In a previous post I described the plight of African refugees in Levinsky Park in downtown Tel Aviv, where many hundreds, ill clothed and hungry, face an unprecedentedly cold and rainy winter.

Last week was no exception. When I visited the park one night, it was chilly but thankfully the rain wasn’t falling. That was about to change, as a major storm was blowing in with high winds, sub-10-degree centigrade temperatures, and four days of hard, steady rain. The refugees were standing in line for a meal of soup and bread, the only food many of them would eat all day. Most were wearing sweatshirts and light jackets, some with hoods. Some had thin blankets wrapped around their bodies and over their heads.

This situation will only get worse as more asylum seekers, fleeing war in Sudan and persecution in Eritrea, cross the Israeli border. For years now the Israeli government has ricocheted between periods of draconian policies targeting the refugees and periods of simply ignoring the problem. Now the number of refugees has grown too large to ignore – an estimated 40,000+ asylum seekers – and the government is instituting the most oppressive refugee policies in its history. The objective is to make life so unbearable that others won’t follow in their footsteps.

African migrants looking for work on a street corner in the costal city of Ashkelon. (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

African migrants looking for work on a street corner in the costal city of Ashkelon. (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

This is in violation of the 1951 United Nations Convention dealing with refugees, which the first government of Israel helped develop as a result of the Jewish experience with oppression. Its main function is to protect individuals who are escaping persecution. It prohibits the forced and immediate return of those seeking asylum to a country where they might be endangered and requires they be granted basic human rights guarantees. Consider the following facts:

Crossing into Israel

Last week I witnessed a group of refugees shortly after they arrived. They sat quietly in a row on a street curb on the edge of Levinsky Park, bewildered, disoriented, hungry, like deer caught in the headlights. We scavenged among some piles of donated clothes for long-sleeved shirts, sweatshirts, jackets — anything that might provide even minimal protection against the cold. I was elated when, under a pile of children’s garments and t-shirts, I uncovered one old, brown winter coat. It was like finding gold!

An African refugee in Levinsky Park, Tel Aviv (photo credit: Nicky Kelvin/Flash90)

An African refugee in Levinsky Park, Tel Aviv (photo credit: Nicky Kelvin/Flash90)

The refugees enjoyed their first meal in Tel Aviv: a jelly sandwich on white bread and some hot tea. Little did they know that was all they would get for 24 hours. Many of the asylum seekers are traumatized before fleeing their home countries and others face horrendous ordeals of torture and rape at the hands of the Bedouin as they traverse the Sinai desert. When they cross into Israel they are rounded up by the Israeli army and brought to Saharonym prison in the Negev. There they are incarcerated until they can prove their identity and country of origin – men, women and children – at which point they are released with a free bus ticket to Tel Aviv. There are no services provided them by the national government when they step off the bus in the city, penniless, knowing no Hebrew, and with only lightweight clothes on their backs.

Hot return

The government has periodically practiced a “hot return” policy where people crossing the border are returned within 24 hours to Egypt. One example of the hot return policy was well documented in August 2007, when 48 asylum seekers, including some from Darfur, were returned. They were imprisoned in Egypt and some of them were then sent back to Sudan, where it is a crime to travel to Israel. Their subsequent fate is unknown.

According to the US State Department, Israel returned 536 refugees to Egypt in 2008 and 2009. They did this despite the fact that, according to Human Rights Watch, 28 refugees were shot and killed by Egyptian border guards while trying to cross the border into Israel during 2009. (Many others were seriously wounded.) In just the first nine months of 2010, an additional 136 people were sent back.

An IDF soldier secures works on the Israeli Egyptian border fence (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

An IDF soldier secures works on the Israeli Egyptian border fence (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

In order to avoid a lawsuit last year, the government informed the court that it was discontinuing the “hot return” policy due to the turmoil in Egypt. However, last September an outraged Israeli soldier serving on the border alleged that army units were continuing this practice and even informing Egyptian border guards of where asylum seekers were hiding in the Sinai before crossing the border.

Refusal to grant asylum

Eighty five percent of the refugees crossing the border in recent years are from Sudan and Eritrea, both war-torn countries with oppressive regimes. The situation in Sudan, including Darfur and South Sudan, continues to be bad – and now there are new conflicts in the states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The Eritrean government is extremely repressive and there has been an exodus of people fleeing to many countries to escape the conditions there.

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. Thirty-two hundred 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 — less that one-tenth of one percent of all who applied.

Legislation and policy

In 1954 the Knesset passed the Prevention of Infiltration Law, an emergency statute to combat Arab terrorists crossing the border. In January of 2012, the Knesset amended this law to apply to African refugees. It included the construction of a 10,000-bed prison for refugees, scheduled to open in six months, and an incarceration term of up to three years without trial for anyone the authorities deem an “infiltrator,” a term that is now being used by the government and the media when referring to the refugees. Asylum seekers from enemy countries, such as Sudan, will remain in jail indefinitely. Children will face the same sentences as adults.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Eli Yishai during a visit to the Israeli-Egyptian border last year. (photo credit: Amit Shabi/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Eli Yishai during a visit to the Israeli-Egyptian border last year. (photo credit: Amit Shabi/Flash90)

Employers have been informed that, once the facility is built, they will face stiff penalties should they continue to employ asylum seekers. Some are already firing their refugee staff to avoid future problems. But the Interior Ministry has moved up this deadline for all municipalities in Israel. They must immediately stop employing refugees who lack a work permit (which many do not have). The Tel Aviv municipality, in addition to ordering all its sub-contractors to fire the 800 Africans they employ, has also begun closing businesses run by refugees.

The result

The net effect of all these policies is creating a humanitarian crisis. Thousands of asylum seekers, including families with children, will have no source of income to provide for food, housing and other essentials – and no government support to fall back on. This will cause social problems for the larger Israeli society, including crime and drugs, as hunger and hopelessness take their toll.

Government leaders argue that Israel has a delicate demographic balance, and that in order to preserve the Jewish character of the state, non-Jewish refugees must be discouraged from coming to Israel. Plus, the argument goes, Israel is a small country and has limited capacity to support the refugees, who take jobs away from Israeli citizens. However, these points are undermined when one views the 40,000+ asylum seekers in the context of the 220,000 legal foreign workers currently employed in Israel, brought here, mostly from Asia, to work in factories, farms and homes. Unlike most of the Africans, these foreign workers are true economic migrants – they are not fleeing persecution – yet they receive work visas.

Similar arguments of demographic balance and humanitarian capacity, in addition to blatant anti-Semitism, were used in the 1930s and ’40s by many countries as an excuse to keep out fleeing Jews, potentially numbered then in the millions. Given this history, the government should be setting an example of how to treat asylum seekers with dignity and respect, in addition to fulfilling its international obligations regarding the treatment of refugees, based on the 1951 UN Convention.

Today, the burden that Israel has to bear is no greater than the one faced by other countries that, bordering conflict zones, have had to absorb hundreds of thousands — even millions — of refugees. And Israel is much stronger and wealthier than many of them.

However, based on how government leaders are spinning this situation for public consumption, I sense there is something deeper and darker at work here, affecting overall attitudes in Israeli society. I will explore that in my next post on this topic.