Why is Israel still in denial over African refugees?

Over 6,000 Africans have crossed through Egypt in the past two years. While the refugees live in wretched refuse, why isn't the government taking action?

Sudanese refugees 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sudanese refugees 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The underground bomb shelter in Levinsky Park near Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station has, in recent months, turned into a squalid, staggeringly overcrowded little refugee camp. Some 200 African men, mainly from Eritrea, sleep crammed into every possible nook and cranny in two airless, low-ceilinged rooms and a corridor. The dirty concrete floor is heaped with mattresses and blankets, and scattered with scraps of food and debris. Hanging from the walls are plastic bags stuffed with clothing. Two cut-out illustrations have been tacked up - one of Jesus, the other of Bob Marley. There are no windows, no shower, no refrigerator. Recently five portable toilets were installed outside the entrance by the Tel Aviv Municipality. Nearby, the most bereft ones from downstairs can be seen picking through the overflowing garbage bin. "When I was in Sudan the government was deporting people back to Eritrea, and I heard people were going to Israel. I didn't have the money to go anywhere else, so I wanted to come, too. I am a Christian, so it's better for me to live in a Christian country," says John, 28, a tall, genial English teacher. Climbing the bomb shelter's crowded stairway to talk on a park bench, he says he fled his violently unstable homeland for Sudan after his father disappeared at the hands of Eritrean government agents. After a time in Sudan, he paid smugglers to take him to Egypt, and from there, he and 37 other African refugees made it past the bullets of Egyptian border guards and climbed a barbed wire fence into Israel. "Immediately I raised my hands to the Israeli soldiers who came to take us," he says. After two days in IDF custody, they were bused to Beersheba, where he caught a taxi with three other refugees to the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. That was about a month ago. Since then, John has been living in the bomb shelter. The people are there temporarily; they move out as soon as African laborers or refugees take them into South Tel Aviv apartments, or when they find menial work so they can share the rent. Immediately, their places are taken by new African refugees crossing from Egypt and coming to Tel Aviv every week. These people didn't make the brutal, potentially fatal journey from Africa just to find temporary work and a bed for a few months; they're looking for a long-term solution. "I want asylum," says John. "I expect the Israeli government to do something to help me." Last weekend Egyptian border guards reportedly shot to death an Eritrean woman trying to get over the fence, and arrested her two daughters, eight and 10. On January 30, two Ivory Coast refugees were killed in the same circumstances. Since African refugees began coming from Egypt in the latter part of 2005, several have been killed by Egyptian border troops, and many more have been captured and badly abused. Even for those who evade Egyptian border security, throwing in with refugee smugglers from Africa to Israel is a treacherous journey. "There were 17 of us lying on top of each other in the back of a Toyota truck for five days across the Sudanese desert, through the sandstorms," recalls John, as other Africans gather around to listen in the evening drizzle. "In Cairo, they put me and another guy in the trunk of a car - I'm tall, and he was a fat guy - and drove us for four, five, six hours through Sinai." Nevertheless, the refugees keep coming. Early last Friday morning, 123 Sudanese reportedly crossed over. Every week, dozens more arrive and are held by the IDF, then - if there is no more room in Ketziot prison in the Negev, which there usually isn't - they're taken to Beersheba and pointed in the direction of the buses leaving for Tel Aviv. By summer 2006, in the first year of the migration, there were fewer than 200 African refugees in this country. By last summer, there were about 2,000. Today there are some 6,000, according to local UN and refugee aid officials. The oft-cited example of Menachem Begin's granting of asylum to 66 Vietnamese boat people in 1977 no longer applies to the situation here. Neither is this mainly about Darfurians escaping genocide - only 500 to 600 refugees are from Sudan's Darfur region, and they are the only asylum-seekers the government has agreed to let stay, granting them temporary resident status. It's not correct to say that the country is being swamped or overwhelmed by African refugees. The majority are now working on farms, in factories, in restaurants, cleaning houses and doing other bottom-wage jobs. Furthermore, their number is small compared to the roughly 200,000 foreign laborers in this country, about half of whom are here illegally. If foreigners willing to do the lowest jobs at the lowest pay were really such a threat, they wouldn't have been allowed to settle here for the last 20 years. The potential threat, rather, comes from the millions more African refugees in Egypt, and the ones thinking of going to Egypt from Sudan, Eritrea, Ivory Coast, Congo, Kenya, Sierra Leone and other destitute, deadly African nations. About the only way Israel can avoid presenting a temptation for them is to become even more menacing to refugees than Egypt and the rest of Africa are - which is probably an impossible thing for a prosperous democracy to be. Another means of stopping the migration that's out of the question, at least for now, is sending them back to Egypt. The government tried that once - last summer with a group of refugees that included 44 Sudanese, and despite Egypt's promises not to send them back to Sudan, it deported at least five of them, exposing them to the vengeance of the Sudanese government they'd already risked their lives to escape. As for sending the Eritreans back home, the government is heeding the reported warning from local UN officials that this would put them in the same sort of mortal danger that deported Sudanese would face. Recently, Malta and Libya deported dozens of refugees back to Eritrea, and it is suspected they were either killed or tortured in prison, says Tally Kritzman, an attorney who represents many Eritreans for Tel Aviv University's Refugee Rights Clinic. So Israel is in a very delicate position. On legal, moral and historical grounds, it can't treat refugees in the same cruel fashion as other, tyrannical countries, nor can it return them to the lands of their oppressors. Yet, on the other hand, if it gives these asylum-seekers an outright welcome - say, by granting them asylum - it will fire up the hypersensitive refugee grapevine and spur incomparably greater numbers of Africans to the Egyptian border, according to some refugee aid officials. Meanwhile, finding other countries to give these people asylum has proven impossible, says Michael Bavly, the local representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "Other countries feel no responsibility toward asylum-seekers in Israel. They're already overburdened with their own," he explains. So the country, seeking a middle ground, lets them stay, lets thousands of them work legally (with many more working illegally), keeps a few hundred in prison while the rest are free, by virtue of their UN papers, to walk the streets without fear of arrest. And though the government gives them no material assistance, the Tel Aviv Municipality and a vast network of volunteer, medical and legal organizations, as well as churches and synagogues, provide them the means for at least grim survival. Yet even this middle ground makes Israel much more attractive to African refugees than Egypt or any other African country. The proof is the thousands of Africans who risk death and go through all manner of hell to come here. Why do they choose Israel? Several reasons. For Christians, who are a large proportion of the Africans, it means leaving Muslim countries and coming to the Holy Land. For Eritreans, it also means coming to a nation with friendly ties to their home country. More importantly, though, their other options are closing down. Europe, which absorbed millions of African refugees in the past, has begun shutting its borders to them, says Kritzman. THE REFUGEE GRAPEVINE in Egypt and Sudan moves like a streak. If a few African wayfarers have good luck on their journey, others immediately follow; if a few have bad luck, others are deterred from their path. On the African refugee grapevine, the news from Israel is good. "They saw that refugees can work in this country and their situation is decent. There's no mystery why they're coming here," says Bavly. "Decent," however, is a relative term. On Rehov Har Zion across from the Levinsky Park bomb shelter is another dim, underground men's refugee camp. This one used to be a disco - its flashing colored light still revolves in the ceiling - but now it's a thick warren of bunk beds amid a jumble of belongings. The sign on the door from the hall's disco days reads "Maximum occupancy - 144 people." Around 300 African men are sleeping here. Upstairs is a shelter for some 80 women and 10 children. Some of the women are pregnant. "I don't know where my husband is; I got over the fence before him, and I never saw him again," cries one pregnant Eritrean. "My husband is in an Israeli prison," says another. In contrast to the anarchic bomb shelter-turned-transit-camp in the park, these shelters are maintained by a refugee aid organization and have toilets, showers and kitchens. In the women's shelter, a schedule of house chores hangs on the wall. Sitting on plastic chairs in the entryway, a group of refugees is watching the National Geographic Channel on TV. The Tel Aviv Central Bus Station area, where some 50,000 foreign workers live, has long been an international enclave, so it's only natural that African refugees should gravitate there. The same NGOs in the neighborhood that have been serving foreign workers for years, such as Kav L'Oved (Worker's