(photo credit: Ron Friedman)
Migrant workers and African asylum-seekers are complaining about poor treatment at the Ministry of Interior offices in Tel Aviv. Foreign nationals who are required to come to the offices regularly for procedural purposes have nowhere to wait for service and are forced to stand in the street for long hours without basic conveniences like benches or washrooms.
"The situation was somewhat bearable in the summer, but now in the winter it's simply impossible," Oscar Olivier, a human rights activist originally from Congo, said on Monday. He works with Tel Aviv's asylum-seeker population.
"I promise you that if they were French and German instead of African, they wouldn't be treated so disgracefully."
The ministry office is located on the border between south Tel Aviv and Jaffa, on Salame Street. Every morning at seven, dozens of people line up to take a number from the security guard. The office only opens at 8 a.m., but the people must be there early, otherwise they won't get a number and won't be admitted at all that day.
The first 10 people are let in immediately, but the rest must wait outside. At 8:30, both sides of the street are packed with people sitting of the sidewalk, with cars driving through the middle of the line of people. Olivier said it has been this way for months, but it has become insufferable now that winter is here and the weather has turned cold and rainy.
"What's absurd is that all these people were specifically invited to come here on a certain date," said Olivier. "These aren't people who are applying for service, they were ordered to present themselves here by the main office in Lod."
Malenya, a foreign worker from India, said she had to come to the office every month to renew her authorization to stay in the country. She said she got there at 6 a.m. so as to be one of the first in line, but that there were already people there when she arrived. She said that based on past experience it would be hours before her number came up and that they might not even get to it before the office closed for the day.
Richard, an asylum-seeker from the Ivory Coast, said the monthly visit to Salame was augmented by biweekly visits to the Immigration Authority offices in Holon, where he had to present himself regularly.
He said that the treatment he received inside was similar to the conditions in line. "You go in and present your papers. You don't talk to anybody and they don't talk to you. You show the papers and it's up to the individual clerk to decide your fate," he said
Richard said he has been coming to Salame regularly for 10 months and each time his temporary permit was renewed, but that he was afraid that one day, the official would decide not to renew it and he would be forced to go back to his country. "You don't know what they are thinking or what their criteria are. Sometimes it looks completely arbitrary," he said.
Olivier and the others are asking for basic conditions for the hours-long wait. "All we are asking for is somewhere to go to the bathroom and maybe some benches so that those who have children or are sick can sit on," he said.
When asked to comment on the conditions, refugee affairs director of the Interior Ministry's Immigration Authority, Rami Ovadya, said the ministry was aware of the poor conditions and was looking into ways to fix the problem.
"The issue is being debated by the executives and I believe that it will be fixed shortly. Responsibility was only transferred to our section in June and we were unprepared for the large numbers of people.
"Believe me, I am truly sorry for the situation and hope it will change in the near future," Ovadya said.
When asked about the lack of bathrooms and benches that the people complained about, Ovadya responded that there was a bathroom inside the building and that women with children were allowed to wait on benches inside.