(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Eilat's illegal immigrant community and the municipality agree on one thing - the current situation is untenable.
For the approximately 2,000 African asylum-seekers and migrant workers living in the southern resort city, the openings for steady jobs are few and far between. Hotels have been converted into apartment buildings to house the influx of people. The refugees crowd at least four or five men into small apartments - two bedrooms and a kitchenette - often more. Education is inadequate. The migrants' lives are dictated by the whims of their employers, mostly hotel chains.
"It's sad. You go to work and your house. There's no help," said Lual Wol, a refugee from southern Sudan. "But where are they going to go? If you get fired in Eilat, where else are you going to go?"
Losing a job usually means losing housing and health insurance, which are arranged by the hotels.
Those without steady work while away the hours on the streets and in parks. Many line up along Sderot Hativat Golani, a main thoroughfare leading from the Alef neighborhood to an industrial zone, on weekday mornings, waiting for Israelis to drive up with offers of temporary jobs.
"It doesn't look good. When they sit on the streets, it looks like a slave market," said Dana Zenaty, spokeswoman for the Eilat Municipality.
About 50 refugees gather on the thoroughfare most weekdays, according to a refugee from southern Sudan who waits there most days. Usually only a couple get picked up for work; the rest sit for hours, hoping someone will come by and offer a few hours of employment, he said.
About eight months ago, the Interior Ministry ruled, in response to a municipality request, that illegal immigrants were banned from Eilat as well as the region between Hadera and Gedera. Expulsions from the city have stalled because of a High Court of Justice order that nothing can happen until it hears a full discussion of the ban.
In recent letters to the Interior and Public Security ministries, Mayor Meir Halevi begged the government to take some responsibility for the refugees, Zenaty said.
"The Eilat management and city cannot handle this decree without a response," she said. "It's not Eilat's problem - that's the bottom line."
Eilat is too small and far from other cities to handle the influx, and with an economy based almost entirely on tourism, anything that makes the city less desirable to visitors is problematic, Zenaty said.
Immigrants loitering on the streets could hurt the tourism industry, she said.
The job situation was not always so dire. When Wol and Adut (last name withheld) arrived in 2007 from southern Sudan, they were approached at the border with job offers from Isrotel, one of the country's largest hotel chains. Back then, the demand for cheap labor was larger than the supply.
Wol and Adut were set up with jobs and apartments provided by Isrotel. It has become common for hotels in Eilat to transform into apartment buildings to house their employees. If refugees lose their jobs, they also lose their housing.
The Palace is one such former hotel. Wol, who has lived there since his arrival, said almost all the residents of the 11-story building are refugees or migrant workers. The two-bedroom apartments typically house four to six people, but that number is sometimes as high as 10.
The police know about the Palace and the nature of its residents, and sometimes officers stand outside the building asking to see residents' visas, Wol said.
Few of the immigrants have papers that allow them to work, but most have Israeli visas that allow them to live in certain areas of the country. Usually those papers are enough to prevent arrest or deportation, but sometimes the police call their employers, who react by firing the refugee employees, Wol said.
Last year, the police came to the Palace in the middle of the night to catch the residents at home. They retrieved a master key from the reception desk downstairs and let themselves into the apartments if people didn't answer, Wol said.
"If they want to arrest people, they know to come here," he said. "The government is making it clear they don't want anyone here."
The situation has become more difficult since the government announced the ban on living in Eilat, even though action is officially stalled. Wol said his bank account had been closed and the hotels had started treating their illegal employees worse.
However, there are still more opportunities in Eilat than anywhere else, besides Tel Aviv, so the immigrants stay.
"They are the main cities that offer a lot of jobs," Wol said. "It's really a punishment [to make us leave]."
The difficulties spill over the city limits. A few minutes north of Eilat is Kibbutz Eilot, where more than 200 refugees live, mostly Sudanese. Most of them travel to Eilat every day for work. Emmanuel (last name withheld) was brought there by government officials in 2006 after being caught at the border, and works on the kibbutz, cleaning and doing translation work.
Kibbutz Eilot is where the Education Ministry and the Eilat Municipality have set up the school for children of asylum-seekers. They tout it as an example of what they're doing for the refugee population, but it is not much of a school, Emmanuel said.
Three of the four teachers did not even graduate from high school, and when teachers are sick, classes are simply canceled, said Orit Rubin, who is responsible for psychosocial and family support for Assaf, a refugee assistance organization based in Tel Aviv.
"They don't have the funds or the means or the personnel to provide anything the children actually need," she said.
Refugees say that all they need while they wait for an opportunity to return to their countries is a chance to work to support themselves and an education for their children.
"We don't have anything. We don't have a community," Emmanuel said. "People don't leave their country to sleep in the streets."