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Asylum seekers in Israel are scared. I am scared for them

For years, Israel’s right-wing government has fomented hatred against African asylum seekers. Now it plans to deport them, while the world turns a blind eye.

By Leah Platkin

Asylum seekers before the deportation of South Sudanese refugees in 2012. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Two women embrace before the deportation of South Sudanese refugees in 2012. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

As a social worker working with African asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv, I have seen my fair share of racism and hostility from Israeli politicians and local residents who blame them for the myriad problems in their neighborhoods. South Tel Aviv has always been a rough area, however, long neglected by the municipality. Walking through its neighborhoods, you see piles of trash, junkies, homeless people living in the parks, and a stench of urine that follows you everywhere you go. The main difference between a decade ago and today is that today those streets and parks are full of African asylum seekers.

I moved to Israel three years ago to do trauma work with African asylum seekers and torture victims who were kidnapped and trafficked in the Sinai as they fled their home countries. Eritrean and Sudanese refugees fled brutal and dangerous dictatorships, forced conscription, civil wars, and persecution for human rights activism. Those who were kidnapped, trafficked, and brutalized in torture camps run by Bedouin tribes in the Sinai were only released when their already impoverished families paid a $40,000 ransom. The lucky ones, who made it across the Israeli-Egyptian border, were severely traumatized; today, many of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In Israel, African asylum seekers lack both legal status and access to basic services and rights. They do not have healthcare, employment, freedom of movement, higher education, and other basic services that Israeli citizens and legal residents enjoy. Most work under the table in low-paying and often dangerous jobs, primarily in cleaning or construction. Since these “illegal” asylum seekers are not granted refugee status, they are not eligible to receive travel documents. Every day, asylum seeker families beg for help to get out of Israel and find resettlement in Europe or North America.

The already harsh economic conditions of these refugees worsened significantly in May 2017, when the Knesset passed a law allowing the government to withhold 20 percent of asylum seekers’ monthly paychecks — that will only get back when they leave Israel for good.

Most recently, Israel claimed to have reached a major arrangement with Rwanda and Uganda to forcibly relocate 40,000 asylum seekers from Israel against their will. Rwanda has not yet recovered from the civil war and genocide of 1990-1994, and currently hosts more refugees from other African nations than they can handle. Concurrently, Uganda is overflowing with refugees and cannot meet the most basic needs of its own citizens.

Upon arrival in Israel, I was warned that the mainstream sentiment toward this community was largely motivated by racism. When looking for my first apartment in Tel Aviv, a landlord asked me where I worked. When I told him that I am a social worker with Eritreans and Sudanese, he rolled his eyes and said, “Just don’t bring any of those dirty Sudanese into the building, OK?” On several occasions, when walking in Hatikva neighborhood with my clients, older residents would shout at me saying, “What are you doing with those infiltrators? You probably sleep with these jungle people.”

Holding signs reading 'The rehabilitation of south Tel Aviv begins with deportation,' residents of south Tel Aviv stage a counter-protest to a demonstration in support of refugees and against their impending deportation, Tel Aviv, January 9, 2017. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Holding signs reading ‘The rehabilitation of south Tel Aviv begins with deportation,’ residents of south Tel Aviv stage a counter-protest to a demonstration in support of refugees and against their impending deportation, Tel Aviv, January 9, 2017. (Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

This anti-refugee sentiment trickles from the top down. Prime Minister Netanyahu and other officials regularly refer to the African asylum seekers as “infiltrators” whose presence threatens Israel as the state of the Jewish people.

During 2014 there were several anti-refugee demonstrations, led by Israeli politicians, in which the demonstrators physically attacked refugees. I worked with one Eritrean family whose infant was stabbed in the head by an Israeli man who claimed God had ordered him to stab a black baby. He was later deemed mentally ill and unfit to be tried.

The family petitioned for refugee status in Israel on the basis of a hate crime, yet despite countless requests, only the infant received refugee status — not her parents. As a result, Israel’s National Insurance Institute refused to finance her medical treatment. After years of expensive medical treatments and resettlement requests, they now live in Europe with legal refugee status and full access to basic human services.

The anti-refugee movement, instigated by politicians but largely composed of working class residents born and raised in south Tel Aviv, has a clear message: they blame the refugees for the problems in their neighborhoods, and they want them deported. Indeed, their neighborhoods are poor and neglected; there is petty crime, poor infrastructure, as well as a wave of gentrification and rent increases over the past five years. Instead of taking their legitimate complaints to the City Hall or lobbying the government to solve the country’s housing crisis, some have turned African asylum seekers into scapegoats. Rather than regarding them as people with a traumatic history who could become their allies, they consider them to be opportunists who came to Israel to make money and leave.

The families I work with are scared. I cannot say anything to mitigate their fear because I, too, am scared for them. And as someone whose family once fled pogroms in Russia and genocide in Lithuania, I cannot stomach that this is happening in a country founded to offer refuge to people fleeing persecution, war, and genocide.

Leah R. Platkin is an American and Israeli social worker in Tel Aviv. 

