If there is a single word that can describe the last decade in the struggle of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel, it is “infiltrators.” Racist and derogatory — the Israeli government’s transformation of tens of thousands of people into criminals encapsulates the entire story. Over the past 10 years, Israel has not only refused to recognize those who fled their home countries as refugees, but has also delegitimized the very concept of being a refugee.
While living in Israel, the tens of thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese asylum seekers who fled dictatorship, torture, and likely death were resigned to a life of instability, imprisonment, and deportation. Israel’s policies turned their lives into a struggle for survival — whether in the personal sense, by trying to provide for one’s family, or politically, against Israel’s attempts at expelling refugees through “consent” or coercion.
Above all else, their struggle was for recognition, one which many asylum seekers gave up on in favor of political organizing inside the various refugee communities. Thousands have left for Canada and other countries through family reunification programs or other humanitarian ventures, while others — even throughout 2019 — have returned “willfully” to third countries, often as just another stop on their journey to Europe.
According to statistics published by the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration at the end of 2019, based on numbers provided by the Central Statistics Bureau, there are currently 109,000 people residing without status in the country. Of them, 52,000 are foreign workers, 31,800 asylum seekers, and 17,400 tourists without a valid visa.
Only 13 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers have been recognized as refugees by Israel — the lowest rate among Western countries (less than 0.1 percent as opposed to 80-90 percent recognition or protection for Eritreans and 60-70 percent for Sudanese). In addition, only 1,000 asylum seekers have received temporary resident status for humanitarian purposes; their asylum requests were never processed.
Israel’s insistence on refusing to check the majority of asylum requests, and its refusal to recognize those who arrive in the country as refugees, allows the country to continue its cruel treatment of asylum seekers. Recognizing less than 32,000 people would allow asylum seekers to start leading a normal life, even after 10 years of being in the country.
“I did not flee to become a dishwasher forever,” one asylum seeker told me this week. He graduated with honors from a university in Eritrea and has worked in restaurant kitchens since arriving to Israel in 2011. “Nothing is stable here, I can imagine that if I were a citizen or resident I would be able to study and move forward.”
‘A cancer in our body’
Looking back, 2012 was the fateful year for asylum seekers in Israel. The year 2011 saw a record number of African asylum seekers enter Israel (16,000), leading to the Knesset passing a third amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law in January of the following year.
The law, which first passed in 1954 to prevent the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, came into effect in June 2012. It ruled that any person to enter Israel without authorization through the border with Egypt would be jailed in Saharonim Prison, located deep in the Negev Desert, for three years. The High Court of Justice struck down the law, yet an increasingly stubborn right-wing Israeli government came up with new ways of punishing asylum seekers.
That same year, incitement against refugees reached a fever pitch. In May 2012, hundreds of residents and right-wing activists organized a demonstration in south Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood, in which Likud MK Miri Regev stood onstage and called asylum seekers “a cancer in our body.”
When the speeches were over, hundreds of young Israelis began marching through the streets; when they were blocked by police, they began attacking asylum seekers and smashing windows of refugee-owned businesses. I was there that night, and it was one of the most difficult events I have ever covered. The sight of Israelis attacking asylum seekers was rare at the time; the incident revealed that the intense hatred toward them was a direct result of incitement by political leaders and parties.
A month before the now-infamous protest, Haim Mula, a resident of the south Tel Aviv neighborhood of Shapira, is suspected to having thrown Molotov cocktails at apartments where asylum seekers were thought to be living. At the time, I lived in an apartment above a group of asylum seekers, some of whom were forced to sleep in the backyard due to lack of space.
One night I woke up to screaming and rushed out to see one of their beds on fire. When the police arrived, I heard the officers talking about other homes that had been attacked. I followed them and discovered that Mula had set fire to a kindergarten and another apartment in the neighborhood. When I returned home at sunrise, I was surprised to find out that the police had not published a statement on the attacks, probably out of fear of the repercussions.
In 2012, the son of one of my neighbors from Eritrea died in the Sinai Desert while on his way to Israel. The family was forced to pay ransom, much like an unknown number of asylum seekers who were kidnapped and tortured by Bedouin traffickers.
