African asy­lum seek­ers fac­ing the choice of de­por­ta­tion or in­car­cer­a­tion in April.

If there were demo­cratic free­doms in Eritrea, Michael said he would go back “in a minute,” but for now, that’s sim­ply not a re­al­ity.

Michael calls the whole process of ap­ply­ing for asy­lum ‘a hoax.’


AN IM­POS­SI­BLE CHOICE: Is­rael has given the coun­try’s 37,000 African asy­lum seek­ers 60 days to ac­cept $3,500 and a oneway plane ticket to Rwanda.

IN SEARCH OF A BET­TER LIFE: Tek­lit Michael grew up in the Eritrean cap­i­tal of As­mara which, he says, is not all that

dif­fer­ent from Tel Aviv.


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