Bill Tall more than lives up to his name. The soft-spoken, 50-year-old, six-foot-six-inch native of Maryland, US, is as tall as a professional basketball player and has to stoop to pass through the average Israeli door. He is also the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative for Israel, and head of the UNHCR's office of over 30 full-time staff in Tel Aviv.
What does the UNHCR do in Israel? It might be illuminating to note first what they do not do. They do not deal with Palestinians, who are the responsibility of UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, which is based in Jerusalem. Tall's office also does not handle foreign workers - or even the 1,200 children of foreign workers who were born in Israel and who are now facing deportation by the Israeli government. Those children, along with other children at risk, will soon be the job of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which is also about to open an office in Tel Aviv.
UNHCR's focus is upon the "other" refugees, principally from Africa, who are fleeing their homelands and coming to Israel. "Our job is to promote asylum, getting countries to receive refugees and treat them properly, and to develop ways to determine who is and who is not a refugee," Tall says. An 18-year veteran of international service with UNHCR, with postings in places like Kosovo, South Serbia, Rwanda and the Congo behind him, Tall knows a refugee when he sees one.
So what is a "refugee," as opposed to a migrant or foreign worker? Tall explains"" "The definition of 'refugee' is someone fleeing persecution in their country of origin - someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution due to race, religion, political affiliation and so on. It's all about fleeing persecution."
The situation, however, is somewhat more complicated than that, especially here in Israel. In addition to refugees, there is a numerically much larger group of people known as "asylum seekers." Tall explains: "A person fleeing into Israel, or into any country, is an 'asylum seeker' until he is determined to be a refugee. So a person may enter a country, let's say from Belarus. He is supposed to go through a process of interviews to determine whether he's a refugee or not. If he's found not to be a refugee, he's entitled to an appeal. If he's found not to be a refugee again, he is deported. But while the process is going on, he is officially an asylum seeker, which is also a protected status."
Complicating the situation a bit more is a third group. Says Tall, "There are other people coming from countries that are deemed to be so unstable that anyone from those countries is a de facto refugee. The two main countries falling under this status are Eritrea and Sudan - which of course includes Darfur. Around four or five thousand Eritreans and another four or five thousand Sudanese are allowed to stay as prima facie refugees, because they'd be punished for fleeing here to Israel if they were sent home. Other groups enjoying temporary protection are Congolese and some people from danger zones in Ivory Coast, around 4,000 people in total. All of these people have 'group status' on the basis of where they are from."
Tall points out that many people in Israel tend to confuse the refugee problem with other issues, like whether the children of foreign workers should be allowed to stay in Israel or be deported. These concerns, he says, should not be "mixed in the same bag." Refugees and foreign workers inhabit two quite distinct legal worlds, says Tall. If anything, the distinction between the two worlds became a bit murkier last October 15, when Interior Minister Eli Yishai, commenting on the issue of deporting the foreign workers' children, said, "We are not an asylum state."
Not everyone is blind to the distinction, however. According to Tall, the newly formed OZ police unit, tasked to round up and deport foreigners living in the country illegally - such as foreign workers without valid working visas - have thus far been very restrained toward refugees and asylum seekers.
WHEN AND how did Israel become a magnet for African seekers of asylum? We may as well also ask why. For many, if not most of the asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea, the journey to Israel is anything but easy, and not one a person would choose to undertake if he or she did not have to. Egyptian soldiers often shoot people trying to enter Israel from their side of the border, and many women and girls are sexually abused on the way, often by Beduin. Some arrive here pregnant from multiple rapes.
Tall explains: "Israel has traditionally been a small office for the UNHCR. Then an influx of Africans occurred several years ago. It began with a demonstration by Sudanese in Cairo."
The Sudanese, mostly from the south of the country, along with others from Darfur, had fled to Egypt to escape war and persecution by government forces. Tall says, "They were protesting their living conditions. Many of them wanted to be resettled. Many of the demonstrators were shot, I think around 22 died. So after that there were a lot of people coming here. They saw that they could come, so around 16,000 people came in two years. Others saw that they made it here successfully and decided to follow. This changed our reaction to the problem and it changed Israel's reaction to the problem. Israel realized that they have a great deal of experience with Jewish refugees, but they had little or no experience with other refugees. So basically, it was turned over to us. We did the registration and the interviews and the refugee determination."
The final decision about who was or was not a refugee, however, came from the Israeli government. After determining that someone was a refugee, the UNHCR made a recommendation to the National Status Granting Body, which then made the penultimate decision. If yes, then the Ministry of Interior had the final say, either confirming or denying refugee status.
Now, however, determining who merits refugee status is wholly the prerogative of the Israeli government, not the UNHCR. "The government rightly decided that this was something they had to do. They wanted the responsibility, and we in fact advocate that governments take that responsibility. So we helped them create the Refugee Determination Unit. The government hired 25 people whom we trained right here in our office for six weeks and, as of last July, they do the interviews and make the determinations," Tall says.
As before, the Ministry of the Interior makes the final decision. In the past six years, 180 people have been granted full, official refugee status by the Ministry of the Interior.
Despite the well-known history of bad blood between the UN and the State of Israel - which continues to the present moment - UNHCR is one UN agency the Israeli government can do business with. "We work with the Ministry of the Interior, which is known, I think, for being somewhat challenging to work with," Tall says. "But we have had a very positive experience with them. We had 25 of their people in our office for six weeks, engaged in what turned out to be a showcase training and a real success. When I tell my colleagues at UNRWA that we had these 25 Interior Ministry people here and that we were doing joint interviews with them in our office, they think I'm lying to them. They can't believe that we could have that level of cooperation. Unlike the agencies working with the Palestinians, we don't have an adversarial relationship with the Israeli government."
UNHCR's relatively good relations with the government may be due in large part to the agency's understanding of the limitations of its mandate. The office is here to assist people entering Israel with a "well-founded fear of persecution," and not merely the desire for a better life here or in another country. Tall relates cases of foreign workers whose contracts have expired and who try to stay in Israel by seeking asylum as refugees. UNHCR does not assist these people, nor does it entertain cases like that of a Nigerian church group who recently made a "pilgrimage to the Holy Land" and then decided to stay by declaring themselves refugees. And perhaps, unlike other UN agencies working in this part of the world, UNHCR understands the legitimate concerns of the Israeli government, which does not want to see Israel become a major work destination for Africans, or a land bridge for African migrants attempting to enter Europe.
Despite those concerns, Israel's overall treatment of refugees and asylum seekers is good, according to Tall. "There have been some very good developments here in Israel in terms of how they've dealt with refugees. The government may have been led to those developments kicking and screaming, but domestic pressure and public opinion have created an environment allowing groups of people to stay, like the Eritreans and Sudanese. The government may not be happy about having this obligation, but they have accepted it."
Not only have they accepted it, but they have actually removed some previous restrictions. "Before, there were something called 'Hadera-Gedera' visas," Tall explains. "These were conditional release visas that restricted the Eritreans and Sudanese to north of Hadera and south of Gedera. The idea was to keep them out of Tel Aviv. They weren't allowed to enter Tel Aviv, and if they did, they were arrested. It was really a deterrent mechanism to keep more of these people from coming to Israel. But that was before. Those restrictions have since been lifted, through a combination of circumstances."
"Of course, we complained, NGOs complained, and municipalities like Eilat and Arad complained that they were shouldering an unfair burden of people not allowed to live in Tel Aviv," he adds.
Local Israeli NGOs tend to be much more critical of Israel's treatment of refugees than the UNHCR. Tall says, "The NGOs complain - and that's a wonderful thing about Israel, by the way: A very strong, vocal civil society - but they complain that Israel has only conferred refugee status on 180 people in the past five or six years. Okay, that's low, but it doesn't take into consideration that they allow thousands of people from Eritrea and the Sudan to stay here, which is essentially a refugee solution."
While NGOs like Hotline for Migrants and the Tel Aviv Legal Clinic hold Israel to a high standard, Tall says his is a relative standard, based on his 18 years of experience and knowledge of the situation in other countries.
Nevertheless, the UNHCR is concerned about an apparent hardening of policies from different branches of the Israeli government. For example, newly arriving Sudanese and Eritreans are now being held in detention facilities - for what the government says are identity checks and medical examinations - sometimes for weeks or months. Other indications of more restrictive approaches in the future have been a recent warning by the IDF of more than a million Africans on their way to Israel, as well as reports of IDF soldiers actually turning people back at the border. Tall says, "The major problems are that, say, an Eritrean sent back to Eritrea after fleeing to Israel is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison, and that an IDF soldier does not have the training or authority to determine who does or does not merit refugee status. Proper legal procedures have to be observed."
The UNHCR, according to Tall, is also worried that those legal procedures may not remain "proper" for very long. He says, "Now that the government does the interviews and makes the determinations of refugee status themselves, our job is to make sure they do it properly and not to become some kind of rejection factory. Our job is also to help the country develop laws, and also to influence laws that are negative toward asylum."
One law in particular that has NGOs, human rights advocates and the UNHCR particularly concerned is the so-called Anti-Infiltration Law, which was discussed during the last Knesset session, and is slated to be taken up again during the current one. The law mandates very harsh penalties for people who enter the country illegally, as well as harsh penalties for those, like NGOs, who help them arrive.
"We share the government's concerns about people entering the country illegally, but we're saying that illegal immigrants are one thing, but refugees and asylum seekers are something else and should not be covered by this proposed law," Tall says. "They present a different problem, which requires a different process. Our attitude is that if people are judged not to be refugees, and if their appeal process has gone through fairly, we have no problem with the government deporting them. We're not here to protect everyone that comes into the country. We just want to have a quality process to determine who should stay here and who should not."
Another less known part of UNHCR's local brief is the provision of social services for refugees and asylum seekers, a virtual vacuum that needs to be filled in the absence of these services from the Israeli government, according to Tall. The UNHCR assists these people indirectly by supporting a small but very active network of local NGOs. "It's an issue for us to integrate these people into the local social service network. We support Physicians for Human Rights, who have a clinic for refugees here in Tel Aviv. We also work with Hotline for Migrants and the Tel Aviv Legal Clinic, as well as ASSAF - The Israeli Organization for Aid to Refugees and Asylum Seekers, and the African Refugee Development Center, who provide a variety of social services. But these are things that the government should be doing. They should be integrating these people into local social services."
ACROSS TOWN from the UNHCR offices and seemingly in another world, the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) occupies the top two floors of a ramshackle little building in the midst of an impoverished neighborhood near the New Central Bus Station. ASSAF, another NGO for refugees, is downstairs.
From the outside, the old building looks worn out and tired. Inside the offices of ARDC, however, the atmosphere is youthful and energized. Young African men and women, some with children, come in and out of the building seeking various types of assistance, provided by a paid staff of five professionals and an army of around 60 earnest young volunteers - busily conferencing with African clients, talking excitedly over the telephone, typing away at computer keyboards, and hustling from one tiny office to another. While most of these young people appear to be Jewish, American and British accents predominate. A visitor is likely to be impressed by the observation that no one is chatting about the weather, the opening of a new restaurant, personal issues or last night's football scores. Every conversation is about the work - new arrivals needing a place to live, current legal proceedings, plans for future projects, as well as a host of new crises, big and small.
One flight up, at the eye of this hurricane of activity, sits Yohannes Bayu, 36, founder and director of ARDC. One of the 180 people granted official refugee status by the Israeli government, Bayu fled Ethiopia and arrived in Israel on a tourist visa in 1997.
"My parents were involved with the previous Mengistu government - before the present government took over the country - and I was involved with an opposition party. I found out that my life was in danger and I had to run away from there," Bayu tells. "I went by car to Kenya - I was blacklisted and forbidden to get on a plane in Ethiopia - and then flew from Kenya to Israel." After five years of unremitting legal struggle, a 23-day hunger strike and a decision by the Supreme Court of Israel, Bayu received refugee status and political asylum in 2003.
Bayu founded ARDC the following year. "At the beginning, we were very small-scale. We provided as much help as we could," he recalls. "Since then, we've grown as the needs have grown."
With financial support from UNHCR, the Ted Arison Foundation and a handful of private donors, ARDC now offers several programs and services. Perhaps the most important of these is a network of shelters for particularly vulnerable African asylum seekers. The inspiration for this project came one night around three years ago, when almost 1,000 asylum seekers were released from their detention facility and turned loose into the streets of south Tel Aviv with nowhere to go. ARDC managed to accommodate these people in a large, one-room shelter without even basic amenities. Today, ARDC provides two shelters, one for families with children and unaccompanied minors, and the other for pregnant women.
ARDC also offers educational programs in the form of "survival" language training in Hebrew and English for asylum seekers, as well as basic schooling for their children. In addition, for asylum seekers wishing to pursue courses in higher education, ARDC provides assistance, such as seeking scholarships. Bayu says that thus far three students have received scholarships to attend local colleges. ARDC has also established a psychotherapy clinic for asylum seekers traumatized by their ordeal and unable to cope with their present circumstances.
"We have seven professional psychologists volunteering with us," Bayu says.