In those years, asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv would hold vigils every Saturday for those who died while fleeing. During one vigil in south Tel Aviv, anti-asylum seeker activists and residents of Shapira organized a birthday party, but not because anyone was celebrating. The activists wanted to disturb and ultimately stop the vigil, which thereafter moved to various churches and backyards. This was also one of the sadder events I witnessed. To see activists who deigned to represent Tel Aviv’s disenfranchised southern neighborhoods interrupt such a difficult moment for the Eritrean community was too much to bear.
In 2012, the security fence on the border with Egypt was completed, leading to a sharp decrease in asylum seekers crossing into Israel. That year, 20 refugees, including women and children, were caught between two sides of the fence as they tried to enter the country. They remained there for an entire week without shelter, food, or water. At the end of that week, the Israeli army used tear gas and physical force to send them back to Egypt, allowing only two women and a small child to enter Israel. According to international conventions, the state must accept asylum seekers and process their asylum requests, even if they have only reached the border and have not yet entered Israel.
Toward the summer of 2012, Israel began deporting approximately 1,000 South Sudanese asylum seekers, half of them children, after South Sudan declared independence. Despite significant warnings that the refugees would face imminent danger there due to the civil war that re-erupted soon thereafter, the deportations continued. According to activists who remained in contact with the deportees, at least 90 percent of them fled the country, and between 70 and 90 of them were killed. It is worth remembering this every time the situation changes in Eritrea or Sudan, which causes the Israeli government to begin talking about a hasty return of asylum seekers.
The end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014 revolved largely around the struggle against the opening of Holot detention center, located near the Nitzana crossing on the Egyptian border, where masses of Eritreans and Sudanese asylum seekers were detained after crossing into the country. In Holot, which was designated as an “open” detention facility, migrants were held indefinitely, were required to report for attendance three times a day, and were forbidden from working.
Tens of thousands of asylum seekers participated in the protests against their detention in Holot, including those who were already living in Tel Aviv when the facility was opened but feared they would be next in line. While Western countries often jail asylum seekers, the decision to detain African refugees after they had already entered the country and received temporary residency status was unprecedented. Moreover, it was used by the government to show average Israelis that it was doing what it could to “support” the impoverished neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv.
The only problem? Israel began jailing mostly asylum seekers living outside of Tel Aviv, and the 3,000 spots designated for asylum seekers in Holot hardly made a dent in the living conditions of those southern neighborhoods. And yet, Holot had a much greater role than merely imprisoning asylum seeker bodies: it was built to break their spirits.
A war over minds
On Dec. 15, 2013, 150 asylum seekers set out for a protest march against their imprisonment in Holot, demanding that Israel recognize them as refugees. When I heard about the march, I immediately drove from Tel Aviv, meeting the worn-down protesters in Be’er Sheva’s central bus station after they had already been walking for hours. The story was yet to be published when Activestills photographer Shiraz Grinbaum, who was there taking photos of the demonstration, spontaneously decided to call it the “Freedom March.” The name went viral, and the protest reached mainstream news outlets and social media.
After a night without sleep in the central bus station, the protesters headed for Jerusalem. I recall several Israelis trying to convince the asylum seekers that Jerusalem was freezing (it had been snowing in the city), and that the police would arrest them — which ended up happening. And yet, they were determined: “We did not escape from prison to go to Tel Aviv. We will go to Jerusalem to demand our rights,” they said.
The march was one of the most spectacular things I had ever documented. Despite the fact that the participants had only been in the country for a very short period, they understood the need to sway public opinion and demand recognition from the Israeli government. After marching for hours, the demonstrators slept the night in a kibbutz near Jerusalem. The next day they drove to the Knesset where they held their protest. As the sun set, they were forcibly arrested by immigration agents and riot police. They were sent back to Saharonim, a closed prison, rather than Holot.
Following the arrests, and when it became clear that the authorities had begun summoning asylum seekers who had long been in the country, the asylum seeker community in Tel Aviv began to organize. The most significant step was a three-day general strike held by tens of thousands of asylum seekers, who demonstrated in Rabin Square, in front of the U.S. Embassy, and the Knesset. Restaurant owners were in utter panic and were forced, along with their waiting staffs, to wash dishes themselves.
In summer 2014, after they were held for months in Holot and had grown tired of waiting for Israel to recognize them as refugees, hundreds of asylum seekers marched to the border with Egypt, demanding the UN and other international bodies come to their aid. It seemed the incitement by ministers, members of Knesset, even Netanyahu itself, had successfully broken the asylum seekers’ spirit.
“I can survive prison, but to be called a cancer, that broke me. I understood that we have no future in Israel,” Jack Tigi, a Sudanese asylum seeker, told me at the protest camp in Nitzana. Hours after the interview, immigration agents raided the camp and arrested the protesters, sending them to Saharonim.
“We began marching because we understood, and in my eyes we were right, that the government does not want to process our asylum requests. They wanted to sever us from Israeli society — that’s why they put us in Holot. We walked to the border hoping the UN would come help us. We knew there was a very small chance that the army would open the border and let us enter Egypt. But we wanted to try.”
A lynching in Be’er Sheva
In December 2014, the Knesset legislated the fifth amendment to the Prevention of Entry Law, allowing authorities to imprison asylum seekers who enter the country in Saharonim for three months and those already living in Israel for 20 months. This time, however, the High Court did not strike down the amendment, but in August 2015 ruled that it is disproportionate and ordered the government to decrease the incarceration period to a maximum of 12 months. In February 2016, the Knesset passed yet another amendment in accordance with the High Court’s directive.
I spent much of 2015 and 2016 driving back and forth between Tel Aviv and Holot to visit friends there and document life in the facility. Not a single journalist was given permission to enter the detention center itself, but asylum seekers imprisoned there told us all about life on the inside. Despite the fact that Holot was an “open” facility, the detainees had to fight to get heaters or educational materials, which the guards often confiscated.
Thousands who were jailed or were under risk of imprisonment left Israel “voluntarily.” In September 2015, there were 64,000 asylum seekers in Israel; today only 32,000 remain. Over 6,400 left in 2014, when Holot was opened. In 2015, three Eritreans who left Israel and tried to reach Europe were kidnapped and executed by Islamic State militants in Libya.
On Oct. 18, 2015, a Bedouin citizen of Israel shot and killed an Israeli soldier in Be’er Sheva’s central bus station. He then took the soldier’s rifle and opened fire at civilians. Security guards shot Habtoum Zarhum, an Eritrean asylum seeker who happened to be at the scene. As he lay dying, Zarhum was attacked by a group of Israelis who mistook him for the shooter. Four of Zarhum’s attackers received light sentences.
The lynching, which came at the height of a spate of knifing and shooting attacks by Palestinians, shocked the asylum seeker community, and was the result of a combination of general animosity against refugees coupled with statements made at the time by politicians and rabbis that “terrorists” should not remain alive.
Netanyahu paved the path to deportation
In May 2017, the Knesset passed a law that would allow employers to deduct 20 percent of asylum seekers’ monthly wages, which they would only receive upon leaving Israel. The law severely affects asylum seekers until today, forcing many into even deeper poverty. According to asylum seeker aid organizations, the law has also pushed many women into sex work.
In August 2017, after the High Court ruled that Israel could not jail asylum seekers indefinitely — but could deport those who had not submitted asylum requests or whose requests were rejected to a “third country” — Netanyahu visited south Tel Aviv for a photo-op. He would later announce that following the High Court ruling, Rwanda would agree to accept asylum seekers who were not interested in leaving Israel, paving the way for forcible deportation.
In 2018, the government came up with plan to forcibly deport tens of thousands of asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda. The plan sparked mass protests across Israel. Eventually, the High Court ordered a freeze on deportations and the whole scheme collapsed when Netanyahu reached a deal with the United Nations on the matter. Shortly afterward, following pressure from right-wing groups, Netanyahu scrapped the deal. Holot detention facility, which had been in operation since the end of 2013, was shut down.
