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Israel’s invisible refugees

We often think of the Refugees Welcome culture as a ‘European’ phenomenon, but an exchange between German and Israeli civil society shows the value of turning our eyes outwards towards global examples of solidarity and support.

Participants in the Migrant Hub Network exchange programme. Participants in the Migrant Hub Network exchange programme. Mention Tel Aviv, and perhaps it conjures images of its vibrant start-up scene, surfer’s beaches, or more generally Israel’s tumultuous history, its battles to influence foreign governments, or the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories. Yet there is a hidden refugee population that lives in a state of legal and social purgatory.

Few know that the south of Tel Aviv is home 70% of the refugee population in Israel. Roughly 46,000 East African refugees, largely from Eritrea (73%) and Sudan (19%), are struggling to make Israel home. Individuals who have escaped genocide, persecution, forced military enlistment, and horrific experiences at the hands of traffickers in the Sinai desert, are in a state of limbo and have been largely overlooked by the international community.

In spite of public sentiment against refugees communities, solidarity movements in Tel Aviv are standing alongside them. In December of last year, a delegation of representatives from the forefront of the civil society refugee response in Berlin travelled to Tel Aviv to learn about the situation and share best practices. The exchange was part of the Migration Hub Network exchange programme to connect civil society organisations across the world working in migration, inclusion and refugee support services.

No status, no state support 

Israel has a history of open immigration of Jews from all over the world based on The Law of Return, but has an otherwise ethnically stratified immigration regime. Although Israel is a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the accompanying 1967 Protocol, Israel has fostered migration policies aimed at deterring East African migration and refugee flows to Israel. This is a relatively recent phenomena. Asylum seekers have been routinely demonised and anti-immigrant sentiment stoked by government-sanctioned xenophobia. In 2012, the Minister of Culture Miri Regev called asylum seekers and refugees “a cancer” and a threat to the Jewish demography of Israel. Israel has approved less than 1% of asylum applications since it signed the UN Refugee Convention six decades ago, and in 2002 the state adopted the responsibility for reviewing asylum claims from the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

‘What we have here in Israel is the problem of status. We asked for asylum, our asylum claim was submitted but until today we don’t have any answer’ explains Taj Jemy, a Sudanese community leader who arrived to Israel from Darfur in 2008, and now works for Amnesty International. ‘It’s not that the Israeli government doesn’t know what to do, it’s that they don’t want to do [it]’. 

Although a government committee, the National Status Granting Body (NSGB), was established to examine requests for asylum, Israel did not begin to process asylum claims of Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers until 2013. Of the small number of claims that have been processed less than 0.5% have been found ‘legitimate’. Eritreans and Sudanese have high rates of acceptance in other 'developed countries' (82% and 68% respectively) acknowledging the legitimate reasons to flee from their countries of origin. To date, only one Sudanese national has been granted refugee status by Israel, atlthough roughly 600 Darfurians have received group protection.

Instead of receiving refugee status, most are given an A25 visa, also known as the ‘conditional release visa’. ‘It has many names’, says Taj, ‘but the main purpose of [the visa] is not to recognise our status as refugees’. It leaves them in a situation of limbo between deportation and detention.

The A25 often lasts no longer than a few months and is exclusively given to ‘infiltrators’ who are released from detention. It must be continually renewed at the risk of further detention, and does not include the right to basic services such as healthcare. Officially, refugees do not have the right to work, although the majority do. Both the Supreme Court and law enforcement turn a blind eye to the situation, leaving A25 visa holders forced into illegal work and vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination.

A legal quagmire

Despite being a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the legal terms ‘refugee’ and ‘asylum seeker’ are not written into Israeli law, nor does Israel have a Constitution. This leaves laws, such as the Anti-Infiltration Law (1954), largely open to interpretation. The law was originally designed to prevent Palestinian refugees uprooted during the 1948 Zionist military operation – which resulted in Israel taking control of 77% of Palestine, and uprooting 700,000 Palestinians – from returning home. Consequently, the law justifies the indefinite detention and subsequent deportation of those deemed ‘infiltrators’, without legal avenues to protest, and is now directed towards African asylum seekers who are framed as an existential threat to Israel.

Denied their legal status as refugees, the malignant ‘infiltrator’ tag is used to stoke xenophobic sentiment by opportunistic politicians. In this context, the human rights of those seeking state protection are being sidelined.

‘Asylum seekers in Israel still have the same lack of rights as 10 years ago,’ explains Asaf Weitzen, from the pro-bono legal aid firm Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. ‘Children who have grown up here still don’t have a decision on their asylum requests, or that of their parents.’ Asaf has dedicated years to fight for the rights of refugees, and has lobbied the Supreme Court of Israel several times. They have won important gains, including as the end to the indefinite detention of asylum seekers and the imposition of a limit of three months in 2015. The indefinite detention of asylum seekers nevertheless remains for those who have been accused of crimes, without access to a trial.

