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African refugees ponder election results

There's cautious optimism as values-driven parties get set to step into government

Israelis went to the polls last week in a much-discussed, much-reported national election. The resulting likely coalition between PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s party Likud Beytenu and former TV anchor Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid has many rejoicing at the prospect of a new, more moderate Knesset.

Pre-elections, media discussions abounded about the positions of each main party and candidate on classic issues: the economy, the role of religion, and of course – the conflict. But the position of the main parties on the tens of thousands of African refugees in Israel is less clear; as is the potential impact the change in government might have on them. We  asked two experts for their views on the subject.

Yohannes Bayu is the founder of the African Refugee Development Centre (ARDC), and its executive director. Originally from Ethiopia, Yohannes is one of only a handful of people to have been granted official refugee status in Israel.

Yohannes, how will the change in government affect the refugee community in Israel?

It’s too soon to tell. We have to see what kind of government will be established. If we see more right-wing elements entering the governments, as we had in recent years with [religious parties such as] Shas, the chances of an improvement in refugee conditions are low to none.

Honestly speaking, we can’t expect anything big to happen in terms of policy; but we at least have the prospect of honest, reasonable people in power. We expect to have a few more friends in government; or at least, a chance to talk honestly with them.

During the election, what was the level of awareness within the African refugee community of the fact that it was happening, and the various different parties?

The reaction among many was to be kind of confused. As refugees, ever since they arrived, they didn’t see any positive reaction to them by Israelis, and the election just compounded a feeling of real hopelessness.

During the campaigns, there were election posters in south Tel Aviv [home to thousands of African refugees]. These posters were mainly advertising the political right; this scared them. They were really panicked.

What is the feeling now in the community, post-election?

Primarily, both the refugee community and advocates, NGOs, are relieved to see the really extreme anti-refugee religious parties out [such as right-winger Michael Ben-Ari’s Otzma L’Israel, which won no seats]. We feared that as the refugee issue is a hot topic in Israel, the right-wing parties would do better. But that didn’t reflect on this election in general.  We’re just happy that Israelis showed themselves to be more concerned with social issues; the refugee issue isn’t a core problem for them.

No longer in power. MKs Michael Ben-Ari and Arie Eldad at Lewinski Park in Tel Aviv,  December 2012 (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg / Flash90)
No longer in power. MKs Michael Ben-Ari and Arie Eldad at Lewinski Park in Tel Aviv, December 2012 (photo credit: Tomer Neuberg / Flash90)

However, in Israeli politics, the vast majority are still “against” the refugees, and in general, refugees are not popular in Israel as a result of the incitement we saw coming from the last government.

But perhaps the new parties will take a new approach. We hope we will find people in government to talk to us, reasonable people. We are cautiously watching, hoping to find common ground.

Simon Davies is one of the founders of Kol Voice, which offers a range of lectures, seminars and briefings for groups from Israel and abroad.

Simon, was the refugee issue a hot election topic? Were there any notable statements on African refugee issue by any main parties, for example?

In general, it wasn’t discussed, with a couple of exceptions. Yair Lapid [Yesh Atid] made an interesting statement about the issue on his Facebook page. He said that no one in Israel should be discriminated against, incited against, but that it’s a complex issue that needs to be solved.

Interestingly, [Sephardic religious party] Shas also spoke about it. They seem to be making an interesting transition, with more liberal people like Aryeh Deri on the scene, replacing hardliners like [former Minister of Interior] Eli Yishai.

In your opinion, what is the likely impact of results in terms of policy on refugees?

There is definitely potential for the situation to improve. The parties we’ve seen do well like Yesh Atid and The Jewish Home ran on a platform of liberal-democratic values, and seem to want to take action on issues like Israeli-Palestinian negotiations; we can compare that with Kadima, who were not values-oriented, but rather pragmatic. But it’s not clear yet if those values will translate into action on the African refugee issue.

At least without Otzma L’Israel, with this Knesset we should see a more rational discussion about it. I think that without extreme right-wingers like Michael Ben-Ari in positions of power, it seems like mass anti-refugee riots of the kind we saw last year in south Tel Aviv are going to be less likely. But of course, that could easily change.

At this point, I think a really serious lobbying effort could persuade certain politicians to see this issue as low-hanging fruit; a liberal issue that could be solved easily in return for great credentials and a softer image at home and abroad.

There’s a lot of talk about Jewish values now. If refugee advocates can frame this issue in terms of those values, and appeal to parties who campaigned on that platform, we could see real progress.

A version of this article was published on the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) Blog

About the Author
Anna Rose Siegel currently lives in Washington, D.C. and is the D.C. Coordinator for Right Now: Advocates for African Asylum Seekers in Israel. She previously lived in Tel Aviv and worked at the African Refugee Development Center and the Negev Coexistence Forum.