More than 10,000 African migrants gathered in a park adjacent to the Knesset on Wednesday afternoon to protest against what they deem Draconian government detention policies.
A chorus of chants, including “We need protection!” “We are asylum-seekers!” and “We are refugees!” pierced the air at the normally tranquil Wohl Rose Park.
Some demonstrators wore makeshift shackles on their wrists. As a protest leader led the chants from a megaphone, thousands of others crossed their wrists above their heads as a metaphor for imprisonment as hundreds of police officers stood by and a helicopter hovered above.
Wednesday’s massive demonstration was the fourth of its kind since Sunday, when thousands of refugees gathered at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square and at numerous foreign embassies to decry the amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law (1954) that went into effect in June, and the governments’ delay in examining their asylum requests.
Most of the 55,000 African migrants in Israel are from Eritrea and Sudan, and could face life-threatening persecution if they return to their countries. However, unless they can obtain increasingly restrictive visas, many will end up in detention centers and could be deported.
Despite the thousands of protesters and heightened police presence, the demonstration was entirely peaceful, if not heated.
“All of us here – we’re not just talking about the Sudanese, we’re talking about all the African refugees seeking asylum in Israel – left our countries because of political dictatorships and genocide,” said Bsow Blula, who fled Sudan two years ago. “I left because I wanted to save my life.”
Blula, who has lived in south Tel Aviv since arriving in Israel, said he was a rebel fighter for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army against the Sudanese government.
“The government is killing everyone who is in, or supports, the rebel groups,” he continued. “I’ve seen people get killed and government fighters murder children in their schools. When they come to attack an area that supports the rebellion they kill everyone.”
Blula said he initially fled to Egypt, but because of the country’s diplomatic ties with Sudan, he feared arrest and deportation.
Asked why he chose to enter Israel, Blula noted that it is the only democratic country in a region defined by despots and autocracies.
“I came here because it is a democracy that has no ties with Sudan and wanted political asylum,” he explained. “I came here so I could survive.”
Although Blula said he initially received a four-month visa, subsequent visas have only been good for one month and the government is making it exceedingly difficult to renew them.
Moreover, limited office hours, compounded by a constant overflow of applicants and shorter visa durations, have created an untenable situation for most of the asylum-seekers, he said.
“You have to miss two days of work just to wait in line,” he said. “If you don’t get in and the visa is expired and police see you on the street they can send you to prison. There are hundreds of people who get turned away from the government offices and get arrested that night because they could not renew it.”
According to Awat Asherber, who sought refuge in Israel in 2008 from Eritrea, the restrictions have engendered a climate of fear and desperation.
“Now I have to [renew] my visa every month, and it’s almost impossible,” said Asherber.
“But if I don’t I will go to prison for a year.”
Brhane Teklehaymanot said he came to Israel two years ago from Eritrea to avoid the very kind of prosecution that has recently been institutionalized by the Israeli government.
“We’re here because we are political refugees and thought Israel is a democracy that will protect us, but now the government passed a law allowing them to imprison us for one year if we don’t have a visa and refuse to go back to our countries,” he said.
“We expect status as refugees.”
The Prisons Service began operating the new Holot “open” detention facility for African migrants in the Negev last month, following passage in the Knesset of the amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law. The facility has room for 1,000 detainees, but will be expanded in the coming months to house a maximum of 3,300. People held there are allowed out during the daytime.
Yoav Edelist, a member of the Israel Religious Action Center legal and advocacy NGO, held a sign reading “Love your neighbor as yourself” as he sat on the lawn in the park surrounded by the thousands of asylum- seekers.
“I’m here because I think the government is handling the situation horribly wrongly,” he said. “Israel was one of the main initiators of the [International Refugee Convention] treaty for all refugees, and we’re not abiding by that treaty – we’re not checking which of these people are refugees and which aren’t.”
Edelist said the situation has been exacerbated by the ghettoization of the refugees into small clusters within south Tel Aviv and other areas of the country, as well as the government’s refusal to grant them work permits.
“They’re miserable because they’re not legally allowed to work and are being forced into crime,” he said.
“Because of this, the Israeli residents also suffer.”
Asked for a viable solution, Edelist said the government first must determine which migrants are indeed refugees.
“If they don’t have refugee status, and they came here illegally, we should deport them,” he said. “But if they are refugees, they should be granted the rights refugees deserve according to international law.”
Edelist added that instead of the government spending millions of shekels to keep thousands of migrants in detention centers only capable of housing a fraction of them, the money should be more prudently spent to address the problem.
“Why doesn’t the government grant the refugees who are already here work visas?” he asked. “That way they can sustain themselves, they won’t have to resort to crime and can have their dignity.”
Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights said he is also disturbed by the treatment of the refugees, which he said is antithetical to Jewish values.
“If we treat asylum-seekers this way, not only are we betraying the Jewish tradition which teaches us to honor all human beings as if they were made in the image of God, but also sending them back to their task masters,” he said.
“Also, we’re betraying Jewish history because if we – who have had so many doors closed to us in our history and have suffered so much for that – close our doors to them, we can no longer criticize others who close their doors to us,” he continued.
“That is why we believe this is an issue of the highest religious and spiritual importance.”
Before a meeting of the Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, MKs Dov Henin (Hadash), Michal Rozin (Meretz), Merav Michaeli (Labor), and Shimon Solomon (Yesh Atid) invited eight of the protest’s leaders to a conference in the Knesset on Wednesday afternoon.
However, committee chairwoman Miri Regev (Likud Beytenu) asked Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein not to allow them into the building.
The four MKs who invited the migrants appealed to Edelstein and to Knesset Legal Adviser Eyal Yinon, but to no avail.
The Knesset also rejected in a preliminary reading a bill by MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) that would have enacted the Refugee Convention in law. Horowitz’s goal in proposing the legislation was to determine the migrants’ status.
Meanwhile, the Asylum Seekers Community in Israel, in an open letter to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu published on Wednesday, beseeched him to enter into a direct and open dialogue with the asylum-seekers.
“In the last days we raised a clear voice to share our deep distress with the Israeli public and the international community,” the NGO wrote.
“We spoke of our life in fear of arrest and the places we have escaped.”
The letter went on to note President Shimon Peres’s support for the cause and his respect for the International Refugee Convention.
“[The president] said Israel is a signatory of the International Refugee Convention and is committed to it,” it continued. “According to the convention, it is not allowed to deport a person who faces death in his homeland.”
Noting the peaceful nature of all the protests over the past several days, the letter added that “we proved to you and the Israeli public that we are not criminals. We are a law abiding, orderly, and democratic community of asylum-seekers.
“Until now, you have ignored our calls. You call us infiltrators. You call us liars. We continue to tell you we are refugees. Not criminals. Not infiltrators,” the NGO wrote.
“We demand you stop the arrests of asylum-seekers on the streets and release our brothers in Saharonim jail and Holot detention facility. We demand the government of Israel begins to check our asylum requests in a transparent and fair way, adhering to international standards.”
Netanyahu said on Monday the protests would do nothing to alter the government’s policies.
“I want to make clear that no demonstrations or strikes will help,” the prime minister said. “Just as we managed to completely stop illegal infiltration of our borders, we are determined to remove those who managed to enter before we built the border fence [with Sinai].”
Wednesday night, a ministerial committee met and decided to continue the government’s current policy.
MK Eli Yishai (Shas) on Wednesday called on the government to “take advantage of the gathering in the Rose Garden – as well as any gathering – to put [the migrants] all on buses and send them to the detention facilities."
“Israel must be unwavering in its motivation with regard to the danger of turning into a state overrun by infiltrators, and there is no other solution except to put every single one of them in prison, take away their work permits and put them back on airplanes to their home countries or a third country,” Yishai said.
Regev sent a letter to Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein on Wednesday night demanding that he investigate the sources of funding for the migrants’ demonstration, which she called “subversive activity.”
“In recent months I see activity by organizations dealing with illegal infiltrators, some of which call themselves human rights organizations to hide that they are acting to disrupt public order,” she wrote. “It seems that these supposedly innocent organizations are funded by extremists who want to stir up trouble and subvert the State of Israel.”
Regev asked Weinstein to probe the sources of the organizations’ funding and their involvement in planning migrants’ demonstrations, which she said “ridicule the law enforcement system.”
Ben Hartman and Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.