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African asylum-seekers are done keeping quiet about the Israeli government's failure to help them. But is anyone listening?

Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images
Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

TEL AVIV – At the start of this year, tens of thousands of African migrants staged protests against the Israeli government, demanding both rights and assistance. A handful defiantly walked away from the new "open" detention facility, Holot, which sits in the Negev desert. That was followed by mass rallies in Tel Aviv. Then, more than 10,000 migrants descended upon Jerusalem to hold what local police say looked like the largest — and most peaceful — protest in years outside Israel’s parliament.

But no one came out to speak with them.

A month later, 25-year-old Solomon from Eritrea, who now lives in Holot — where people can leave but must report for roll call three times a day — wants to talk. Yet he can barely look anyone in the eye. On his way to Israel, he survived a Bedouin torture camp in the Sinai desert, where he witnessed women being raped, and was subsequently hung up, beaten, and raped himself. Another detainee, Ishak from Sudan, fears that the protests last month achieved little because, he says, Africans in Israel are simply not perceived as people in need of help.

"It’s prison back home, it’s prison here. Where are we going to go?" he says. "We thought Israel would help us…..No one listened."

The source of discontent is Israel’s stance on asylum. All developed countries are affected to some degree by the migration of people seeking safety, but Israel argues that, because it borders an entire continent troubled by poverty, unrest, and repressive regimes, it carries a special burden. It has been resistant to allowing asylum-seekers to gain legal standing within its borders, granting refugee status to just over 200 applicants since the country was founded in 1948. Between 2009 and 2012, when the government took over the examination of asylum claims for the first time — the United Nations had administered it previously — more than 10,800 asylum requests were submitted, but only 20 were approved. In 2013, Israel examined just 250 out of 1,800 asylum requests and approved none, according to Haaretz, though another two were finally approved in late January 2014 amid the migrant protests.

Israel’s leaders fear that granting refugee status to Eritreans and Sudanese asylum-seekers in particular, who constitute over 80 percent of Israel’s 54,000 (according to government figures) illegal African migrants, will only attract more of them. But leaders also know Israel can’t be seen forcing these migrants to return home to two countries gripped by some of the most brutal circumstances in Africa. So the government’s plan is to prevent new migrants from getting into Israel, while convincing those who are already here to either return home or go to a third country by making them wait endlessly for assistance — sometimes in detention.

But this plan is leading to a whole host of problems for migrants, as well as criticism from the United Nations, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and other NGOs. In January, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Walpurga Englbrecht, accused Israel of "warehousing" Africans, saying that the state’s policies and practices are creating "fear and chaos" among migrants. The same month, as protests hit Tel Aviv, Israel’s Interior Ministry announced that dozens of asylum-seekers had been transferred to Sweden as part of a "voluntary departure" scheme organized by the government. However, this was quickly followed by reports that, in fact, the U.N. had made a special request of Sweden and arranged the transfer at the end of last year.

The issue of what to do about African migrants has ignited a fiery political debate. While left-leaning politicians are working with NGOs and African protest leaders to fight for migrants’ rights, those on the right accuse Africans of raising crime levels, stealing lower-wage jobs from Israelis, undermining the state’s Jewishness, and degenerating urban areas, especially in South Tel Aviv — an area already economically neglected by the government. (A Knesset report released last year disproved claims relating to crime levels, but it was pulled from the legislature’s website and the author was removed from his post.)

Yet the public largely agrees with the conservative view, and that gives its political backers the upper hand. "The Ministry of Interior does everything in its power to prevent foreigners from staying," says Sigal Rozen, who works for the Israeli NGO Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, "and they’ve no problem with the p.r. of their policy because the public supports them."

To curb the flow of African migrants, many of whom walk by foot from their home countries, Israel began building a fence some five meters tall along the border with Egypt a few years ago. Completed in December, the fence reduced the number of people crossing illegally from 10,000 in 2012 to fewer than 45 last year. Israel has also carried out illegal "hot returns," sending migrants who’ve recently arrived back through Egypt or turning them away at the border. In 2012, 20 Eritreans were left exposed to the heat and cold, huddled on the other side of the fence for over a week — before being forced to go back the way they came. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have also been known to go into the Sinai to deter people before they even reach the border.