Hot Line) and the Physicians for Human Rights free clinic, are now serving the asylum-seekers. There are many volunteers on the streets. Cars pull up to the shelters filled with donated clothes, bedding, food, toiletries and toys. "Who needs clothes, who needs blankets?" calls out Alma Zohar, a pretty Tel Aviv singer joined by two girlfriends driving a carful of supplies up to Levinsky Park. At the curb, they start handing out the goods, and a couple of dozen Africans immediately surround them, grabbing, getting into tugs-of-war. Some of the boxes are being spirited away not by the refugees but by young African laborers who live in the neighborhood, so the fellows from the bomb shelter start carrying the boxes off in tight groups for protection. "We come every day to help you, but slowly, slowly!" pleads Odelia Oknin, also a local singer. The women volunteers say they don't belong to any organization, they just send out e-mails to sympathetic circles asking for help for the refugees, then show up with the stuff. On Rehov Wolfson, three African men are walking along, one with a swollen, bandaged eye. They are from Congo. The one with the bandaged eye and his friend crossed the border a few days before. The third man, who has been living here legally for several years, has just taken them to the PHR clinic and is now bringing them back to the New Life in Jesus Christ Church, one of the neighborhood churches for foreign workers that are helping the refugees get squared away. The refugee's eye was injured when he fell on some rocks trying to get over the border fence, explains the churchman, who was told by the newcomers that 24 of them made the run to the border fence, but not all got across. "The Egyptians were shooting, there was panic, everyone was afraid," the churchman recounts. "The ones who were strong enough kept going. There was one lady eight months pregnant who couldn't climb over the fence, and two people stayed with her. Nobody knows what happened to them." The people who made it over were taken by police to Eilat for medical treatment, and afterward they took buses and taxis to Tel Aviv, where the local grapevine brought them to the New Life in Jesus Christ Church. "They were dirty and bloody, we gave them a place to get cleaned up, we gave them clothes and food," says the churchman. "Tomorrow I think they're going to the UN to get their papers." INSIDE THE storefront PHR clinic on Rehov Wolfson, the waiting area is typically crammed with refugees waiting to see the three doctors and a nurse on duty. Last year the clinic had 6,000 patient visits; last month alone, there were 800. "Ninety-nine percent of the patients are African refugees," says clinic manager Noa Kaufman. The Africans are mainly in their 20s and 30s and, having crossed the Sinai, they are by definition hardy; fundamentally, they are a healthy population. However, many were traumatized in their home countries, they all endured severe ordeals on the way here, they live here in conditions that invite contagious disease - yet except for the basic medical checkup they receive after giving themselves up at the border, the ailments they bring to or develop in Israel get little if any attention, say Kaufman and PHR executive director Hadas Ziv. "They go through the winter in these terribly overcrowded shelters with no windows, so we see lots and lots of people with flu and other viral illnesses," says Kaufman. There have been several cases of adult chicken pox and a few of hepatitis. There were two cases of scabies at the Rehov Matalon shelter that took a month to treat, says Ziv, because everyone in the shelter was exposed and had to apply medicinal cream before and after showering, but since there is no shower in the shelter, they had to find access to showers elsewhere. The clinic has seen five patients with HIV, one of whom died. By law, the refugees cannot be turned away by hospitals - although getting admitted often requires PHR staff to persuade hospital receptionists - but the hospitals can demand payment after treatment, which tends to deter refugees from going to them, except in emergencies like childbirth. The two pregnant women I interviewed at the Har Zion shelter, both of whom had been here for a few weeks, said they had no idea where to go to give birth. Some 80 doctors treat the refugees through the PHR clinic, and several see refugees for free in their own offices. The clinic's medicines are paid for by donations, and expensive medicines are usually beyond PHR's economic means. "The government does nothing for these people, so it's completely misleading when it takes credit for everything Israel is doing for the refugees. It's volunteers who are doing it. There's a complete misunderstanding here about the role of the state and the role of NGOs in caring for people in need," says Ziv. IN FACT, the state's only visible presence in the life of African refugees around the Central Bus Station are the police on patrol. One afternoon a man in an official-looking uniform pulled up outside the bomb shelter in Levinsky Park on a motorcycle. "Who's in charge over