Last December some 200 African asylum seekers started a march from the open detention centre Holot in the south of the country towards the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem. ‘We are not afraid to march, sun, rain or snow. We’ll march to Jerusalem to ask the government for our rights. We can no longer stay in this prison’, said Masala, a young Eritrean marcher. After two days of marching in rough weather conditions, supported by Israeli human rights groups, they were all arrested and returned to the Saharonim jail, where the conditions are harsher.
Altogether some 53,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, live in Israel. Most have reached Israel through Egypt after a harrowing journey. Most have arrived from areas where massacres, murders, civil wars and political persecution are daily occurrences. In Israel, however, they are not called asylum seekers, but rather ‘infiltrators’ – a term harking back to the 1950s when Palestinian refugees, expelled from Israel during and after the 1948 war, attempted to get back to their homes and lands and were prevented from doing so.
While a signatory to the Geneva Convention, Israel has adamantly refused to regard the applications of these asylum seekers as legitimate. Indeed, the government has passed a law against ‘infiltration’. Although the bill was overturned by the High Court, a law proposing to jail any African asylum seekers for one year without trial and detail asylum seekers in an ‘open detention centre’ for an unlimited period, was approved by the cabinet last November.
None of the applications by these asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan was heard in Israel, which, however, does not deport them, because they risk death if returned to their home countries. Throughout the world 84% of all Eritrean and 64% of all Sudanese asylum applications are granted, yet Israel defines them a illegal ‘infiltrators’ or ‘labour migrants,’ refusing to entertain their applications. Upon arrival, many have been put on buses to the south of Tel Aviv city, which houses many asylum seekers. South Tel Aviv, already housing disadvantaged populations, thus bears the brunt, and there have been many violent clashes between local Israelis and asylum seekers, said to consist of many criminals. The truth, according to Ha’aretz newspaper, is that many of them are highly educated and motivated. If the government diverts the resources used to jail them to providing them with help with accommodation, employment, health and education, the paper argues, the pressure on Tel Aviv’s disadvantaged neighbourhoods would be alleviated.
Not allowed to work, ostracised and racialised, Israel’s asylum seekers are either housed in detention centres in the south of the country, which runs the risk of becoming an overcrowded, poorly resourced open air jail, or in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, scrabbling for any work they can get. Israel has been criticised internationally for its refugee policy, yet it seems that the main issue is its’ Jewish identity and Jewish majority, which it is fighting to preserve. At the same time as rejecting asylum seekers and preventing them from accessing employment, Israel imports labour migrants to fill labour shortages in a variety of sectors, from construction to agriculture to personal care.
For me, as daughter of a family whose members were persecuted and racialised during the Holocaust, it is hard to accept Israel’s refusal to recognise the right of persecuted people knocking at its doors. Notwithstanding its occupation of Palestine, Israel’s strong economy and population are well able to offer refuge to asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan.