Mirroring much of the country, south Tel Aviv residents were divided Sunday over the fate of some 38,000 Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers whom the government is reportedly arranging to have indefinitely incarcerated or forcefully deported to Rwanda in April.
While there is no definitive data on the number of African refugees living in the impoverished area, by all accounts the vast majority can be found in the neighborhood’s long-neglected, dystopian ghettos, where most work as janitors, cooks or laborers.
Now, amid dueling campaigns to either deport them or grant them asylum, the fates of these men, women and children remain as tenuous as ever.
As he manned the counter of a convenience store in Hatikva, one of the city’s most densely populated African ghettos, Moshe Cohen, 47, a lifelong resident, dismissed the Sudanese and Eritrean community as “criminals” and “rapists.”
“I think all the people from Eritrea and Sudan must go because they make problems here stealing and raping,” he said, adding that only Israelis should inhabit the country. “This is Israel, and people from other countries shouldn’t live here. It’s not their country. What would you think if I came to America? I am an Israeli, not an American, so I don’t belong there.”
Ruth Leichman, a middle-aged lifelong resident of the neighborhood, strongly refuted Cohen’s assessment.
“Listen, these are mostly good people,” she said while walking near the area’s large open-air market, where many Eritreans and Sudanese are employed and shop. “They are not rapists and criminals. The people who say things like this are either misinformed or racist. Some might be bad, but the majority are peaceful and kind.”
The larger problem, Leichman said, is that far too many Eritreans and Sudanese have been sequestered in one small area of the country, exacerbating the concerns of Israeli residents.
However, instead of forced deportation to Rwanda, she proposed evenly spreading out the population throughout the country.
“They will get killed if they go to Rwanda, so instead the government should spread them around the country so people are not overwhelmed by so many of them in one location,” Leichman said. “They want to work and live in peace, and will go anywhere as long as they can safely provide for their families.”
While agreeing that most of the migrants are indeed peaceful, Tomer Shalabi, 40, said he nonetheless wanted them to leave south Tel Aviv.
“The parks here are full of them,” he said. “There used to be space for our children, but now it’s like Africa here – like we are not in Israel anymore. They are taking all the space and the Israeli families have no space left.”
Still, Shalabi said he did not want them deported to a dangerous country like Rwanda.
“They should live in other areas of the country instead of one place like it is here,” he said. “Some of them are really good people and if they go to Rwanda they will be tortured or killed.
“Let them stay, but spread them out,” Shalabi said. “This is a good solution.”
Chaim Moshe, 53, a tree trimmer born and raised in south Tel Aviv, said he supported the movement to save the Africans from deportation or prison based on economic considerations.
“If they all walk away, it will be bad for the economy because they take all the jobs no one wants and live in the apartments no one wants to live in,” he said. “I think the government of Israel is not doing a good thing by forcing them to leave. There are a lot of non-Jewish people living and working here, but when the Sudanese and Eritreans came it was like an invasion because they live together and are black.”
While Moshe said he did not believe the majority of asylum seekers are true refugees, he argued that asylum should be granted based on subject criteria.
“I think most of them heard they could have a better life here and that is why they came,” he said. “I know that there are a lot of good people [among them], but there are bad people too who steal. So, I think we should only send the bad ones back to Africa and let the good ones stay.”
Menachem Sinvani, 70, a lifelong south Tel Aviv resident, said the campaign to save the asylum seekers from deportation is misguided, although he agreed that sending them to Rwanda was a death sentence.
“I think they should go, but not to a place where they will be in danger,” he said.