In January 2018, the Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration started handing out deportation letters. In parallel, an extensive, multi-scope effort to stop the deportations commenced — in the streets as well as the courts. Movements like “Stopping the Deportation” and “South Tel Aviv Against the Deportation” sprouted up, with the latter group especially striking a delicate balance between the needs of the residents of south Tel Aviv neighborhoods and those of the asylum seekers.
In those months, I joined a delegation of Knesset members from Meretz to Rwanda and Uganda, where we learned first-hand about the fate of those who are forced to leave. I still think about the conversations I had with asylum seekers there, who said they were not expecting life to be perfect, but were at least hoping for a fresh start — one free of the fear of incarceration with no trial and the racism that they experienced in Israel.
I met people who had been broken by the false promise of a visa. Because the authorities in those new countries refused to recognize asylum seekers who were coming from Israel, people had to lie about coming from Israel so they wouldn’t be robbed of the small amounts of money they were able to save.
This was a “novel” idea in its own way. In Western countries, migrants who were not recognized as asylum seekers were sent back to their home countries, despite the dangers they often faced. Deportation to a third country is an Israeli invention, and one day we will hopefully discover what kind of deal these countries were offered.
That same year, asylum seekers from Eritrea were increasingly organizing to unite opposition factions to defeat the dictatorship in their home country. This led to intra-communal violence, as groups who supported the regime brawled with those who were against it. The Eritrean Embassy in Israel was not only getting involved in community affairs, but was also charging asylum seekers a 2 percent income tax — one that other countries had banned.
In 2018, some of the asylum seekers locked up in Holot were transferred to a prison while awaiting deportation. They were all released when the state announced the official collapse of the deportation plan.
Tigi, the asylum seeker I had met at the protest outside Holot, said at the time that “Israel is engaged in an emotional and psychological war against us, to break us. When people reach their breaking point, they leave of their own volition. They want to deport us indirectly that way.”
Tigi himself was imprisoned in Holot for two years, and though he was released, he says he hasn’t left yet. “To this day, I’m in the same situation as I was when I first arrived in Israel. People didn’t leave Israel because of police brutality. They’ve leave because they understand that Israelis have closed their heart and decided to turn a blind eye. The only thing they tell us is, ‘just leave.’ We agree to leave, but to where? How? We are asking for help, and nobody is heeding our call.”
‘The best they’ve had it’
In 2019, national elections took precedent over everything else. The asylum seekers issue waned, and almost none of the parties addressed it in their campaigns.
Last week, Israel’s immigration authority held a media tour in a detention facility in the city of Bnei Brak, next to Tel Aviv. The head of the authority, Shlomo Mor-Yosef, said: “I wouldn’t want to trade places with them, but this is the best they’ve had it since arriving to Israel.” He continued: “At this rate, in a few years, Israel will no longer have asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, even without a deportation plan.”
Even without official deportation orders, the fact that the immigration authority is not processing asylum requests and refuses to recognize their status as asylum seekers guarantees that life for asylum seekers in Israel will remain difficult.
Thousands of asylum seekers have fled this year as well (2,266 Eritreans and 209 from Sudan). Some have gone to Canada as part of a family reunification plan, while others have headed to third countries, including in Africa, where they will begin their journey to Europe anew. There, they have a higher chance of gaining refugees status.
Not all the events that transpired over the last decade are covered above. This includes the government’s decision to shut down branches of the Interior Ministry across the country, forcing asylum seekers trek down to a single office in Bnei Brak to renew their visa, forcing many to wait outside overnight in the cold.
It also skips over the story of the Eritrean baby who was stabbed in the head by a deranged man who declared he “hates blacks.” I also have not covered the everyday moments of asylum seekers, many of whom arrived in Tel Aviv at the start of the decade and couldn’t find a job or accommodations and were forced into homelessness.
One cannot end, however, without mentioning all those who supported and protested together with asylum seekers, including aid organizations, activists, and many volunteers. Those who fought the legal battles and took on the bureaucracy, despite the incitement against them and the claims that they were neglecting their own people by standing alongside asylum seekers. Their mobilization gave us hope, and that community of activists became a family away from home for the thousands of refugees who fled to this country.