Cold winter nights present new humanitarian challenges to homeless asylum seekers. While concerned citizens try to help, there is little they can do against a government explicitly working to make the lives of Israel’s refugee population as miserable as possible.
South Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park is home to a steady rotation of some 150 refugees and asylum seekers who spend their nights on its lawns. A typically temperate winter recently made way for an unusually cold stretch, and earlier this week, it was reported that a homeless asylum seeker froze to death in the park.
The news had a ripple effect, prompting concerned citizens and groups to gather coats, blankets and food – collected from both sympathetic businesses and purchased privately – to bring to the park. Even the Tel Aviv municipality seemed to have sprung into action, issuing a call for volunteers to help distribute blankets and hot food to homeless refugees.
Despite the reports, it is unclear whether the man in question was actually an asylum seeker, or if he died. But the response to the reports highlights the helplessness of sympathetic citizens in the face of state policy to turn the lives of asylum seekers in Israel into a living hell. As Israel’s asylum climate steadily deteriorates, the struggle for survival in Levinsky Park could presage a larger humanitarian nightmare.
The municipality now distributing food and blankets is the same municipality that recently ordered its contractors to fire the some 800 refugees and asylum seekers they employ, primarily in street cleaning. The move came despite a clear commitment the government made to the Supreme Court to refrain from enforcing a ban on hiring asylum seekers, thereby explicitly sanctioning their employment.
This is also the same municipality shutting down refugee-owed businesses and threatening to rescind the tax benefits enjoyed by African churches providing much-needed shelter to some homeless asylum seekers. And this is the same municipality that every morning throws out the blankets – donated by citizens desperate to do the little they can – that the refugees hide in and around the park when they embark on their daily search for work.
The desperation on display at nightfall in Levinsky Park is jarring, but the government, with the cooperation of municipalities, is working to ensure that it does not remain limited to southern Tel Aviv. The string of measures the government is simultaneously pursuing is ostensibly meant to stem the tide of arrivals from Africa. In practice, it will do nothing of the sort. The amendment to Israeli’s 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law, passed earlier this month and enabling the long-term detention of refugees without trial, is the pinnacle of these measures. Decried by human rights advocates as the most draconian legislation of its kind in the western world, it will be supplemented by the construction of a detention center designed to hold more than 10,000 immigrants, a fence on the Israel-Egypt border and a blanket ban on employment.
The moves have been presented as disincentives: if things get unbearable enough for the refugees, who the state cannot deport due to its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, they will send word to their friends to stay home. But for now, refugees keep on coming. As long as governments like Eritrea – which enjoys full diplomatic ties with Israel – continue to rule with unimaginable cruelty, their citizens will continue to flee, and Israel will be forced to release refugee prisoners to make room for new arrivals. The restrictive policies are likely to result in little more than worsened living and work conditions; the prolonged detention of refugees in need of international protection; and a further downward spiral in the Sinai Peninsula, where refugees face torture at the hands of Bedouin smugglers and risk being shot by Egyptian soldiers on the soon-to-be-fenced border with Israel.
The refugees in Levinsky Park no doubt welcome the initiatives of citizens rightly wanting to extend a hand and a hot meal. Indeed, those initiatives present an important contrast to the callousness they regularly encounter. But those initiatives stand no chance against a state system explicitly designed to sow misery amongst some 50,000 refugees and asylum seekers.
It is the boundlessness of the disincentive logic that terrifies. It is a misguided logic that calls for stripping the basic conditions of humanity, one by one, until a lesson concocted by xenophobic politicians in Jerusalem reaches the nether regions of the Horn of Africa. It seems that Israel’s asylum seekers and refugees are in for a chokehold, long and slow.
Noa Yachot is the managing editor of +972. She previously worked at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel.