The making of a ghetto

About 1,000 refugees live in squalor in 8 converted bomb shelters in TA.

african refugees 224.88 (photo credit: )
african refugees 224.88
(photo credit: )
The area between the old and new bus stations in south Tel Aviv is on its way to becoming a ghetto of African refugees, living in the most squalid of conditions and turning the already run-down area into a time bomb the municipality can no longer ignore. The few blocks closest to the new bus terminal are teeming with close to a thousand African refugees, with the lucky ones crammed into eight dilapidated bomb shelters, while hundreds more sleep in Lewinsky Park bordering Lewinsky, Har Zion, Levander, Matalon and Golomb streets. The wider area is home to about 40,000 mostly illegal workers from all over the world who provide cheap labor to a variety of contractors, and many headaches for the Immigration Police. In Lewinsky Park, hundreds of refugees from Eritrea, Sudan and the Ivory Coast - mostly men between the ages of 20 and 35, but also several dozen children - spend the day sitting in small groups with nothing to do. At night, many roam the nearby streets or cram into the park's small underground bomb shelter. The few plastic mobile toilets provided by the municipality adjacent to the shelter are unusable - filled to the brim with feces, bottles and newspaper that has been used as toilet paper. Flies swarm all over the area and the stench is overpowering. The park is now completely taken over by African refugees, drug users, pushers and petty criminals, and some hawkers. Police cars make the rounds every half hour or so. Israelis don't come here with their children anymore. For anyone familiar with the ghettos of Johannesburg and Sao Paolo, it is no great leap of the imagination to envision how a small area inhabited by desperate refugees, left by the state to fester in appalling conditions, can swell in size and numbers to a point where the refugees control the streets and the police don't dare enter. Lewinsky Park and its surrounds still have a ways to go, but the warning signs are clear. There are about 200 refugees in the park at any given time; more arrive every day. Once the park overflows, the municipality will have to decide what to do with them. There is scarcely any room left in the adjacent shelters. In the eight [known] converted bomb shelters underneath buildings surrounding the park, about 1,000 African refugees eat, sleep and wash in squalid conditions. Scabies is rampant, and other diseases are starting to take hold. In one shelter, about 150 refugees, mostly young men from the Ivory Coast, share a tiny, dirty kitchen in which they cook the rice donated to them once-weekly by Israeli volunteers. Bread is delivered once a day. Dishes are washed in a small bucket, also used by some for their bath. The showers and toilets are dirty and run down, and filthy water covers the ground. The mattresses are dank and dirty, with up to five people sleeping on each. There are no windows in the shelters and the air is putrid. Across the hall from the Ivorian shelter is a smaller room where young Eritrean women live in slightly better conditions. But neither they nor their Ivorian neighbors have any work; by day, many wander around the old Tel Aviv bus station, waiting for something to happen. Volunteer workers fear unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. The shelters are being rented by African organizations helping refugees, but the municipality, recognizing the growing social and health problems, wants to close them down. The plan is to provide as many refugees with employment as possible, in coordination with the hotel association and the agricultural workers association. The plan is good on paper, but the numbers don't add up. Only a few dozen of those in the shelters have been provided with employment to date, in Eilat's hotels or on farms. The refugees are coming faster than the authorities can find housing and work for them. This is not stopping the municipality's director of welfare, public health and humans services, Zeev Friedman, from implementing the plan, because, as he puts it, "The problem is not going away and is only getting bigger." There are reports of similar shelters popping up in north Tel Aviv around the Basel Street area, as well as in Bat Yam, to Tel Aviv's south. WHAT MOST worries volunteers helping these refugees are about 200 youths, aged 12-20, who are the most vulnerable and could easily be drawn to drugs and crime. One organization is trying, together with the Tel Aviv municipality, to establish a youth center not far from Lewinsky Park where these youngsters can be educated and helped. Dr. Mike Naftali, president of Brit Olam, the International Israeli-Jewish Volunteer Movement, is coordinating efforts with the municipality's Social Affairs Department to deal with the growing problem in south Tel Aviv, and on a larger level, to convince the government to adopt a strategy that will deal with the constant influx of African refugees. "Israel is part of the new world, the globalized world, characterized by the sudden and large movement of people seeking asylum and immigration," Naftali says. A solution is urgently needed for Lewinsky Park, he adds. "In six months time, they won't be sitting in this park at night wondering where they're going to get money and food. They're going to be thinking of ways to break into my house. There is going to be crime, prostitution and disease," says Naftali, an expert on refugee camp issues. "It costs the government US $25,000 annually to keep a young refugee in jail," Naftali goes on, making a point that volunteers, working with the authorities, could help refugees find work and defuse the social time bomb. There are currently about 8,000 African refugees in Israel, 6,000 of whom arrived in 2007. More than 1,000 have made their way to Israel since the beginning of the year. Many of them are in the Ketziot refugee transit camp in the South, where they are provided with adequate conditions, but no prospect of employment and development. Naftali argues that a wise government strategy would be to put these people in some of the country's empty or near-empty immigrant absorption centers, and not leave them in Ketziot or the open parks and underground shelters. Ketziot, unlike most of the absorption centers, is in open desert, and nowhere near any industrial parks or other places of employment. If placed in the centers, the refugees could find employment more easily, and this would take the financial burden off the government, which spends NIS 250 of taxpayer money per day per refugee at Ketziot. "If they were working, the government wouldn't have to feed them or clothe them, just provide a roof over their heads. This would mean, however, that Israel is allowing African refugees to stay, and that alarms many who want to keep the Jewish state's fragile demographic balance steady," Naftali says. While acknowledging that in the modern era it is very easy for African refugees to phone home and encourage others to come to Israel, Naftali argues that Israel can handle several thousand refugees without threatening its demographic makeup. "Even if the government built a fence along the border with Egypt, the refugees would still come from the Jordanian side or via the sea. There is a big wall dividing Mexico and America, and still the refugees come. Spain has millions of them. Israel is part of this globalized world and will have to learn how to cope with this phenomenon," Naftali says. Israeli arms dealers are "heavily involved" in some of the armed conflicts in Africa, he notes, and so Israel as a nation cannot "escape responsibility to care for some of the refugees it itself helped create." Exasperated by the government's slow response, Naftali has held meetings with African officials, including from countries that have no diplomatic relations with Israel, to try to create the conditions for voluntary repatriation. "Many of the refugees here can't go back to their home nations; they will be persecuted for coming to Israel, so Israel can't send them back," Naftali says, adding that so long as the refugees are here, they need to be treated like human beings. "Like it or not, this is the world we're living in. Europe has 10 million refugees. Jordan and Syria are absorbing refugees from Iraq. If there were peace in the Middle East, we would be absorbing the Iraqis," he says. "The situation in Africa is not improving and we have to prepare ourselves to keep the refugees here for anywhere up to 20 years." For more of Amir's articles and posts, visit his personal blog Forecast Highs