Eilat locals vow to close city to protest migrants issue

Eilat councilman: We fear losing city to African migrants who take hotel jobs that Israelis don't want; "situation is impossible," he says.

March 6, 2011 01:25
THE NOF EILOT youth village

nof eilot 311. (photo credit: Ben Hartman)

“It’s not that we are going to lose the old neighborhoods to the Sudanese, we’ve already lost them. I feel like I live in Sudan. We have no choice but to take the law into our own hands.”

Nachum Siri is not a happy man. An Eilat city councilman and an activist on the local anti-migrant taskforce, he said the city is in danger of being lost to African migrants.

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“There is no one from the government taking care of the problem, it’s left to the weakest people in Eilat to handle the problem,” he said last week.

Siri and others from the municipality and the neighborhoods plan to set up roadblocks at the entryways to Eilat sometime in late March, to shut down the city until the government offers a solution.

“We will do this as a cry for help, to show that the situation is impossible and we can’t handle it on our own,” he said.

Hotel representatives in Eilat say the Sudanese and other Africans are taking jobs that Israelis don’t want.

“That’s not true at all. The hotels were there before the Sudanese came and they’ll be there after they leave. They just want to make more money. Eilat wants to be a city that has hotels, not hotels that own a city,” Siri said.

“Don’t think it’s just from the [Egyptian] border that they come here. Every morning there are busloads coming from Tel Aviv to Eilat to work in the hotels. If the hotels weren’t here, they wouldn’t be coming to Eilat. The hotels want them here because they can pay them less; they can pay them a quarter of whatthey pay employees.”

For Shabtai Shai, director of the Eilat Hotels Association, migrants dominate the staff at the hotels due to the difficulty in finding Israelis willing to work in lower-rung jobs, such as in housekeeping or dishwashing.

He said the migrants are a solution that came in the wake of failed government efforts to encourage Israelis to take these jobs.

“Originally there was a plan to allow 1,000 foreign workers to be employed at hotels in Eilat, but the deal was canceled altogether in 2006. Instead they launched a plan to encourage Israelis to come and work in their place, a plan that included a NIS 12,000 cash payment to anyone who stayed to work for a year, as well as supplements for single mothers among other incentives.

The plan failed completely,” he said.

Shai said he realizes that “without a doubt, for the city of Eilat, the Sudanese create a demographic problem and the government needs to find a solution to this,” but that “if tomorrow, the state were to kick out all of the refugees from the hotels without any sort of alternative presented, the hotels would collapse.

If there aren’t workers, instead of getting your room at 2 p.m., you’d get it at 7 p.m. The level of service would be hurt so badly that some hotels would have to close entire floors. This would not only hurt migrants, but also many Israeli employees of hotels who would be laid off.”

Shai said that the Sudanese are an adequate solution to the hotels’ employment problem, but far from ideal.

“They have no training in the field and you just take whoever you get from who arrives in Israel, not who you want. If we took in people from Thailand or Sri Lanka, we could go there and interview them and do it in a more organized way, instead of taking people who showed up after breaking through the border,” he said.

Hotel owners weren’t looking for a cheap, illegal alternative to maximize profits, he said. Rather “we are asking the city to help us get the workers with legal permits and everything, so that it will be under control.”

Until the employment and residence of migrants is placed under some sort of organized framework, the municipality will continue its own efforts to deal with the problem, Siri said. The councilman mentioned in particular the placing of some 1,500 red flags across the city, which seem identical to those put up on the beach by lifeguards when it’s too dangerous to swim.

“We put the flags up all over the city to warn people about the situation and to show the government that we’re tired of this situation and we are under demographic threat,” he said.

The flags have a different connotation for Israel Nahari, 64, who manages a school for the children of African migrants at the site of the one-time Nof Eilot youth village just north of the city. A few dozen Sudanese also live there.

“I say it very much resembles what the Nazis did in the 1930s, when they put up signs reading “Achtung Juden” to warn people of the presence of Jews,” Nahari said.

