Living in Limbo (Extract)

01danna (photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
(photo credit: Esteban Alterman)
Extract of an article in Issue 1, April 28, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. As Israel tries to decide what to do with them, thousands of African refugees live in limbo in Tel Aviv Madhim Gebreselessy, a lithe Eritrean with a stubbly beard, laminated his. Beautiful Berthe Haylu, also from Eritrea, keeps hers carefully folded in her bra. And Berhan Melaku, a computer student back home in Asmara, has both photocopied and e-mailed himself copies, just in case. Poor Hagos Tomezgi's, meanwhile, went through the wash by mistake and is now in tatters. "This is very terrible. A balagan," says the former Eritrean soldier and father of two, using one of the more frequently used words in his newly acquired, and minimal, Hebrew vocabulary. In colloquial Hebrew, balagan means chaos - an apt description of the situation of the approximately 8,000 African asylum seekers living in Israel today. For the past two years, ever since the trickle of African refugees crossing into Israel across the Egyptian border began to increase exponentially, Israel has been trying to figure out what to do with them. Meanwhile, they remain in various stages of limbo. Leave the Central Bus station in down and out South Tel Aviv, walk two blocks over to the shabby little patch of green known as Levinksy Park and ask any one of the dozens of men and women sitting listlessly on the park benches, subsisting on donations and occasional odd jobs, for their most prized possession. And, immediately, faster than you can pronounce Cote D'Ivoire or remember where exactly Eritrea is, and long, long before you figure out the difference between the problems in Darfur and South Sudan, they will pull that possession out of their pockets, wallets and bags - the various temporary refugee protection papers that Israel provides. Some have been signed by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), others come from the Interior Ministry or the Immigration Authority, and others still bear the stamp of the Israel Prisons Service. The papers are issued in either Hebrew or English - but almost never in any of the languages that the refugees actually know: Tigrinya if they are Eritrean, Arabic if they are Sudanese, and French if they have come from West Africa. And the papers all say different things, according to the refugee's country of origin, the date of entry into Israel, whether he or she happened to be carted off to detention upon arrival - and the government's particular policy of the month. Some of the papers specify dates and times of future critical appointments for UNHCR asylum interviews to determine their official international status; the United Nations is the only body that can officially determine that they really are "refugees" and not merely asylum-seekers - a determination that will grant them a reprieve and the right to remain in Israel, at least for a long time. Others are reminders of upcoming interviews at the Interior Ministry in order to register and obtain a modicum of "officialness" in this country. Some set times for interviews with the police to ensure that their names and contacts are on file so that they won't be deported. And some just note that the refugee will - somehow - be located and dealt with - by some authority - in the months to come. Along with these general permits, close to 3,000 of the refugees also hold temporary work permits issued by the Trade and Industry ministry. Many others clasp letters from that same ministry that state that anyone that employs them will not be fined for doing so - a de facto, albeit somewhat obtuse, work permit. In any case, for the refugees, the main purpose of all these various slips of paper is basically the same. They are meant to ensure that Israel has lists, and that they are on those lists, so that someone, some time, will be able to provide follow-up and, hopefully, resolution of their future. And until then, they are meant to ensure that the bearers are not picked up and arrested by the police, or otherwise harassed, during the period in which their requests for asylum are being considered or until Israel independently decides how to treat and handle them - whichever comes first. "Big balagan," says Tomezgi, still on the subject of his own crumpled paper, which, when pieced together says that his first interview at the UNHCR offices is scheduled to take place in four months. He nervously wipes a piece of white bread into a can of hummus brought over by volunteers and desperately tries to smoothe out the precious document - managing only to rip it right in half and smear it with chickpea paste. "There is nothing specific for them to do. Or for us to do," observes Ben Victor, an 18-year-old from London who is spending his gap year between high school and university on a program sponsored by Reform Synagogue Youth working with the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC), a volunteer organization that helps the refugees. He surveys the dirty disco-cum-refugee shelter off Levinksy Park that the ARDC has rented and that houses over 200 Africans from half a dozen different countries and raises an eyebrow. "The situation is all… how shall I put it…" - the polite young Englishman's voice trails off as he searches for the right word - "…slightly confusing for everyone." According to the International 1951 Con- vention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Israel is a signatory, a country cannot repatriate people asking for asylum if they are in mortal danger at home. Asylum seekers' claims must be investigated, taking into consideration U.N. assessments of conditions in the home country. Passing along the "problem" by deporting the refugee to a third country is also prohibited under the convention. This is why the determination by the UNHRC is so critical, since it will advise the Israeli government regarding its obligations. Both Sudan and Eritrea have been deemed by the U.N. to be countries in which there are widespread human rights abuses. This means that no matter how many citizens of these countries pour into Israel - and the majority of refugees here today are from these two nations - it is prohibited to send them home or back into Egypt. And, even in the case of countries like the Congo or the Ivory Coast, which are not at present considered dangerous for returnees, the convention requires that asylum seekers from those countries be given the opportunity to present their requests for refugee status on a case by case basis. That could take years. And so, for the past two years, Israel has been trying to figure out what to do with these people. Solutions so far have run the gamut, with the government vacillating between various alternatives, including, despite the convention, deportation. Compounding the debate and Israel's dilemma are questions whether these newcomers are actually running for their lives or merely migrating to Israel for better economic opportunities. And the issue of security is also particularly tricky, since Sudan, for example, not only does not have diplomatic relations with Israel but actually still considers Israel to be an enemy country. As such, the Sudanese refugees are, officially and in international parley, enemies of the state. Last year, Israel decided to grant temporary residency status to the approximately 550 refugees from Darfur currently in Israel. This means they can stay and work here and claim a variety of benefits such as health insurance, social security and education, and will eventually be able to apply for more permanent status in Israel. But in fact, 100 of the 550 have not yet actually received the promised status, according to NGO organizations working with the Africans. Second best off are some 2,500 Eritreans, who claim that they are escaping a brutal regime, led by President Isaias Afewerki. The U.S. State Department, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the British Foreign Office all back up their claims of human rights abuses in Eritrea, but the Eritrean government - which is on good terms with Israel - patently rejects the accusations. In any case, at this point, almost all of the Eritreans in Israel either have been granted or are in the course of obtaining temporary work permits (600 were granted such permits this week). Temporary work permits entitle the Eritreans to work for a renewable period of anywhere from three to nine months, but they are not accompanied by any social benefits - except, of course, the official right to work and walk around the country without being arrested. And all the rest - a mix of some 2,000 more Sudanese (the vast majority from the Christian south of the country), 500 more Eritreans, approximately 1,000 Ivorians, and another 1,500 from Ethiopia and a variety of West African nations - together with the dozens of newcomers flowing into Israel across the porous Egyptian border every week - have temporary protection papers. But nothing more. Israel and Egypt have been in ongoing talks about the refugee issue. Last year, briefly, Israel attempted to institute what is popularly known as the "hot return" policy - that is, that the Israeli army would identify the Africans immediately after infiltration and hand them back over to the Egyptians. But Israel has stopped the policy, both because the United Nations made it clear that it is illegal according to international law and the conventions that Israel has signed and because of domestic pressures from local human rights groups that feared, based on precedent, that Egypt would deport them back to their home countries, where their lives would be at risk. About 1,500 refugees at any one time are in detention, mostly in Keziot in the Negev, says Sigal Rozen of the Refugees' Rights Forum, an umbrella group of seven human rights organizations active in promoting and lobbying for the rights of the asylum seekers and refugees in Israel and implementing activities on their behalf. The Forum was established with the aid of the New Israel Fund, a primarily U.S.-based social action funding group, and it is privately funded. According to activists like Rozen, detention is a seemingly random decision. Some detainees have been caught by the Border Police - although others caught by the Border Police are released immediately. Some are detained for a day or two, some for a month or two. It appears that initially, Israel intended to place everyone who infiltrated into the country in detention, but this was politically, socially and practically unfeasible - leaving Israel with a residual haphazard policy. The majority of the rest, approximately 5,000, are spread around the country, working on farms, in hotels and factories. Some of the Ivorians may have had work permits in the past, but their U.N. status seems to have changed, as the war at home seems to be ending, so those permits are running out and not being renewed. The approximately 1,500 in Tel Aviv live either in one of the half dozen decrepit shelters around Levinsky Park rented for them by ARDC and other aid organizations or, increasingly, holed up in cheap, shared apartments in the vicinity. Typically, and despite the protection papers they clutch so tightly, most of the refugees remain afraid of the police. They don't believe that they are protected, and culture and personal experience at home have taught them to be afraid of the police. And they are always worried that the rules will change, as they have, and that the papers will become worthless. And with no money, they have little reason to walk around. So they stay close to home, venturing out only en route to or from work. Many of the Eritreans are either from or have lived in the capital, Asmara, are educated, and speak English relatively well. But these skills do not help them here. Hayele Zewda, an 18-year-old Eritrean mother who made the trek to Israel with her sister and lives in the former disco shelter, has been in Tel Aviv for three months and has not yet seen the ocean. The Tel Avivians who have secured small jobs - some cleaning here, a bit of construction there - have nicknamed these menial jobs "chik chak" because, says Demoz Debros, 27, formerly a soldier in Eritrea, their bosses keep telling them to do their jobs "chik chak" - Hebrew slang for "on the double." Lanky Gebn Selmyt is selling shwarma in Bat Yam. Abrhe Tumzghi, who carries around a photo of his wife and daughter back home in Eritrea, is helping out at a garage in Holon. And Debros is mopping floors at an upscale yoga studio in North Tel Aviv. "Many women come and lie around on mats and then I come and sweep up, and then more women, and even some men, come in and lie on the mats again," he says. Asked what the work is like, he replies, inscrutably, "Interesting." Extract of an article in Issue 1, April 28, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.