African asylum seekers strike to demand rights, hold unprecedented rally in Tel Aviv

In an unprecedented protest, some 20,000 African asylum seekers march to Rabin Square to demand that Israel examine their asylum claims and stop arresting and detaining members of the refugee community.

Asylum seekers demonstrate in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on the first day of a three-day strike protesting detentions and demanding refugee status, January 5, 2014. (Photo: Activestills.org)
Asylum seekers demonstrate in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on the first day of a three-day strike protesting detentions and demanding refugee status, January 5, 2014. (Photo: Activestills.org)

Over 20,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea, assembled in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square Sunday morning to demand recognition as refugees. Across Israel, asylum seekers went on a three-day strike, and more protests were planned.

In recent weeks, the government stepped up the arrest and imprisonment of African asylum seekers who entered the state without permits. Several months ago, Israel’s High Court of Justice struck down a law authorizing the state to lock up for three years any person who entered the country illegally, and in some cases, indefinitely. But last month the Knesset passed a new law, authorizing the state to hold asylum seekers in “closed” prisons for a year. A new “open” holding facility named “Holot” began operating in the desert, where asylum seekers can be held indefinitely until their eventual deportation.

The government has stepped up enforcement measures against Israeli businesses that employ asylum seekers in recent weeks and months and municipalities have been shutting down shops and restaurants owned by Africans, adding to a feeling of despair in the asylum seeker community.

The general strike is the latest step in the African protest campaign against the recent measures. Dozens of asylum seekers walked out of the Holot facility (most of them were returned by force), large marches took place in Tel Aviv and Eritrean dissidents broke into an event in the North hosted by the Eritrean ambassador to Israel. Some 50 people were injured and arrested in the fight that broke out between the regime supporters and the protesters.

Most asylum seekers who do work are employed in hotels and restaurants, mostly as various types of cleaners.

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Protesters in Tel Aviv held signs reading: “We are not criminals; we are refugees,” and “Freedom”. Speakers told stories about the plight of the community. “We are living in fear,” one speaker said, “the government waged war on us.” At least a couple members of Knesset showed up and expressed their support for the asylum seekers.

Speaking at the rally, chair of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) said, “this is an existing moment: tens of thousands of innocent people are not willing to go to prison, standing together and shouting: ‘we are not criminals.”

“There are certain steps (taken by the state) about which we cannot stay silent,” she continued. “It’s time for real answers – and the government can give them.”

There are some 53,000 African Asylum seekers in Israel. The government refuses to review their individual requests for refugee status and instead refers to them as “infiltrators.” The term, which was used to describe Palestinians refugees that tried to enter the country in the 1950s, is also commonly used in the Hebrew media.

Asylum seekers demonstrate in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on the first day of a three-day strike protesting detentions and demanding refugee status, January 5, 2014. (Photo: Activestills.org)
Asylum seekers demonstrate in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on the first day of a three-day strike protesting detentions and demanding refugee status, January 5, 2014. (Photo: Activestills.org)
Asylum seekers demonstrate in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on the first day of a three-day strike protesting detentions and demanding refugee status, January 5, 2014. (Photo: Activestills.org)
Asylum seekers demonstrate in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on the first day of a three-day strike protesting detentions and demanding refugee status, January 5, 2014. (Photo: Activestills.org)
Asylum seekers demonstrate in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on the first day of a three-day strike protesting detentions and demanding refugee status, January 5, 2014. (Photo: Activestills.org)
Asylum seekers demonstrate in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on the first day of a three-day strike protesting detentions and demanding refugee status, January 5, 2014. (Photo: Activestills.org)
A man holds an Eritrean flag as asylum seekers protest continued detentions and demand Israel examine their asylum claims, January 5, 2014. (Photo: Activestills.org)
A man holds an Eritrean flag as asylum seekers protest continued detentions and demand Israel examine their asylum claims, January 5, 2014. (Photo: Activestills.org)
Asylum seeker women march toward Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on the first day of a three-day strike demanding refugee rights in Israel, January 5, 2013. (Photo: Activestills.org)
Asylum seeker women march toward Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on the first day of a three-day strike demanding refugee rights in Israel, January 5, 2013. (Photo: Activestills.org)
African asylum seekers hold signs demanding health care and protection at a rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, January 5, 2014. (Photo: Activestills.org)
African asylum seekers hold signs demanding health care and protection at a rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, January 5, 2014. (Photo: Activestills.org)
Asylum seekers demonstrate in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on the first day of a three-day strike protesting detentions and demanding refugee status, January 5, 2014. (Photo: Activestills.org)
Asylum seekers demonstrate in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square on the first day of a three-day strike protesting detentions and demanding refugee status, January 5, 2014. (Photo: Activestills.org)

Related:
Immigration officers arrest asylum seekers on second ‘March for Freedom’
Prison break: African asylum seekers claim their place on the Israeli political map
Knesset passes revised law for detention of African asylum seekers