Asylum seekers in Israel are scared. I am scared for them

For years, Israel’s right-wing government has fomented hatred against African asylum seekers. Now it plans to deport them, while the world turns a blind eye.

By Leah Platkin

Two women embrace before the deportation of South Sudanese refugees in 2012. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Two women embrace before the deportation of South Sudanese refugees in 2012. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

As a social worker working with African asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv, I have seen my fair share of racism and hostility from Israeli politicians and local residents who blame them for the myriad problems in their neighborhoods. South Tel Aviv has always been a rough area, however, long neglected by the municipality. Walking through its neighborhoods, you see piles of trash, junkies, homeless people living in the parks, and a stench of urine that follows you everywhere you go. The main difference between a decade ago and today is that today those streets and parks are full of African asylum seekers.

I moved to Israel three years ago to do trauma work with African asylum seekers and torture victims who were kidnapped and trafficked in the Sinai as they fled their home countries. Eritrean and Sudanese refugees fled brutal and dangerous dictatorships, forced conscription, civil wars, and persecution for human rights activism. Those who were kidnapped, trafficked, and brutalized in torture camps run by Bedouin tribes in the Sinai were only released when their already impoverished families paid a $40,000 ransom. The lucky ones, who made it across the Israeli-Egyptian border, were severely traumatized; today, many of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In Israel, African asylum seekers lack both legal status and access to basic services and rights. They do not have healthcare, employment, freedom of movement, higher education, and other basic services that Israeli citizens and legal residents enjoy. Most work under the table in low-paying and often dangerous jobs, primarily in cleaning or construction. Since these “illegal” asylum seekers are not granted refugee status, they are not eligible to receive travel documents. Every day, asylum seeker families beg for help to get out of Israel and find resettlement in Europe or North America.

The already harsh economic conditions of these refugees worsened significantly in May 2017, when the Knesset passed a law allowing the government to withhold 20 percent of asylum seekers’ monthly paychecks — that will only get back when they leave Israel for good.

Most recently, Israel claimed to have reached a major arrangement with Rwanda and Uganda to forcibly relocate 40,000 asylum seekers from Israel against their will. Rwanda has not yet recovered from the civil war and genocide of 1990-1994, and currently hosts more refugees from other African nations than they can handle. Concurrently, Uganda is overflowing with refugees and cannot meet the most basic needs of its own citizens.

Upon arrival in Israel, I was warned that the mainstream sentiment toward this community was largely motivated by racism. When looking for my first apartment in Tel Aviv, a landlord asked me where I worked. When I told him that I am a social worker with Eritreans and Sudanese, he rolled his eyes and said, “Just don’t bring any of those dirty Sudanese into the building, OK?” On several occasions, when walking in Hatikva neighborhood with my clients, older residents would shout at me saying, “What are you doing with those infiltrators? You probably sleep with these jungle people.”

Holding signs reading ‘The rehabilitation of south Tel Aviv begins with deportation,’ residents of south Tel Aviv stage a counter-protest to a demonstration in support of refugees and against their impending deportation, Tel Aviv, January 9, 2017. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
Holding signs reading ‘The rehabilitation of south Tel Aviv begins with deportation,’ residents of south Tel Aviv stage a counter-protest to a demonstration in support of refugees and against their impending deportation, Tel Aviv, January 9, 2017. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

This anti-refugee sentiment trickles from the top down. Prime Minister Netanyahu and other officials regularly refer to the African asylum seekers as “infiltrators” whose presence threatens Israel as the state of the Jewish people.

During 2014 there were several anti-refugee demonstrations, led by Israeli politicians, in which the demonstrators physically attacked refugees. I worked with one Eritrean family whose infant was stabbed in the head by an Israeli man who claimed God had ordered him to stab a black baby. He was later deemed mentally ill and unfit to be tried.

The family petitioned for refugee status in Israel on the basis of a hate crime, yet despite countless requests, only the infant received refugee status — not her parents. As a result, Israel’s National Insurance Institute refused to finance her medical treatment. After years of expensive medical treatments and resettlement requests, they now live in Europe with legal refugee status and full access to basic human services.

The anti-refugee movement, instigated by politicians but largely composed of working class residents born and raised in south Tel Aviv, has a clear message: they blame the refugees for the problems in their neighborhoods, and they want them deported. Indeed, their neighborhoods are poor and neglected; there is petty crime, poor infrastructure, as well as a wave of gentrification and rent increases over the past five years. Instead of taking their legitimate complaints to the City Hall or lobbying the government to solve the country’s housing crisis, some have turned African asylum seekers into scapegoats. Rather than regarding them as people with a traumatic history who could become their allies, they consider them to be opportunists who came to Israel to make money and leave.

The families I work with are scared. I cannot say anything to mitigate their fear because I, too, am scared for them. And as someone whose family once fled pogroms in Russia and genocide in Lithuania, I cannot stomach that this is happening in a country founded to offer refuge to people fleeing persecution, war, and genocide.

Leah R. Platkin is an American and Israeli social worker in Tel Aviv.