Tens of thousands of asylum seekers protest in Tel Aviv
Crowd estimated at 30,000 demand refugee status and right to work
African migrants take part in a rally in Tel Aviv yesterday. The Israeli government has adopted a controversial policy of “voluntary deportation”, in which migrants are paid to leave, either to their country of origin or a third country. Photograph: Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Tens of thousands of African asylum seekers have rallied in Tel Aviv protesting against a recent crackdown by the Israeli authorities, which has resulted in hundreds of asylum seekers being sent to a detention centre in the desert.
The crowd, estimated by police at 30,000, chanted “We are all refugees”, as they pressed their demand to receive refugee status and the right to work.
A similar protest was held in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, where many of the Africans work in the city’s hotels and restaurants.
The protesters also declared a three-day general strike, even though many admitted they were risking being fired.
More than 50,000 Africans have entered Israel in recent years, crossing on foot via Egypt’s Sinai desert.
Israel has refused to grant the arrivals refugee status even though many came from war zones in Eritrea and Sudan. However, as a signatory of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Israel cannot deport asylum seekers if they face danger in their country of origin.
In recent weeks, the Israeli authorities went one step further and began rounding up Africans and transporting them to a remote detention centre in the southern Negev desert.
The government has also adopted a controversial policy of “voluntary deportation”, in which migrants are paid to leave, either to their country of origin or a third country.
Some Israelis have objected to the migrants’ presence, notably residents in poorer south Tel Aviv neighbourhoods, where many Africans live.
‘We deserve human rights’
Konda, a Sudanese citizen who helped organise the protest, said the Africans are desperate. “People have nowhere to go, nothing to do. The immigration police are working all the time, catching people. A large portion of the people are in jail now. We want to say that we deserve to live, we deserve human rights.”
In a separate development, US secretary of state John Kerry has urged Israeli and Palestinian leaders to make “tough choices” to reach a peace agreement, saying he made progress during his 10th visit to the region in the past 12 months.
Mr Kerry said that any peace plan he devised would be “fair and balanced” and likened his efforts to draw up a framework agreement to a jigsaw puzzle, as he ended three days of shuttle diplomacy.
Palestinian officials described “tough talks” as Mr Kerry pressured president Mahmoud Abbas to accept Israel as a Jewish state.