When migrants do manage to enter Israel illegally and are noted by authorities, they are detained in desert prisons in the south. For a while, "they would be released after a month or so and given a bus ticket to Tel Aviv," recalls Natasha Roth, a researcher working with the NGO African Refugees Development Center (ARDC). After 2009, however, the government turned up the heat. Within three years, Israel had amended its immigration policy, called the Anti-Infiltration Law, so that undocumented migrants could be detained for three years without trial.

At the end of last year, however, Israel’s High Court declared protracted detention to be a violation of human rights and told the government to either release the migrants or figure something else out. The government’s response was to amend the Anti-Infiltration Law so that migrants can now be held for a year in closed facilities — mainly in the Saharonim desert prison — followed by indefinite detention in the new open facility of Holot.

Today, Holot holds several hundred African migrants; another 3,000 are expected to eventually join them, according to Knesset Member Michal Rozin, who heads the government’s Committee for Foreign Workers and is working to protect the rights of asylum-seekers. Some detainees at Holot were transferred straight there from Saharonim, but others who have lived relatively freely are now arriving after summons and arrests on the streets of Tel Aviv and elsewhere. And Holot’s "openness" isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: Because detainees have to report to roll calls, it’s very difficult for them to leave the desert, travel to any Israeli city, and return in the same day.

Rozin says she’s been told by another member of the government that detainees "will stay in Holot until they understand they have to leave by their own will, or until Israel has a solution such as a third country that will accept them."

In addition to its detention policy, Israel is using diplomatic loopholes, so to speak, to pressure migrants to leave without forcing them to do so. The Ministry of Interior, for instance, argues it has done well to at least grant Eritreans and Sudanese "group protection," which allows them to stay in the country until further notice without proving prima facie their individual asylum claims. But, as Roth explains, "the government just issues them a ‘non-deportation’ license, allowing them to remain in the country, but without any rights." This temporary status, which the ARDC describes as "unstable" and "short-term," effectively holds the migrants in limbo, with no way of proving their cases and helping themselves.

The government has also tried to avoid dealing with asylum-seekers by claiming most of the Africans are actually economic migrants. "It’s not just Israel. This is an international tactic used to undermine asylum-seekers," Roth says.

Israel’s efforts to force African migrants to leave seem to be working, at least to a degree. Mutasim Ali from Sudan, who has been helping organize protests against the government, says inmates at Saharonim are starting to return home "because they’ve become so desperate through imprisonment, without their asylum claims being acknowledged." What awaits them could be dire: In Sudan, for instance, anyone returning from Israel, which Khartoum deems an enemy nation, is immediately in danger of detention and up to 10 years of imprisonment.

Government figures also indicate that African migrants are leaving: Some 2,600 did so "voluntarily" last year, according to authorities. There has been speculation that some departing migrants are being sent to another African state, namely Uganda, in exchange for military and economic incentives. In mid-February, a senior government official told the press that dozens of migrants have indeed been offered a one-way ticket and money to go to Uganda, and that several have accepted and left. Uganda, however, has denied that this is true.

Starting in late 2013, authorities began offering migrants $3,500 in cash handouts to leave the country and "return home." The Interior Ministry reported on Feb. 18 that, to date, more than 1,700 have already taken the offer, and that several hundred more are expected to do the same by the end of this month.

Ali says some detainees at Holot have taken the deal because "they’d rather return home and die a free man in their own country. The hope is gone from their eyes."

"I expect thousands more will leave soon," he adds.

Out in the Negev desert, for Soloman and Ishak, the prospects of a permanent home in Israel look bleaker by the day. Solomon says that, having escaped persecution and imprisonment elsewhere only to end up detained once more has disturbed his already tortured mind.

Yet there are signs of hope — or, at least, of migrants and their advocates refusing to give up without a fight. Many migrants ordered to go to Holot are refusing to show up, and some judges in local and high courts have recently canceled summonses, citing the government’s failure to grant hearings and examine the individual circumstances of asylum-seekers. And public demonstrations continue: On Feb. 17, several hundred asylum-seekers from around Israel arrived to protest outside Holot. They risked their lives to get to Israel, only to be greeted by deaf ears. What now, they say, is there to lose in demanding recognition.

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