Earlier this month Israel began implementing a new policy to deport African asylum seekers. Immigration officials handed out letters to Eritrean and Sudanese nationals, offering them a chance to leave Israel within 60 days in exchange for a €2,800 grant and a plane ticket. Those who refuse face indefinite imprisonment.
The government originally tolerated the newcomers, who arrived on foot via a fence that separates Israel from Egyptian Sinai. Most of the migrants settled in south Tel Aviv and found menial jobs in hotels and restaurants. But, after their numbers rose in the second half of the 2000s, the government built a new border wall and introduced a carrot-and-stick policy, offering cash to those who agreed to leave and jailing those who refused.
When most opted to stay, the government decided on mass deportation.
The government’s new policy has been criticised in public petitions and letters signed by groups of doctors, rabbis, artists, pilots, former diplomats, prominent lawyers and Holocaust survivors.
Some 20,000 African asylum seekers and Israelis demonstrated in south Tel Aviv last Saturday night against the government’s deportation plan. The protest was organised by local Israelis and participants carried signs reading, “No to deportation”, “We’re all humans” and “Refugees and residents refuse to be enemies.”
Earlier, hundreds of asylum seekers at a detention centre in southern Israel launched an open-ended hunger strike after several of them were transferred to prison for refusing to leave Israel voluntarily.
However, the government, which believes the vast majority of those who entered across the Egyptian border are economic migrants rather than refugees for other reasons, has vowed to press ahead with the planned deportations, beginning in April.
Almost 38,000 asylum seekers have entered via Egypt, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan. Initially, only single men are being targeted for deportation to a "third country", believed to be Rwanda or Uganda.
Legal experts opposed to the deportation claim the state has not properly dealt with the requests for refugee status that were submitted by the infiltrators and instead automatically rejected almost all requests submitted. In Europe more than 90 per cent of Eritreans were granted asylum last year, but in Israel, out of more than 13,000 applications submitted since 2013, only 11 were granted refugee status.
A group of rabbis set up an organisation called the Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement, dedicated to hiding Africans threatened with expulsion. Hundreds of Israeli families have signed up.
Despite the prominence of the various campaigns against the deportations, a majority of Israelis back the government. A poll in early February by the Israel Democracy Institute, found that 66 per cent support the deportation plan.
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has criticised the protests against the deportations as “a campaign of lies”. “There is an obligation to accept refugees, and we accept refugees,” he said, “but international law also gives the right to a country to remove from its borders illegal migrants.”
One of the factors explaining the public support for the government policy is the high concentration of asylum seekers in poor neighbourhoods in south Tel Aviv. Veteran residents say they now live in a ghetto and some claim it is unsafe to go out on the streets.
Central bus station
“I worked in a laundromat here for six years but then I was fired and replaced by a Sudanese man who worked exactly the same hours for half the pay,” says Muhammad Ali, an Egyptian who received Israeli citizenship and owns a small souvenir shop in south Tel Aviv. “I lived with my wife in a one-and-a-half-room apartment, but when the contract was up the landlord doubled the rent and brought in lots of single African men who shared the rent between them.”
Ali lives in Neve Sha’anan, a Tel Aviv neighbourhood with a large concentration of African asylum seekers. The deprived south Tel Aviv neighbourhoods around the city’s central bus station have had a reputation for drugs and prostitution for many years but residents say that, now, no Israelis dare visit after dark.
Ali says that his wife has been attacked twice by Africans and that he now escorts her to and from the bus stop.
On a visit to the neighbourhood, Ali points out a “stolen-bike market” run by Africans in one of the main streets, where stolen bicycles and electric bikes are bought and sold. This attracts Israelis from all over the country.
Police figures show the crime rate among the African community is actually lower than in the general Israeli population, but supporters of the government policy dismiss these statistics as meaningless – arguing that many crimes, such as white-collar offences and tax evasion, have no relevance in a migrant community.
According to Yonatan Jakubowicz, co-founder of the Israeli Immigration Policy Centre, an independent think tank that supports the deportation strategy, the relevant police data shows a very different picture. Public disorder offences are 1.7 times higher among the migrants, cases of violent robbery are almost nine times higher and rape offences are 330 per cent higher than in the general Israeli population.
However, asylum support groups argue that such crimes will naturally be significantly higher in any group made up predominantly of young, single males.
Tel Aviv councillor Shlomo Maslawi lives in the Hatikva neighbourhood, another area of south Tel Aviv with a large African population.
“Eighty-five per cent of the Eritreans are young, single men who came here looking for work. They are not genuine refugees fleeing danger. We’re now surrounded by police special forces who have to escort the local residents, particularly old women, when they leave their homes.”
Maslawi says that anyone who can afford to has left the area, and only the lowest socio-economic groups remain.
“Students, academics and new immigrants were attracted here but once the African infiltrators arrived, they all left. The residents are suffering here on a daily basis, and the human rights groups helping the infiltrators never ask the south Tel Aviv locals what they think.”
Israel has deported approximately 4,000 asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda since December 2013. Israeli officials claim these countries provide a safe haven for Africans who will be deported, but this is disputed by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.
According to asylum support groups, almost none of the 4,000 who were deported to Rwanda and Uganda remained. Most moved on relatively quickly, assisted by human traffickers, to other African countries or joined the smuggling routes to Europe.
Teklit Michael (29) fled Eritrea 13 years ago after escaping from prison after being arrested as a dissident. He has been working in Israel for 10 years in a variety of jobs but his dream is to return to Eritrea whenever it becomes safe to do so. He also believes Rwanda is a dangerous option.
“The Israeli government never checks our asylum claims properly according to international law. I’ve been waiting four years and still haven’t received a reply,” he says.
“Now they’re sending us to countries where we have no idea what awaits us. I will opt for prison here rather than be deported to Africa. We know from friends who were deported earlier that our lives will be in danger. There is no security or safety for us asylum seekers in Rwanda.”
After the new government policy was introduced, there was one piece of good news for some of those facing deportation. An Israeli court ruled last week that anyone who fled Eritrea after avoiding military service may be considered for asylum. Thousands are expected to make new asylum claims based on the court ruling.