Ethan H. Smith

The Refugees in South Tel Aviv Need Us

When we see Tel Aviv on TV, we’re usually shown a more glamorous side — bustling beaches, skyscrapers, neon lights, and nightclubs — but south Tel Aviv is different. Instead of skyscrapers and beaches, the southern streets are packed with thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers, most of whom are homeless and living in poverty, and although it’s been over a decade since they arrived asking for Israel’s help, not many people know they exist. Unfortunately, those same asylum seekers are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, because they’ve not only been denied visas and threatened with mass deportation — they are fighting daily to survive, forgotten in the streets of south Tel Aviv. I believe it’s time for this to change.

I’m a young Jew from California, a future graduate student in the field of human rights, and I’ve just completed a social change fellowship for non-profit called Yahel Israel. I volunteered mostly in Rishon Lezion, but I also support the Free Avera Movement and Unitaf Israel, and that’s how I found out about the situation in south Tel Aviv. As a foreigner, I’m not sure what judgement I can pass on Israel and its policies, but as a Jew, I can’t help feeling a deep sense of shame… especially after learning how the asylum seekers came here to escape Eritrean tyranny and Sudanese slaughter, suffered rape and torture on their journey through Sinai, and ended their journey in an Israeli purgatory. 

That’s a harsh criticism, I’m aware, but I don’t think it’s unfair. Under Article I of the 1951 Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, Israel has the right to determine their refugee intake criteria, however, the state is still obligated to absorb refugees. Most of the 35,000 Eritreans and Sudanese fit that criteria, but rather than focus on aid or absorption, Israeli politicians have focused on deportation, or ignored the issue entirely.

As of today, only a handful of asylum seekers hold A5 residence visas and the full rights granted to legal residents of the state. Instead, most of them are issued temporary visas that must be renewed at the Tel Aviv Interior Ministry every few months — visas which limit their access to social services and prohibit them from working or living in almost all major cities. Israel’s courts have decided not punish an asylum seeker for having a job (nor their employer for providing one), but this leaves them vulnerable to a wide range of workplace abuses and little legal recourse thereafter. To make their lives more complicated, asylum seekers have 20% of their income removed and placed in an inaccessible savings account — money which is only returned to them when they leave the country. Although Israel has agreed to provide a $3,500 payment to any refugee or asylum seeker who willingly opts for deportation, this isn’t always a preferable option, because where they’ll end up next is uncertain. Israel claims they are taken to absorption centers in places like Uganda or Rwanda, yet official reports are conflicting, as are reports from the refugees themselves.

After Israel’s Supreme Court overturned a widescale deportation in early 2018, the conversation stopped. Many Israeli residents in south Tel Aviv became frustrated, blaming the refugees for socioeconomic problems and poor infrastructure. “Israel is trying to do our best, we’re a small country, and we cannot absorb large waves of immigration,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotevely during a 2018 committee meeting. “Like any sovereign nation, we need to decide who can come in and come out.” Perhaps he’s right, but it’s important to note that seeking asylum is a widely accepted human right. If Israel can’t maintain the moral high ground to help them, it must instead maintain it’s legal obligations as a democratic nation. South Tel Aviv’s residents might be frustrated, but they shouldn’t be directing that frustration at asylum seekers — they should be directing it at the Israeli policy makers who still have not addressed the issue in a meaningful way. So too should we all.

After the recent dissolution of the 2019 Knesset, there is a sterling opportunity for the state to live out the values upon which it claims to be founded… to share bread with the hungry, to take in the homeless, to clothe the naked, and to come to the aid of neighbors in need. So too should we all. Through organizations like Unitaf Israel and Right Now, we can spread awareness about this crisis. We can donate to places like the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, a non-profit that defends the rights of refugees and helps to combat human trafficking. We can stay informed, and we can initiate dialogues with anyone who will listen, because although we might be limited by time, distance, and other commitments, we have the tools we need, and they’re hardly a web page away.

It’s true that the asylum seekers weren’t invited to Israel like I was, but they are here nonetheless. Among them are mothers and children and innocent people just trying to survive an impossible reality. Bigger issues have forced them from their homes in the first place, but they need our help, and there can be no more prolonging the issue — we must answer their plea.

About the Author
Ethan H. Smith is a graduate student, a writer, and an alumni of the Yahel Israel social change fellowship. He studies Peace and Conflict in Germany and works as an activist for communities across the globe.
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