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Prison break: African asylum seekers claim their place on the Israeli political map

In Israel’s most vibrant demonstration ever to take place on the refugee issue, and in two bold escapes from an ‘open prison,’ African asylum seekers are starting to present themselves as a political force to be reckoned with.

Asylum seekers marching under a crown of classical music lovers at Tel Aviv's Culture Palace (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Asylum seekers marching under a crown of classical music lovers at Tel Aviv’s Culture Palace (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

Saturday night was something like no one in Israel had ever seen before. It was supposed to be a small demonstration – a quiet march of several hundred Israeli activists and African asylum seekers, coming on the heels of two Marches for Freedom that took place earlier in the week (both of which were intercepted and suppressed by immigration authorities). Initially, it didn’t seem like it would be the kind of protest that would get much (if any) media attention. But from the second it began, it was clear to all those present that this time was different. More than 2,000 asylum seekers, all in danger of immediate and permanent imprisonment following the passing of the new Anti-Infiltration Act, after the previous was scrapped by the High Court (the court will soon hear the appeal against the new law), marched in the streets of south and central Tel Aviv. The asylum seekers, who had likely seen pictures or heard stories of their friends’ desert marches, were in high gear and bursting with energy. They started running through the streets, chanting only two slogans time and time again: “No more prison!” and “we want freedom!”

It went on like this for two-and-a-half hours. The several dozen Israeli activists present were stunned. Previous Tel Aviv demonstrations by asylum seekers were relatively calm, and included people holding up signs and giving long speeches – but with none of the energy felt that night. The police, too, was caught unprepared. Neither its attempts to negotiate with demonstrators, its placing of border and riot policemen in the protest’s path, its use of pepper spray, nor the arrests of several protesters were able to stop the protest. Every time the front rows of the running-dancing protest crowd were, stopped another segment of the demonstration would either turn into a different street, or double back and find a new path forward. The protest grew into about 6,000 people, at some point breaking up into two groups running in different directions. The larger part returned to Levinsky Park after an hour, while a smaller group of about 2,000 people continued running through central Tel Aviv.

Police attempting to stop asylum seekers' march in Tel Aviv, Saturday (Yotam Ronen / Activestills)

Police attempting to stop asylum seekers’ march in Tel Aviv, Saturday (Yotam Ronen / Activestills)

Looking at the two Marches for Freedom and the Saturday night protest, one can see a new pattern of political activism emerging among Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers – one of civil disobedience. Be it by escaping detention centers, going on hunger strike, marching to the Knesset or passing through the heart of Israel’s economic and cultural capital shouting “freedom” with their hands crossed in the air – asylum seekers made a show of force and determination. Their resistance to imprisonment and their demand for the right to establish themselves are no longer solely the subject of political debate but also the object of political agency. A fourth action which took place earlier on Saturday, in which Eritrean opposition members attacked a conference held by the Eritrean ambassador in the Galilee with sticks and stones, showed that while the majority of asylum seekers prefer the path of non-violence (at least those directed toward representatives of their native countries), others prefer to take a different path.

All this should be seen in both a local and international political context. Last week, following the first March of Freedom which reached his Jerusalem home, Prime Minister Netanyahu stated that asylum seekers should either “stay there [at the detention center, H.M.] or return to their countries.” Netanyahu knows very well that he cannot deport Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers due to the collective status they enjoy under the protection of the UN. However, that doesn’t mean he won’t try to force them out in any way he can, nor that he won’t do so if and when that protection is lifted. Just last week, hundreds were killed in South Sudan in an outbreak of civil war, and the refugees deported there from Israel in 2012, many of whom have been suffering from poverty and malaria, have been put in immediate danger. When South Sudan was founded just a year-and-a-half ago, refugees and activists warned against the deportation, precisely out of such fears.

With this in mind, and with Netanyahu’s offered “choice” of either remaining in prison indefinitely or returning to places of poverty, disease, tyranny and war, asylum seekers are starting to tell the government that they demand a third option – that of freedom and basic human rights – and that they won’t settle for anything less. It is the role of Israelis and the international community to join asylum seekers in these basic demands.

‘The long walk to freedom’
PHOTOS: Thousands of African asylum seekers protest prolonged detention in Tel Aviv

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    1. No group of asylum-seekers enjoys “collective protection” under the UN. The UNHCR has recommended that all Eritrean asylum-seekers be recognized as refugees or given complementary protection since sending people back to Eritrea will put them in danger. There is no such recommendation regarding Sudan. Israel does not deport people there because it cannot do so technically. If Israel had diplomatic relations with Sudan, Israel would rush to deport people there as it did with the South Sudanese nationals.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Aaron Gross

      When people pointed out that even small numbers of African immigrants could cause serious problems for Israel, the pro-immigrant writers here scoffed at the very idea. Now, here’s an article about how a small number of immigrants are causing a serious problem for Israel.

