Terra Incognita: The refugee run-around

The Israeli government announced it had found a third country that was willing to take in some of the Eritrean migrants that are currently living in Israel in legal limbo.

June 5, 2013 22:12
AN ERITREAN migrant worker placed umbrellas on a beach in Tel Aviv.

Eritrean worker 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

On Sunday the Israeli government announced it had found a third country that was willing to take in some of the Eritrean migrants that are currently living in Israel in legal limbo as illegal immigrants. This seems like a welcome development regarding an issue that has affected Israel for years.

The illegal immigration peaked last year with an estimated 2,031 crossing in May of 2012. There are an estimated 35,000 Eritreans living illegally in Israel today, although such specific numbers are deceptive in the case of illegal immigration. What is known with certainty is that numerous communities in Israel, especially in Eilat and South Tel Aviv, have become home to huge numbers of African migrants.

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Public parks became home to many. Apartments in South Tel Aviv were renovated to sleep five or 10 to a room, with renters often being charged exorbitant rates by unscrupulous owners.

These immigrants gave rise to local industries as well, not only migrant owned restaurants and night clubs, but a plethora of human rights and black-market jobs. Aid organizations mushroomed around the refugees such as the Hotline for Migrant Workers, We Are Refugees, the African Refugee Development Center, The Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University, ASSAFAid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, and the Refugee Center in Tel Aviv.

Numerous well-meaning Jewish volunteers flocked to South Tel Aviv to divvy out food.

Documentary film makers scampered to make the latest tear-jerker blockbusters about the wretched poor sleeping in parks or crammed into roach-infested bedrooms; sandwiched into a neighborhood previously infamous for prostitutes and drug addicts.

Alongside providing work and solace for volunteers and workers at aid organizations, the African migrants also provided cheap labor. They can be found on construction sites throughout Tel Aviv and working as cleaners and dishwashers in all manner of businesses. Some fall victim to Tel Aviv’s sex trade as well. They are often taken advantage of and their basic rights as workers denied since they are paid under the table.

One woman I interviewed was hired to clean at a local shopping center. After a month of work her employer refused to pay her. Since she had no legal status she could not complain about being used as a semislave, since she faced arrest and deportation.

The Israeli citizens who illegally employ the Africans benefit from paying low or nonexistent wages to people who have no legal recourse.

Alongside these industries, there also grew up a slave-trade industry in the Sinai. Beduin in Sinai kidnapped African migrants and charged their families up to $30,000 for the release of the victims. In many cases these human traffickers began operating as far south as Sudan and Ethiopia to “recruit” victims.

In a BBC story from May 6, a 17-yearold named Lamlam related how the Beduin treated her in their torture camps.

“The kidnappers would make me lie on my back and then they would get me to ring my family to ask them to pay the ransom they wanted.... As soon as one of my parents answered the phone, the men would melt flaming plastic over my back and inner thighs and I would scream and scream in pain.”

Another man kidnapped by the Beduin related, “They had about four of five of us tied up together and they would pour water on the floor and then electrocute the water so that all of us would get electrocuted at the same time.”

The Beduin by all reports have murdered thousands of Africans in Sinai, with the bodies turning up at local morgues bearing signs of torture.

THUS THE migrant phenomenon fed into a tragic cycle of violence, poverty and paternalism, all to serve the interests of others who made money off these unfortunate people.

Indeed, there are numerous organizations that lobby to prevent a solution being found.

For instance, Israel flew around 1,500 Sudanese migrants back to South Sudan and 1,000 to North Sudan last year. The African Refugee Development Center noted that “media and international rights bodies have been shocked this week by the revelation that up to 1,000 Sudanese refugees in Israel may have been forcibly returned.”

Michael Bavli, a United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Israel claimed that the refugees had not left of their own free will, and said that “deporting Sudanese to Sudan would be the gravest violation possible of the convention that Israel has signed – a crime never before committed.”

The essence of the complaint is that these Africans are “refugees” or “asylum seekers.”

As the Association for Civil Rights in Israel notes, “As one of the initiators of, and a signatory to the United Nations Refugees Convention (1951), Israel is bound by law to provide refuge for individuals fleeing countries deemed unsafe. Moreover, according to the principles outlined in the Convention, Israel cannot send asylum-seekers back to any country where their lives would be endangered.”

Most of these organizations, such as ACRI, the UNHCR and others, put the wagon before the horse in claiming “since 2005, thousands of refugees and asylum-seekers have crossed into Israel.” The notion is that the mere fact one is an African and has crossed into Israel must mean one is seeking refuge. In talks with those who have previously worked with these organizations the assumption is always that the Africans are almost all entitled to some protection, rather than that most are economic migrants who have passed up their right to apply for refugee status in Egypt or elsewhere in Africa and have made their way to Israel.

For instance, an AfricaFocus bulletin from July 2012 notes that Ivorian “asylum seekers” are being denied rights in Israel. These “refugees” traveled 3,100 miles, across all of Africa and a dozen states to get to Israel, and in not one of them did they apply for asylum.

The logic that provides the people only with “asylum” in Israel is based on a series of misreadings of the 1951 convention and the 1967 protocol relating to refugees. Article 2 notes that “every refugee has duties to the country in which he finds himself, which require in particular that he conform to its laws and regulations.”

The convention refers to refugees “lawfully staying in their [the receiving country’s] territory” (Article 29).

Article 31 states: “The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of Article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.”

Few – if any – of the African migrants entering Israel illegally via its southern border have ever “presented themselves without delay to the authorities” and furthermore many of them have not come directly from a place where their lives were threatened, but have traversed several states to get to Israel.

Michael Bavli attacked Israel for sending back refugees, but the UNHCR has not demanded Egypt accord these same “refugees” protections in Sinai, through the dismantling of the Beduin-run torture camps. By its toleration of their wholesale murder by the Beduin, Egypt has made itself complicit to these crimes.

A 2013 petition initiated by Rafael Medoff of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust studies called on third countries to accept their “share of the burden of resolving the African refugee crisis.” To that end Israel has attempted to find other countries to take in the migrants.

European countries have often come in for criticism of their handling of African migrants and refugees. Italy was headlined on Wednesday in the International Herald Tribune for operating 11 detention centers where migrants are held, sometimes for years, because of lack of proper documents.

Israel has followed the same route, jailing some migrants for up to three years for entering the country.

The refugee story has become a runaround. Many Israelis advocate on their behalf, pointing out, as author Sami Michael did, “Jews must remember: We were refugees too.” This is illogical. That Jews were made refugees by fascist governments in Europe and the Middle East shouldn’t mean Jews have a special duty to take in migrants, but rather that those countries that committed crimes against them do.

Why should it be that because of the Holocaust Germany has no special duty to refugees of genocide, but Israel does? Those claiming asylum should not be able to “asylum shop”; the 1951 convention does not say “the refugee has a right to live anywhere in the world he pleases.” The logic of the convention is to allow them to escape immediate danger. And when countries in close proximity to conflict zones accept refugees, they should not be burdened by all of them. Third countries should be willing to take in their share.

The run-around also feeds a refugee “industry” as described above. To break the power of this industry, migrants should be accorded protection as workers. No longer should corrupt foremen be able to abscond with the wages of young vulnerable Africans hired to clean shopping centers or wash dishes. The penalties for such fraud should be harsh and justice strict.

Those paying migrants less than minimum wage or working them overtime without proper payment should face penalties as well and migrants should be encouraged to come forward as witnesses against nefarious employers. The three-pronged effort of repatriation, rationalization of working rights, and routing to third countries can be beneficial to Israelis and the migrants alike.

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