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    1. JitKunDo

      You are going to have to stomach it because these illegal migrants will get expelled. No one asked them to come here. No one asked them go through the Sinai on the way here. No one wants them here and there will be no path towards permanent residency for them.

      They are not refugees. They might have been refugees in Sudan or Egypt or Ethiopia but once they cross multiple borders they are just illegal migrants that are seeking out the country with the best social services and highest income. The easiest way to see this is to simply look at the gender/age breakdowns. The vast majority of these migrants are young men. In what sane universe do the youngest and fittest run away from a “dangerous” place while leaving their women and children behind?

      And if you have an issue with that you are free to leave with them.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        This just oozes cold racism and contempt, so that all these people are judged as a class to be one thing and one thing only and no further look is needed and no one should have to be bothered with hearing their case as human beings and individuals, according to the most basic modern standards of how to treat the stranger, the refugee, in any decent moral and legal structure. You’d think I’d be used to it by now but the unabashed racism and the entitlement to it that so many Israelis feel still surprises. Like that Israeli agent who popped out of the US Vice President’s bathroom air duct, caught red handed, and the Israelis just shrugged and said “Yeah? And? Next subject?”

        It’s an interesting proposition that in the modern world in 2018 Israel, a nation of refugees, reserves the right to be a tidy little ethnocracy that does not have to care for refugees of an inconvenient other ethnicity, does not have to play by the rules of international law and decency, can make up its own rules, all the while preening itself on being a democracy and a fully paid up member of the tolerant, pink-washed, ultra-modern western world. The hypocrisy is astounding.

        Reply to Comment
        • JitKunDo

          A map is all one needs. Try looking at one once in a while. Now look carefully. Find me an Israeli border with Sudan or Eritrea. No border? Fascinating. These people must have gone through several countries on the way here. Were they invited? No. Did they cross the border legally? No. Are they refugees? No. Look at a map. Why are they here? To make money. How do we know? Because they left their women and children in their “dangerous” home countries.

          We are not going to be the suckers that let everyone in on the basis of accusations of racism. No accusation of racism overcome the simple facts laid out above. This nonsense can work on people so frightened of their own shadow that the mere accusation of racism gets them to bend over and apologize. We are going to act in our own best interests and kick out people trying to take advantage of us. If you want them in your country you are welcome to them. They are not staying here.

          As for democracy, indeed, we are a democracy. The vast majority of our population want to deport these illegal migrants. We are doing exactly what the majority of the country wants us to do. One wonders how one can justify a situation where the majority of people in Western countries want less immigration but the elites insist on welcoming anyone that comes into the country. I am sure one can find many excuses for such a situation but democracy is certainly not one of them.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “A map is all one needs. Try looking at one once in a while…”

            You ask me to take seriously this sophomoric definition of who and who is not a refugee? By your criteria of disqualification 90% of the world’s refugees are not refugees. All of the Honduran, Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees in the United States are by your shockingly cold, simplistic and disdainful criterion not refugees, are not even worthy of a hearing. And the United States could not ever consider anyone not a citizen of Mexico or Canada to be refugees. The silliness of this is self-evident.

            You ask us to take seriously these simplistic statements about leaving women and children behind, in complete disregard for the brutal war conditions they fled? And the 7000 or so female African refugees that made it to Israel are all “just here to make money”?

            You lie as does the GoI. Israel knows full well that it is in unambiguous violation of Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention it ratified in 1954 and signed in 1968. Which Convention explicitly prohibits the expulsion or forcible repatriation of asylum seekers even if they entered the country illegally. This is the main right granted by the convention.

            Israel in fact has the lowest refugee recognition rate in the West, less than one percent. First of all, because it simply refuses to examine asylum applications. It is a monumental show of contempt and racism and defiance of international law and signed conventions. And the GoI knows it cannot simply force mass deportations and get away with it so it resorts to whipping up racist hatred and to making the refugees’ lives unbearable to wear them down and force them to leave “voluntarily.” It is a very sick business.

            In your comebacks here you put on display the peculiar entitlement to that racism and that defiance that so many Israelis seem to feel all the while going on about how pinkly enlightened and up to date and advanced they are. Very odd. Truly peculiar.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “As for democracy, indeed, we are a democracy… We are doing exactly what the majority of the country wants us to do.”

            Now we get to the heart of the matter. In a nutshell, you expose the tyranny of the majority of a Feiglinist pseudo-democracy (a “popular democracy”) and how Israel is in fact not a democracy in the sense that it touts itself to be:

            A ‘truly’ Jewish democracy: On the ideology of Likud’s Moshe Feiglin

            And expressing itself inside that tyranny of the majority is a populace that is indifferent to the rule of law, indifferent to human rights and universal values, indifferent to the treatment of non-Jews as subhuman. That is a racially supremacist tyranny of a majority. Dressed up as something better.

            I keep coming back to Feiglin, and this dissection by Tomer Persico of the Feiglinist core of the GoI and of the assumptive world of the majority of Israeli voters, because it is key to understanding what is really going on in a pseudo-democracy that for a long time now has quite successfully pretended to be something it is not.

            Reply to Comment