“In Eilat, there are very, very many people who want to scatter the Africans in every direction; even in our kibbutz there are a few people like that. But we don’t ask these questions about if they should be here or not. It’s our job to help them.

“There is a great deal of opposition to the refugees in Eilat, mixed with a great deal of racism. Because at the end of the day, they don’t bother people much. People in Eilat say the Africans bring diseases, or that every day a ‘near rape’ happens.

Up until today, there hasn’t been a single rape here, but every day there’s nearly one? What does this mean?” he asked.

The school teaches around 65 children from the age of five to 17, split among four combined course levels.

The children arrive each morning at 8 on two buses from neighborhoods in Eilat where the African migrants live, and return at 11 a.m. The students learn “a lot of Hebrew, some English, some Arabic, and a lot of math,” Nahari said.

“Also, on my own I teach them some geography and history, about how the world was, is, and how I wish it could be.”

Walking around the grounds of the former youth village outside Kibbutz Eilot that has become a home away from home for the migrants, one could be forgiven for momentarily thinking you were somewhere in the Horn of Africa. Small, sunparched shacks with thatched doors dot the dusty grounds and off in the distance, red rock desert mountains climb toward the sky as a breeze sweeps in off the Red Sea.

Occasionally, a small African child peeks his head out of the door of a shack and disappears giggling, and a group of towering Sudanese men joke around a picnic table. A number of the houses have South Sudan flags painted on their outside walls, while a foosball table painted to resemble the Israeli flag gives away the place’s true location.

While he speaks fondly about the school, Nahari has no illusions about the school’s potential for academic achievement.

“To tell you that we’re reaching academic achievements here... we’re really not. But we’re giving them an educational framework, teaching them how to learn together, study together, work together, live together.

We give them a framework to those hours in the day when they have nothing to do. We’re talking here about a level of education much different than what’s accepted in Israel. We are happy that they come neat and organized each day with their sandwich, that’s enough.”

Back in Eilat, young African men hang around outside a complex of four-story apartment buildings strewn with trash and broken furniture.

The buildings in central Eilat are part of the “Sing-Sing” housing project, so named because it bears a certain resemblance to a penitentiary, if not to its namesake in New York State.

Standing outside Sing-Sing last Thursday, 30-year-old “Isaiah” refused to give his real name, saying he feared his family in Eritrea could be harmed.

He arrived in Israel three years ago, and while “life here is not bad, sometimes it has been hard because the people and the government 100 percent cannot understand our problem. You know some people when you tell them your situation in Eritrea, they tell you directly, ‘why don’t you go back to your homeland and fight there, why don’t you go back there and fight?’ They say this because they cannot understand how hard it is. They cannot understand our problems; we must persuade these people first and then persuade the government what our problems are.”

Isaiah has no legal status in Israel and works as a supervisor at a hotel restaurant.

“All Eritreans have the same problem.

In Eritrea, I would need to be a soldier all of my life, until I reach 50.

And there is no freedom. Israeli people don’t want to understand this.

They think we just had economic problems in Eritrea, but we didn’t have economic problems. The main problem we have there is social, political problems. It’s not economic problems. I completely reject the idea that we have economic problems.”

Isaiah said the quality of life in Eilat for Eritreans and Sudanese is getting worse, because since they don’t have legal status, people feel that they can exploit them.

“Now its getting worse. People know we have no rights here, people know that they don’t have to pay us. Which means that you are left without legal means to get your money. People are starting to be more aggressive. A lot of [African] people are coming to me saying that they aren’t getting their money.

People are not happy, they aren’t getting their money and people are racist towards them.”

The situation in Eritrea isn’t going to improve anytime soon, Isaiah said.

There is only one thing Israel can do to stop the influx of African migrants, he said.

“Israel must build the fence [on the Sinai border]. People will never stop coming to Israel unless they build the fence. Israel will always be a better place to go than the other African countries.”

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