Although the recent incident on Israel’s southern border involving Eritrean asylum seekers received international attention, structural violence against African refugees has been going on for over five years now. It is important to remember that those who make it in face enormous difficulties due to state policies.
Earlier this month, 21 Eritrean asylum seekers, including a 14-year-old child and two women, spent over a week trapped between fences on the Israeli side of the Israeli-Egyptian border. As the temperatures soared, the group was not provided with any shelter; the “most moral army in the world” gave the refugees only small amounts of water and scraps of cloth to protect themselves from the sun.
Soldiers did not give them food and turned away the activists who tried to bring the asylum seekers something to eat.
After the two women and the child were let into Israel – where they were taken to prison – and the men were returned to Egypt, reports surfaced that the army behaved violently towards these refugees. According to the three who entered, soldiers shot tear gas at the group and used an iron pole in an attempt to push them back to Egypt. The 18 men who were returned to Egypt were returned by force.
International law prohibits states from forcibly returning asylum seekers to countries where their lives or liberty might be in danger, as does the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, to which Israel is a signatory.
While this was a dramatic example of the Israeli army’s treatment of the refugees, African refugees in Israel have faced the state’s structural violence and an increasingly hostile public for over six years.
Although small numbers of African asylum seekers have been coming to Israel since the 1980s, a tremendous majority of the 60,000 refugees who are here now have arrived since 2005. More than 80 per cent are from war-torn Sudan or Eritrea, which are gripped by brutal dictatorships. After they enter the country, usually via the Egyptian border, those who are caught are jailed without charge for an arbitrary period; when Israel needs to make way for more prisoners, the asylum seekers are dumped in south Tel Aviv and other cities.
For those bearing the scars of war, detention in Israel is traumatizing. Sunday Dieng, a 26-year-old asylum seeker, left his village in South Sudan when he was 10 years old after he saw his parents murdered by Sudanese forces. In Egypt, Dieng says, he faced racism and violence on the street. So, in 2006, he headed to Israel – only to spend his first 14 months behind bars.
“To live in jail for one year and two months for no reason … it’s terrible, it’s very difficult,” Dieng says. “It causes some damage to the [mind], because you know you didn’t do anything wrong, you didn’t do any crime.” Although Dieng was an adult when he arrived, unaccompanied minors make up a significant part of Israel’s refugee population. And those children are also detained without charge.
Once out of jail, the state either refuses to process refugees’ individual requests for asylum or arbitrarily rejects them without adequately investigating their claims. Instead, Israel gives citizens of Sudan and Eritrea group protection. So they get visas, but not work visas – forcing refugees onto the black market where they face exploitation.
Many are unable to find jobs at all and, because they do not have citizenship or residency, they do not get help from the state. South Tel Aviv’s parks are filled with homeless, emaciated refugees. Others scrape by on odd jobs and live in crowded apartments; sometimes two dozen asylum seekers will share a single room.
Their children, even those who are born here and speak fluent Hebrew, are not recognized by the state. Although they can attend municipal kindergartens and schools from the age of three, before then, their parents don’t get help paying for day-care as poor Israelis do. So they are forced to send their toddlers to cheaper, unregulated black market day-cares, places one NGO worker refers to as “storage of children”.
Mimi Hylameshesh, a single mother from Eritrea, earns approximately 2,000 Israeli shekels (about 500 US dollars) a month working as a house cleaner. Her rent is 1,500 shekels; day-care for her toddler runs another 600 shekels. What about food?
She shrugs and looks away, embarrassed. “It’s hard for me,” Hylameshesh says. But her child always eats.
When Hylameshesh doesn’t have the money, she goes without–just like those 21 refugees who spent over a week on the border.
A version of this article first appeared in The National.