Perhaps the most interesting function ARDC performs is to get asylum seekers involved with local community development. This includes not only self-help activities among the Africans themselves, but also volunteer work in poor Israeli communities, like doing Passover house-cleaning. A group of these volunteers recently worked in Sderot and then entertained the local community with a performance of African music and dance. This, says Bayu, is good not only for the asylum seekers, for whom the volunteer work is a form of therapy, but also for the Israeli public, who need to see that asylum seekers can be useful and productive if given the chance to work.
With the exception of a small number who receive working visas, most asylum seekers are not allowed to work in Israel. Those who do, do so illegally and are subject to arrest if caught. This is a major "hot button" issue for Bayu, who complains, "On the one hand, the government will not provide asylum seekers with work permits, and on the other, it provides them with no social services. The policy is, 'Okay, you can stay, but that's it.'"
Bayu's voice is soft but his words are unequivocal when asked whether Israel deserves credit for allowing some 12,000 Sudanese and Eritreans to stay in the country indefinitely, along with an additional 2,000 people from Congo and the Ivory Coast. "Look, the good thing is that there's no deportation. That's the most important thing for any refugee, to not have to go back to the country he ran away from," he states. "That's the good thing. But the people are living miserably. They lack even the basic things, like enough food to eat, even once a day. No medical care at all. These people's lives were in danger back in Sudan, but at least they and their children could eat. International aid organizations will not help us, because they say we are in Israel, and Israel is a developed country. But the Israeli government will not provide any assistance, or allow asylum seekers to support themselves through work."
"These people are not asking to live here forever," Bayu continues. "They just want to get through this time in their lives, taking care of their children, away from the suffering they had to run away from. Israel should be the best place in the world in dealing with refugees. No one knows better than Israel what being a refugee means, and no one has experienced being refugees like the people of Israel."
On that note, Bayu stands up and says, "Let's visit the shelters."
The first shelter, for pregnant women, occupies the second floor of a dilapidated house not far from ARDC. Much of the front of the second floor has been destroyed by a recent fire. The asylum seekers live in the rear.
Climbing the rickety wooden stairs that seem to cling precariously to the outside of the building, Bayu reflects, "Some of the stories you hear from these womenâ€¦ they tell you how they suffered to come here, how they were raped along the way, and then when they got here they didn't get any help at all. They got arrested, they went to prison, then the prison put them on a bus and dropped them off on the street or in Levinsky Park, knowing they had no place to go. We have found women who were pregnant - six months, eight months - living in that park for days. We brought them here."
The living conditions inside are grim. Only one room appears to get any fresh air or sunlight; the others are dark and airless, filled with torn, worn out furniture and piled high with old clothes, cheap houseware and personal belongings. A little room crammed with a refrigerator, a sink, a cabinet with a few pots and dishes, and a one-range electric hot plate serves as the kitchen for all of the shelter's occupants. The place is somber, but it is quiet and safe. The women are sheltered, and their basic needs are being met. A young woman sits on a sofa in the sunny front room, next to a large white teddy bear, and gazes ahead vacantly, seemingly lost in her thoughts.
The second shelter, for families and unaccompanied minors, is a dark warren of little rooms - one leading into another - on a narrow street in the midst of an almost theatrically poor neighborhood. A very drunk man shouts incoherently at the end of the street as Bayu points toward the shelter and says, laughing, "I know this place doesn't look so good, but I tell you it's a palace compared to the first shelter we had at the beginning."
The little rooms are dark and damp. In one, a woman who looks like she could be anywhere between 40 and 70 years old, lies in bed sick, Bayu says, with HIV-AIDS. In another room, two newly-arrived pregnant girls, just released from the detention center, listen to music from a CD player. Bayu says these girls were just recently taken in by ARDC and that they will be brought to the other shelter as soon as there is space. A boy, perhaps 10 or 11 years old, kicks a ball around one of the larger rooms and smiles a greeting to Bayu.
A little girl hovers silently in the background, casting quick, nervous glances from around corners and behind doors. Bayu explains, "Her 21-year-old brother was shot and killed by Egyptian soldiers as they were running into Israel. He was holding her on his shoulders. She was also wounded. She's been here now for more than two years."
As he later climbs into his car to return to his office, Bayu's parting words are terse and to the point. "The Israeli government has to realize that the refugee issue is a fact, that it is a worldwide problem, and that it is not going to go away. The government needs a policy to deal with refugees properly. This will be good not just for the refugees, but also for Israel."