      I’m not talking about who’s right or wrong here. Presumably, the reply would be something like, “Just give them what they’re demanding and there won’t be any trouble.” My point is only that there is trouble, contrary to assurances we heard before.

      Reply to Comment
      • directrob

        So it is not you that pointed out that African black immigrants mean trouble but racist “people”. It is just your point that those people were right.

        Reply to Comment
        • Aaron Gross

          Rob, my point is that if you allow this kind of immigration into a “racist” country – that is, into any country that’s ever existed on the face of the earth – then you’re going to have problems. Some pro-immigration people denied that, because of the relatively small numbers of immigrants. They were wrong, as should have been obvious at the time.

          The people who did point out the potential problems at the time – those critics included +972’s Larry Derfner, as I recall – were right, whether they were “racist” or not.

          Reply to Comment
          • You are right, Aaron, I think. But the Knesset’s second prison made this eruption much more likely. A half way house? They leave, walk two days, protest at the Knesset, are rearrested. Then a second “escape” by another set, immediately stopped. Of course the refugees still on the outside are going to amplify these events through retelling, with talk that all will be gathered up. And, overall, the mass protest seems to have come off pretty nonviolently, thanks partly to the police, I suspect.

            The Knesset has acted incompetently on this since the High Court’s decision.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Sowhat

      Keep doing that & they will be shot. South Tel Aviv already looks like Detroit.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Many of these thousands work illegally in Israel, without the protections of law, such as they may be. They are hired, paid by Israelis. They know that many of their kind have been imprisoned for months to two years, that another prison has been “constructed,” and that some 350 left the latter, walking days, to protest in Jerusalem, some so far as Tel Aviv. These were largely rearrested. That autonomous action inspired others to come forward, apparently to everyone else’s surprise, breaking through what fear they must live with.

      Considering the circumstances on both sides, demonstrators and police, both sides seem to handled themselves well; I wonder how a similar sized protest in Jerusalem would have been handled. The protest is illegal, but they are illegal. They decided to act; and be assured than even more feel as they.

      The High Court years ago forbade removal without hearing. Apparently, those saying they were from Southern Sudan facially lost an asylum plea once South Sudan became independent, for that new State was then certified as free of the oppression they left. My distant observation is that the State of Israel only makes asylum determinations when it knows the outcome beforehand.

      A discharge of the first prison back into civil society would have avoided the provocation leading to this protest; frankly, the refugees would have been much more likely to have remained docile. Now some have acted, inspiring others through example. The Knesset’s refusal to obey the High Court order to discharge inmates absent plausible trial created the environment for the present action. The inane concept of an “open prison” gave the frustrated opportunity, and they took it. The Knesset is not playing a game with paper, but with lives. More: the Knesset is disregarding the rule of law and judicial review.

      You have your constitutional crisis up front now. The integrity of your Justices will soon be measured.

      The attack on the Eritrean Ambassador is very disturbing. The only way to insulate it is through full reporting. Where did the 30 odd refugees come from, where did they meet, who lead them, why did they do it? This event will be used to color the entire night demonstration unless it is fully vented. Saying “they chose another path” is not enough.

      It is my understanding that the borders have now been mostly sealed to further refugees. The present population then is fixed, not growing. If–years ago–the State had resolved the legal status of refugees as mandated by the High Court none of this would have happened. What the Knesset has done over the past two years plus on this issue is no mark of an advanced Western democracy.

      The Knesset needs an independent check for the rule of law. The High Court has no reason to take the Knesset seriously on this matter. If the Court does not act swiftly and strongly, a racial counter blow is likely.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Kolumn9

      They are soon to take their place in flights elsewhere – either their home countries or a different African country. Faster so if they insist on demanding rights they have no claim to.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Atheist

      “… asylum seekers are starting to tell the government that they demand a third option – that of freedom and basic human rights – and that they won’t settle for anything less.” Why they don’t demand their rights in their own countries? Why not demand these rights in Egypt they crossed on their way to Israel?

      Reply to Comment
    7. Dave Boxthorn

      1/ If Israel is an ‘apartheid’ society, why are Africans trying to get in, not out?

      2/ Of course these Africans will be cheaper employees for wealthy NGO’ers than local Jews.

      Its all about the sheckels.

      Reply to Comment