‘I’ve Never Even Heard of Eritrea’
During a day-long learning session through the streets of South Tel Aviv with the Yahel Social Change Fellowship, we met with an Eritrean woman who detailed her intense and harrowing journey from the State of Eritrea on the coast of Africa to Israel to become an asylum seeker. She talked about being held for ransom by Bedouin bandits in the Sinai desert en route to Israel. Then, after the ransom was paid and she was released and finally able to enter Israel, she received no guidance from the Israeli government and was left to figure things out alone. All the government gave her was a one-way bus ticket to Tel Aviv, where she was forced to navigate the central bus station in Tel Aviv on her own. She found her way to Levinsky Park and ultimately employment, all on her own. Today, 12 years later, she still has not received refugee status and lives her life as an indefinite asylum seeker.
The most pressing thought I had throughout the day was, “I can’t believe I have never heard about any of this before.” I never knew that there were so many Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel, and I certainly did not know anything about the conditions under which they are forced to live here. At some point, someone on our program even remarked that they had never heard of the State of Eritrea before, let alone that it has been in a state of crisis for so long. I have always felt that I had a relatively decent education in Israel studies, but the more time I spend in this country, the less I find that I know about it and its intricacies. My fellowship is doing an amazing job at exposing me to Israel through new lenses, but the onus is still on me to continue to pursue more knowledge in the topics that are presented to us, such as asylum seeking and becoming a refugee in Israel.
The focus of our day in South Tel Aviv was specifically on asylum seekers in Israel and their status, or lack thereof. According to the Tel-Aviv-Yafo Municipality, approximately 33,500 asylum seekers and other undocumented people live in Israel, of whom approximately 7,000 are children, and the majority of whom live in Tel-Aviv-Yafo. Yet there is still such ambiguity on the part of the Israeli government on how to deal with these individuals. I learned that out of all of the asylum seekers that have come to Israel, only 0.06% have obtained refugee status. The rest live in a state of limbo and abject poverty, essentially without any of the rights afforded to refugees. It is the lack of clear policies in Israel related to refugee status that have enabled this situation.
Not only is the government taking an indeterminate amount of time to decide the fate of all of its asylum seekers, but in the interim, it is passing laws that make seeking asylum ever-more difficult. For instance, there is a new policy in Tel Aviv that single and childless asylum seekers are no longer allowed to live in the city. This especially targets male asylum seekers living in the city, and inhibits their ability to live in a strong community of other asylum seekers.
However, we met with three different groups based in South Tel Aviv, each looking to assist asylum seekers in Israel in some way. Mesila is a municipal unit within the Tel-Aviv-Yafo Municipality and provides information, mediation, advocacy, the exercise of rights, humanitarian aid, individual, family and group counseling, and assistance in dealing with various municipal and government agencies. It mainly helps the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seeker communities. ASSAF (Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel) is an Israeli NGO that works with state authorities, courts and the Israeli public to push for policies to advance human and refugee rights. They also provide the asylum-seeking community with direct assistance through an Advocacy and Support Center. Kuchinate is an arts-based economic and psychosocial collective for African asylum-seeking women. It provides these women with community and employment. It was a comfort to at least see that there are some steps being taken to mitigate the harsh realities of life as an asylum seeker in Israel, although it will not be enough until refugee status is reliably provided to asylum seekers.