here?" he demanded. When I told him I didn't know, he said, "This can't be allowed, these people can't stay here. Look at this filth." He said he was with the Green Patrol, the state law enforcement agency probably best known for its battles with Negev Beduin over land ownership. "Who's their leader?" he asked again, and when I repeated that I didn't know, he drove off. Aside from the IDF and the Prisons Service, the only governmental body that is offering a guiding hand in the chaotic life of refugees is the Tel Aviv Municipality. Some 250 refugee children have been enrolled in the city's kindergartens and schools, while mothers and their infants are accepted at local Tipat Halav maternity clinics, says Deputy Mayor Yael Dayan, who handles the refugee issue for the city. She notes that about 80 teenage Africans crossed the border on the own, some as young as 13. Dayan blames the government for "having no clear, ordered policy on how to deal with the refugees." She insists the government, not the municipality nor volunteer organizations, has to provide the refugees with "something like absorption centers, not these shelters" so they can live decently. "Israel can't on the one hand allow them to stay here but on the other hand leave them in the street," she says. Last week Dayan and NGO representatives met with officials of the Interior Ministry and other state agencies to hear what the government has in mind. Interior officials, who have given work permits to thousands of refugees, raised the possibility of giving them cash grants to tide them over until they find work. "There were some interesting ideas," Dayan says, "but I don't see anything concrete happening anytime soon." Both Bavly and an official in the Prime Minister's Office maintain that the country cannot arrive at a clear-cut policy on what to do about the refugees so long as it can't regulate their entry - and it won't be able to do that as long as the poorly fenced, loosely patrolled 210-km. border with Egypt remains as breachable as it is. If the border were secured so that refugees could be kept out or let in at Israel's discretion, the government could decide how many it wanted to absorb and what it wanted to do for them, without having to worry whether its policy might encourage additional refugees to pour in, says Bavly. But in the last two and a half years the Egyptians haven't managed to keep the refugees from the border - and it hasn't been for lack of trying, because any African bound for the border who can't run fast is liable to get shot or at least beaten and imprisoned for a long time. Asked how the country intended to gain control of the flow of refugees, the official in the Prime Minister's Office says the aim is to enlist the cooperation of Egypt and the "international community." "Israel is trying to find a solution for the border, some kind of fence or something, and there are meetings about this now," he says. "We have an agreement with Egypt that we will not allow the people coming over the border to stay here, we will return them to Egypt. We're trying to make sure that those who go back to Egypt are not harmed. "Also, we're trying to find other countries that might be able to take in the refugees who have come here. Israel has taken in 500 or 600 refugees from Darfur, but the international community will have to help find a solution for the others. There are foreign countries with greater economic capability than Israel's, and not as many problems. But it's true there is no immediate solution for these people." Despite his assertions, the government is allowing the refugees to stay here; it is not returning them to Egypt, at least some in the group of refugees who were returned have been harmed, and no other country has agreed to take any refugees off Israel's hands. As for constructing a secure fence along the border, this is now being discussed in the Defense Ministry as a way of preventing Gazans from infiltrating the country. If such a fence could stop Gaza terrorists from coming in via Egypt, supposedly it could stop peaceable refugees as well. But if fences alone could block the flow of Third World refugees into countries offering them more security, civil rights and economic opportunity, there wouldn't be a Third World refugee phenomenon. Ehud Barak once characterized Israel as a "villa in the jungle," the jungle being the Middle East, and in terms of security, civil rights and economic opportunity for black African refugees, at least, he was right. About the only mystery is why the desperate runaways from Sudan, Eritrea, Ivory Coast, Congo and the rest of devastated Africa didn't start migrating to Egypt, and from there to Israel, a long time before they did. If, after two and a half years of this mass movement, there are 6,000 African refugees here today, and there are millions in Egypt with more on the way there, about how many are expected to be here in another year, another two years, another five years? I ask this question of Michael Bavly, the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "I have no idea" is all he, or anyone, can say.