Between 2007-2012 more than 65,000 African asylum-seekers, primarily from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea, fled to seek refuge in Israel, a country they believed would offer them protection from genocide and political persecution.
Today, only 38,540 remain, out of which 15,000 live in southern Tel Aviv, frequently in dismal conditions.
Those who left Israel after being treated by the government as pariahs, or incarcerated for a year in a Negev detention facility, have sought refugee status in European or North American nations with less draconian policies.
Those who have remained here live a precarious existence devoid of health care, child care, adequate housing, employment opportunities, education, and frequently, dignity.
Ori Lahat, CEO of the African Refugee Development Center – an NGO founded in 2004 to assist and empower African refugees – painted a bleak portrait Wednesday of the treatment of a community already profoundly rattled by the ravages of genocide and war.
“It’s obvious that the government isn’t trying to hide the fact that they are trying to make the lives of African asylum-seekers in Israel harder and harder,” lamented Lahat.
These methods, he said, include the Holot detention facility in the Negev, where 3,600 African migrants are incarcerated; the recently passed Wage Deduction Law, allowing the government to withhold 20% of migrants’ salaries; and a lack of health care.
The reason nearly half of the African refugee community lives in impoverished southern Tel Aviv neighborhoods like Hatikva, is simple, Lahat explained.
“It’s because when they crossed the Sinai border and entered Israel, the government gave them bus tickets to the central bus station in Tel Aviv, and that’s where they have remained,” he said. “So, the government has created the problem.”
As the conditions of asylum-seekers become increasingly dire, Lahat said the African Refugee Development Center is helping many relocate to countries with more humane laws, including Canada and the Netherlands.
“Overall, you have a situation where those who could relocate [to stable countries] did, or are trying to, but it is a long procedure,” he said. “But we are aware of people going back to what is called a ‘third country’ in Africa, such as Rwanda or Uganda, where the situation is not good at all.”
Those who cannot find asylum elsewhere are forced to wait in long lines to update their visas every few weeks during limited hours of operation to avoid being sent to Holot for up to 12 months, after which they are not permitted to work in Tel Aviv.
“They frequently live in overcrowded apartments in bad condition because they can’t earn enough money, and their young children under three cannot go to kindergarten because sending a child to daycare can cost up to NIS 3,500 a month in Tel Aviv,” he said.
While some refugees have pooled their limited resources to organize poorly staffed private kindergartens, most new mothers must remain at home to care for their children and cannot earn income.
In terms of higher education, Lahat noted that most refugees are required to first get the equivalent of an Israeli GED (high school equivalency credential) before they can be considered for matriculation, even if they have an equivalent degree from Africa.
“Without a bachelor’s degree, they cannot get most of the jobs that are out there, and the government is not providing them with certificates for vocational training programs,” he said.
As a result, most refugees work long hours for meager wages as short-order cooks, custodians and other available menial labor positions.
Moreover, Lahat said refugees have to contend with a largely negative public opinion driven by fear and misunderstanding of non-Jewish asylum-seekers.
“More Israelis read about asylum- seekers from negative media reports than meet them in person,” he said. “And because they are not Jewish and the politicians have portrayed them so badly, the fear becomes even stronger.
“The biggest problem is that Israelis are not meeting these people.”
One of those people is Sryial Omer, who fled Darfur’s ongoing genocide in 2011 and now lives in a small apartment in Hatikva with her husband and 18-month-old son.
Omer, who is anemic but cannot afford health care, had gallbladder surgery in 2015 and is now repaying the hospital NIS 70,000.
“My husband works three jobs at kitchens as a cook, but I have health problems and a young child, so I have to stay at home and cannot earn money too,” she said. “Also, we are still paying for the surgery.”
Echoing Lahat, Omer said she and her husband relocated to southern Tel Aviv because after they crossed the Sinai border into Israel, the government gave them one-way bus tickets to the main station there.
“Some of us with family in Canada or Europe have moved there with help from those countries’ reunification laws, but none want to go back to the conflict they escaped,” she said.
One of the major turning points driving African refugees out of Israel, Omer said, is the new tax on the already paltry earnings they can secure.
“My husband was managing to pay for rent, food and other things that we need for our child, but now he is making much less and working longer hours,” she said.
Lahat compared this treatment to Jews who have been mistreated for millennia in the Diaspora.
“I understand necessary government quotas, but as a Jewish person it’s really hard for me to accept that when you have human beings in your own country they are not treated with respect,” he said. “They should be treated similarly to other Jewish immigrants who faced persecution in other countries.
“At the end of the day, we are talking about human beings who already suffered a lot to get here. No one wants to risk crossing the Sinai Desert, and no one wants to leave their homes. They should be treated with dignity and respect as human beings.
“I think that’s what we as Jews, when we were outside of Israel, always wanted from the places we were in,” Lahat said.
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