After four days of protests and strikes by Israel’s African asylum- seekers last week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu still stands by his statement that he is not changing his policy towards them.

Labeling them infiltrators and migrant workers, he reiterated that he would stand by the “infiltrators law” and send them back to their countries. MK Gideon Sa’ar stated similarly that Israel’s policy is to reduce the number of infiltrators and encourage them to exit.

These are the voices of our elected leaders.

This is the policy of our country.

However, after volunteering with the refugees for a few years in Jerusalem, and hearing their stories, one begins to form a different opinion and see a different side.

These people have fled their countries due to persecution and war. Parting from their families and communities, they have entered Israel asking for safety and protection. Their stories include forced conscription into indefinite national service that has been described as “perpetual bondage,” along with accounts of those who fled in fear for their lives after they spoke out against their government.

Yet not everyone has had the opportunity to hear their stories, or interact with them face to face. It is therefore no surprise that when speaking to Israelis, it is clear they have come to believe that most of the Africans are migrant workers and infiltrators. Many people argue that we cannot integrate such a large number of migrants into our society, that granting them asylum poses an “existential threat” to our country which will erode the character of our Jewish state. You might think that they are talking about a large and overwhelming number of Africans.

So what are the numbers? And how do Netanyahu and Sa’ar know the status of all of these Africans? According to the government’s figures, there are approximately 53,000 asylum seekers currently in Israel. This number represents a tiny fraction of our total population, just 0.6 percent. In fact, our government approves and issues an even higher number of foreign workers’ visas each year, around 70,000. It’s far from a crushing number of people, as the government has led us to believe.

Since their arrival in our country, Israel has never even started the process of checking their claims to be refugees. Who is a migrant worker and who is a refugee in Israel? We can’t say, because there is no statistic of accepted claims – since no individuals in Israel have been assessed.

In other countries, approximately 80% of Eritrean and 35% of Sudanese asylum claims are accepted. Safe to say, then, that many of the 53,000 asylum-seekers do have legitimate claims. The government should be checking each one rather than making sweeping statements based on make-believe data.

In 1951, Israel was one of the first countries in the world to sign the UN Refugee Convention; we took it upon ourselves to not turn people away who arrive in our country facing a threat to their life and liberty. By demanding that Israel stand up to those obligations, we are only trying to ensure that Israel remains the country it claims to be: a Jewish democratic country which respects human rights. Under this international convention, we committed ourselves to checking the asylum-seekers’ cases, but today, we’re turning our back on this convention and the asylum-seeker’s claims.

On the fourth day of consecutive protests, the asylum-seekers took their case to Jerusalem. As over 10,000 of them peacefully gathered in the rose garden, demanding their voices be heard by our prime minister, their representatives were rejected from even entering the building.

Instead, Shas MK Eli Yishai made the following remark, “I call on the prime minister, the interior minister and the defense minister to take advantage of the gathering in the rose garden in Jerusalem, as well as any gathering, to put them [the migrants] all on buses and send them to the detention facilities.”

Yet the spirit of the asylum-seekers did not falter. Bravely standing in front of the large crowd, a young Eritrean boy, about 10 years old, spoke to the people. His voice, bursting with sympathy and maturity, spoke with a wisdom that put Yishai’s racist and hateful comment to shame. He told the crowd that he didn’t hate Netanyahu, because Netanyahu was democratically elected by the great Jewish people. But, he wanted to remind us all, Netanyahu was once a refugee in the land of Egypt as well. Each and every one of us, he said, were refugees crossing over from Egypt.

His comment reminds us that we too were once weak, we too searched for that voice or that country to extend a hand to us. There is potential to unite, there is potential to understand. But our government continually refuses to examine their claims and ignores their plight in risking their lives to find a safe haven, so we must look deeper.

We must look into the situation, past the myths, past the lies. Let’s stand by the international commitment we made to assess their cases, and help those who ask for asylum and protection.

Shallya Scher made aliya from South Africa in 2008, and completed a masters at IDC Herzliya and an LLB at the Hebrew University.

Hailey Dilman is originally from Toronto, Canada, and is finishing her masters at the Hebrew University. Both have taught English to asylum-seekers in Jerusalem with the ARDC organization.


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