A twofold system of deterrence 

A twofold system of deterrence has been put into practice to prevent East Africans from entering Israel, says Weitzen. Besides the physical barrier along the Egyptian-Israeli border, the blocking of legal avenues to protection by ignoring asylum claims or providing only short term visas aspires to act as a deterrent for other potential refugees. A ‘bipolar model of citizenship’ has been created, as Guy Mundlak writes, whereby Eritrean and Somali asylum seekers and their children are not granted full access to state services and are largely excluded from community structures.

The hostile environment for asylum seekers begins with disrupting migrant communities. One method is long, often repeated, punitive detention in the Holot ‘open’ detention facility. Ali, from Darfur, was released from Holot in October 2016 after one year: ‘Holot is a terrible place. It is not the place for asylum seekers and refugees, because there is no reason [for us] to be put in prison.’

Located in the Negev desert, 60km away from the nearest city, Be’er Sheva is off the grid of public transport or infrastructure. And with mandatory sign-ins three times daily, one would be forgiven for thinking the facility is indeed a prison. Some in Holot are handed deportation notices, while, since 2015, more than 3,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers have been ‘voluntarily’ resettled to Uganda or Rwanda when faced with the choice of indefinite detention or a $3,500 parting gift.

The civil society response 

Civil society is providing much needed support. Microfy works on developing entrepreneurship and small businesses among marginalised populations in South Tel Aviv, mostly women, both native Israeli as well as immigrants and asylum seekers. ‘We use entrepreneurship and financial empowerment skills to give people the ability to make money and provide for themselves’, says Shana Krakowski, Director of Microfy. The method has proven to be incredibly successful: ‘The ability for marginalised women to take ownership of their own life through entrepreneurship, build their own vision, and actually work on a business not only empowers them economically but socially as well.’

The Eritrean Women’s Community Centre was opened in 2012 by and for Eritreans, providing support for highly vulnerable women, many of whom are victims of human trafficking or single mothers. Helen Kiadi, centre Director and a young Eritrean herself, spoke passionately about the difficulties they face in providing adequate support with their limited capacity and crisis of funding. ‘I’m scared for the children’ says Helen, noting that the children of asylum seekers are segregated from Israeli children in different schools, even if they too were born in Israel and are fluent in Hebrew.

There are some – though few – examples of government supported civil society organisations. Mesila has been working with Eritrean refugees for the last 10 years, collaborating closely with community leaders in order to understand their needs and synchronise their operations in context specific, culturally sensitive ways. Established in 1999 by the Municipality of Tel Aviv, the government has been funding up to 40% of their operations, the majority directed towards at-risk children. Mesila’s work ranges from providing information about healthcare, to Pedagogic Counselling Projects for Eritrean women working in informal childcare services to ensure the upholding of safety and quality standards. Without traditional family structures to help support them, and many women grappling with the trauma of the journey across the Sinai to Israel, childcare and post-natal support groups are an important part of the community.

However, Israeli government policies are themselves creating new problems, while exacerbating existing ones. In South Tel Aviv, some residents have decried the rise in African asylum seekers and feel that their government has left them behind. Fears commonly linked to the increase of migrant populations in the area, such as an increase in crime, and a decline in living conditions, are frequently exploited by right wing politicians and used to incite hatred against refugees. Without legal permission to work, access to healthcare, housing and other basic services and without a culture of welcome which encourages integration, Israel’s East African refugees are left devoid of opportunity, adrift in a hostile world.

The exceptional work of civil society, which provides the vast majority of sorely needed support and services to asylum seekers in Israel, must be recognized and supported. Germany’s welcome culture and strong civil society response to the ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe is rightly praised, and more efforts should be made in this time of great uncertainty to connect and strengthen social initiatives working on migration issues across the globe.

Although we often think of the Refugees Welcome culture as a ‘European’ phenomenon, as Georgia Cole has recently argued on this dialogue, turning our eyes outwards can reveal global examples of solidarity and best practices that could be adapted and replicated. Crucially, delegates of the exchange programme discovered that despite the very different legal, political and social contexts of the two countries the civil society responses are surprisingly consistent and complimentary. Organisations from both Germany and Israel focus on providing support through vocational training and are rooted in strengthened community networks. We campaign for the rights of newcomers, and support entrepreneurship as a strategy for promoting sustainable inclusion of migrant populations. Migration Hub Network will explore options of working with the Tel Aviv Municipality to continue to support civil society organisations on the ground.


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