African Asylum Seekers Demand Rights in Israel, Which Vows to Kick Them Out

Thousands of East African asylum seekers in Israel face being thrown out of a country that built itself through refugees

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An African woman holds an Israeli flag as thousands of African migrants take part in a rally on Jan. 7, 2014, in Tel Aviv

African refugees living in Israel are staging a series of protests, marching on public squares, foreign embassies and government offices in the hope that international attention will provide what Israelis have not: an opportunity to remain in the country they risked their lives to reach.

Israel does not want them, and last year it completed a formidable fence on the Egyptian border that’s doing an effective job of keeping what Israelis call “infiltrators” from reaching the Promised Land. But what to do about the roughly 50,000 who have arrived over the past half a decade and are already in the country?

If Israel acted according to its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention — which, as a freshly minted nation of refugees, Israel played a significant role in creating — the government would review the individual claims of refugees, and either designate them officially as refugees or send them back home, provided they do not face persecution there.

The problem is that most of the refugees are from Sudan, where simply entering Israel carries a 10-year prison sentence, or Eritrea, where the threat of retaliation to returnees is regarded as so real that in countries where their claims are viewed, 90% of pleas for asylum are granted, according to human-rights groups. So rather than deport the 50,000, Israel is making life uncomfortable for them — sending thousands to a remote desert camp, where they are locked down at night and must report for roll call three times a day.

(MORE: Out of Africa: Israel Confronts a New Generation of ‘Infiltrators’)

“This means in effect indefinite detention,” the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees complained on Monday in a statement. The agency scolded Israel for calling them “infiltrators” rather than “asylum seekers” and said Israel’s “current policy and practices create fear and chaos among asylum seekers, not taking into account their specific situation.”

Human-rights groups call the situation confounding. “The policy is one of not having a real policy,” says Bill Van Esveld, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, the New York City–based advocacy organization. “And these people have been living in a legal gray zone for a very long time.”

For several years, the gray zone offered the Africans a measure of freedom. They found work in the informal economy, and a measure of support from the compassionate elements in Israeli society, like the staff at a South Tel Aviv elementary school for children of refugees, celebrated in the documentary Strangers No More, which won an Oscar in 2011.

(VIDEO: Israel Prepares to Deport Children of Migrant Workers)

Last year, however, simmering public resentment of the black-skinned foreigners found a focus. A series of crimes blamed on “infiltrators” sparked rallies against the Africans and isolated attacks. Since then, immigration police have made numerous sweeps, and businesses owned by Africans, once tolerated, have been ordered shut. “So the gray zone is getting blacker all the time,” says Van Esveld.

All of which makes the Africans’ own protests all the more striking. It began in mid-December, when more than 100 left the desert holding facility on foot, on a journey to protest in Jerusalem. On Sunday night, tens of thousands filled Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square — calling a general strike from their jobs such as dishwashing and house cleaning (yet tidying up the public space afterward, reporters admiringly noted). On Monday, a column of several hundred marched up the city’s shore road, holding aloft a sign reading “I’m black and I’m proud” and chanting “Free-dom” in English. In the traffic lanes that police escorts temporarily blocked to make way for the marchers, a few horns tooted support.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not moved. “I’d like to make clear that protests and strikes won’t help,” he said Monday. “As we were able to stem the illegal infiltration of our borders, we are steadfast in our commitment to evict those who entered before we closed the border.”