The Act of “granting them refuge was in conformity with Jewish tradition of holding no higher imperative than the saving of human life and giving aid, succor and haven to strangers in distress.
I shall always remember with humble pride that my first act as the new prime minister of Israel was to issue the instruction that brought these unfortunate and innocent people to our shores.”
– Menachem Begin on his 1977 decision to invite Vietnamese Boat People who were fleeing communist rule to seek refuge in Israel.
The past two weeks have been momentous times for African asylum seekers in Israel. The fanciest restaurants in Tel Aviv were using disposable plates and cutlery since their dishwashers were all absent because of a prolonged general strike by the refugees. Mass demonstrations in Tel Aviv attracted up to 30,000 people (out of an estimated population of 55,000 refugees) who marched through the streets demanding fair treatment and justice. Demonstrations have continued this past week, including a march by refugee women and children in Tel Aviv to the US Embassy. Refugee representative were permitted to testify in a meeting at the Knesset after previously being banned from the building by the Speaker of the Knesset.
Unfortunately, the government was unmoved with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies issuing further threats against this helpless and marginalized population.
As background, almost all the refugees come from the most war-torn and oppressive countries in Africa, escaping war, genocide, prison and torture. They risked their lives to seek sanctuary in Israel by fleeing across the Sinai Peninsula where many were kidnapped, raped, and tortured for ransom by the Bedouin. There have been frequent reports of organ harvesting where refugees are cut open for profit, killing them in the process.
Over 80% come from Eritrea and Sudan, mainly Darfur, seeking asylum. As I wrote in a post in March 2012:
“In Israel, these two nationalities are not permitted to file for asylum — despite the life-threatening situation in both countries. Instead, they are given a temporary visa that includes a pending deportation order. The visa is stamped “This is not a work permit,” which makes it hard to obtain a job and exposes the asylum seekers to abuse and exploitation if they are hired illegally. This leads to a life of uncertainty and unending stress, and obviously no money for food or shelter.
In comparison, the United States, despite its stringent immigration policies, has granted asylum to 97% of Eritrean refugees who apply (Canada approved 99%).
The remaining 15% of refugees who come from other African countries are permitted to apply for asylum in Israel. 3,200 of them filed asylum applications in 2008 and 2009. However, the government committee responsible for evaluating these requests discussed only 52. The rest were rejected via email without any discussion. Of those 52 applications, only three refugees were granted asylum – one-tenth of one percent of all who applied.”
Unfortunately, more recent statistics of the number of asylum applications granted have not improved. Yet the government continues to state that these refugees are migrant workers, despite never even reviewing their asylum applications to ascertain their veracity. I detailed in several prior blog entries how the Netanyahu government has demonized these poor souls, calling them a “cancer on society” “an existential threat” and “terrorists” – this from a country where much of the population themselves fled war, genocide and oppression and were labeled with vile anti-Semitic slurs. Race riots and fire bombings of refugee apartments and even a day care center in 2012 were the result of politicians making inflammatory speeches to racist crowds at rallies.
In the past year the government has instituted draconian policies of mass roundups and long-term incarceration in prison facilities in the Negev. Fathers are torn from their children and husbands from wives on the streets of Tel Aviv, leaving devastation and even starvation in the wake. Over a thousand were secretly deported back to South Sudan where their lives are at risk. These were cynical “voluntary” deportations made under threat of life-long detention.
So two weeks ago, the refugee community and their supporters finally had enough. They went on strike and marched. Unfortunately the government responded with the usual demagoguery that was parroted by much of the mainstream media.
This is not to deny that the African refugee situation in Israel is a complicated issue. How can a small country of under 8 million people throw open its doors to unlimited refugees? That would impose both severe economic and cultural burdens on the country. Long-term, the influx could grow and threaten the demographic and cultural makeup of the land.
However, counter-balancing these fears are several facts. The border with Sinai has been sealed with a high-tech fence so the flow of new refugees has slowed to a trickle. There are an estimated 200,000 migrant workers in Israel from China, Thailand and the Philippines who have been granted work visas. Why not give those visas to the African’s who are fleeing persecution and seeking asylum? The country needs them as manual laborers. And finally, Israel was founded by refugees fleeing oppression and it played a key role in 1951 to create the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It is a betrayal of the founding principles of the country to treat asylum seekers in this manner.
This is a theme addressed in a column from the Jerusalem Post written by an American who made Aliyah several years ago and is bewildered by the actions of his adopted country. Click here to read this first-hand account of today’s refugee situation.
And finally, I am pasting in below an email sent last week by my good friend Gideon to the Good People Fund which has been supporting his humanitarian work. Gideon spends his days driving around Tel Aviv collecting food that would otherwise be thrown out from restaurants, caterers, and bakeries and distributing it to shelters and poverty stricken families. Much of his work has centered on the African refugee community where he is the savior of last resort for many particularly devastating cases, including a refugee couple who were turned into human torches in a firebombing last year and, just last week, a family with a one year-old baby who was stabbed in the head while in his mother’s arms by a racist. Here is Gideon’s email.
“You a have no idea what’s going on around here.
The refugee community has decided to continue their work strike indefinitely and are marching in the morning all the way from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. I am crazy enough to start marching with them until I fall, which will probably be around Ben-Gurion airport. Which is fine, I’ll just ask to be put on a flight to the US. I tell you it’s wild, really wild, in the developing attitude of government ministries and their fascist boss towards refugees. But also the wide public is so anti refugees that it amazes me over and over again. I simply can’t believe it as I watch it.
No work, no money in the pocket for several families for baby food (Similac, 94 NIS per week + diapers same amount) so there are 4-5 families you [The Good People Fund] and the Zichron group are now helping, including the family whose baby was stabbed and still is in very critical situation and on life support machines. I see them every day.
I want to buy a container full of Similac and diapers for babies straight from a manufacturer. It’s a time when no money is coming in for the refugees. I can only take care in a very small way of the food needs of 50,000 people who are moving towards a starvation diet for them and their children.
Eritrean Sister Aziza updated me on one family who are really starving and one of their small children died last week in hospital. Reason of death was ‘starvation.’ Can you believe this? I am going to see them tomorrow.
It is so impressive and amazing how the whole refugee community got together, united, and are determined to fight for their freedom all the way to starvation and death. It’s a sorry human drama unfolding in front of my eyes and I am so involved and identify and empathize with these wonderful people, that it can rip you apart and at the same time I am so impressed by their sincerity, honesty and the authenticity in what they are doing to win their basic human right: ‘freedom’ . But the more they protest and demonstrate it seems that it has the opposite effect and people are angry at them and hate them even more. Amazing. Huge shame.”
(NOTE: I heard from Gideon today and apparently the situation with the babies and young children of the refugees has gotten worse. Another baby died from what the hospital called “malnutrition,” and hunger appears to be spreading since many refugees lost their jobs due to their general strike.)