Jordanian day workers are a boon to Eilat hoteliers, but no blessing for jobless Africans

Migrants or refugees, Eritreans and Sudanese are afraid to return home and feel they will never be accepted in Israel.

AFRICAN REFUGEES are seen leaving the Holot detention facility. (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
AFRICAN REFUGEES are seen leaving the Holot detention facility.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Hundreds of Jordanians have been crossing the border into Israel on a daily basis for just over a month now, to access their new jobs in hotels across the southern Israeli port town of Eilat. In recent years these jobs – mainly cleaning and washing dishes, which have failed to attract Israelis – were filled by African migrants from Eritrea and Sudan, who are also described as refugees, asylum seekers, illegal infiltrators or economic migrants, depending on whom you ask. The decision to invite Jordanian guest workers – which was spearheaded by Interior Minister Silvan Shalom and Eilat Mayor Meir Itzhak Halevy – has been widely lauded for the cooperation between Israel and its neighbor. The implications for those African migrants whom the Jordanian workers are replacing, however, appear to have been overlooked.
Deputy Foreign Minister and Acting Regional Cooperation Minister Ayoub Kara (Likud) said the move would help solve the illegal African migration problem, arguing that Africans would be less motivated to come to Israel if there were no jobs to be found.
“The government policy is not consistent regarding the refugees,” says head of the Eilat Hoteliers Association Shabtai Shai, explaining that employing them to fill the labor shortage in the city’s hotels is a less than ideal solution. “You never know what the government is going to decide – it’s not a long-term policy so you can’t rely on a labor force like this,” he adds. The migrants from Eritrea and Sudan have visas that they have to renew every two months, and at any point they can be confined at Holot or other detention centers.
“We treat them as temporary and I don’t want to live in a temporary state” says Mayor Halevy. While he acknowledges that it is not up to him to categorize their status, he repeatedly states that he talks to members of Eilat’s African migrant community on a daily basis and, according to him, many come to Israel for work.
He adds, however, that the state should define who are refugees and who aren’t, and says that if he is told to absorb a certain number of refugees he would do so happily. “I think the government has to take a decision and should provide a response to all who those who need it,” he says. He asserts that the government “is operating responsibly as a sovereign state that wants to control its borders, and I think it knows how to differentiate [between refugees and others].”
The advantages of the Jordanian workers, he says, is that they are legal, thus there will be far more consistency in the workforce, and in addition, he describes their presence in the Israeli workforce as an “expression of peace between us and our neighbors.
“And I don’t think that is any less important than the infiltrators,” he concludes.
Sudanese migrant Magdi Hassan, who lived in Eilat for seven years before being summoned to the Holot detention facility, takes exception to claims that African migrants come to Israel in search of work. “All over the world it is known that the Sudanese government carried out a genocide in Darfur,” says the 30-year-old Darfurian, whose parents and six younger siblings are currently living in a refugee camp in Chad. The journey to Israel would have been difficult for them, so they stayed behind, he explains. “I’m one survivor of genocide, and I’m sure that there are no Sudanese here in Israel who are just coming for work,” he protests, describing such statements as “sad” and “shameful.”
Hassan was released from Holot after 18 months in October 2015, and barred from returning to Eilat or heading to Tel Aviv – as were all the other released African migrants. Hassan moved to Herzliya, where he landed a job at the Herods Hotel.
“It’s not new that the mayor of Eilat says we’re just looking for work [as opposed to refugees or asylum seekers],” says Teshume Desca, 35, of Eritrea. Desca opines that racism is the true cause for such statements. “But everyone who runs from Eritrea is running because they are looking for safety.” He adds that he fled to Israel six and a half years ago in search of asylum, but no longer believes he will find it here. “I don’t believe the state is prepared to give refuge to anyone, so maybe I will have to search elsewhere.”
Like Hassan, Desca was detained at Holot in February 2014 while he was working in Eilat, and after he was released he found work at a hotel in Mitzpe Ramon.
Etty Kirchely, recruitment manager of the Isrotel chain in Eilat, agrees with Shai that the inconsistency of the African migrants’ situation makes it tough to employ them.
“We’re not firing them one-for-one with the employment of every Jordanian,” she clarifies. “But eventually it will happen. Every week they get detained at Holot. And some of them also leave out of choice, because they see what is happening.”
She speaks with warmth of her African employees, saying on a personal level she very much connects to them. “We know them since 2007 and we work and live with them and it’s very hard, but I respect the government’s decision,” she tells The Jerusalem Post.
Whether she sees them as refugees or economic migrants, Kirchely says that at the start of the influx in 2007 many came from Sudan and were refugees. “But also a large part are looking for work,” she says, referring to the Eritreans who she says make up the majority of the migrants who work in the Isrotel hotels in Eilat today.
“We enjoyed them for many years, but now there is a solution so we’re happy that there is someone to fill this shortage and it really is a beautiful initiative,” she says, noting that in the short time that the Jordanians have been employed in Israel, many have remarked that the reality of Israel is another world from what they see in the media. “Every one of them is now an ambassador for Israel in Jordan,” she says. Both Kirchely and Shai express satisfaction with the Jordanian workers, describing them as good, experienced and appreciative workers.
Influxes of Eritrean asylum seekers is an issue that many Western countries have had to grapple with, however, the rate of acceptance in EU countries is close to 90%, whereas in Israel it’s 0.2%. Four Eritreans were granted refugee status, while no Sudanese asylum seekers whatsoever have been granted the status.
“I don’t think it’s logical that only four out all of them are refugees, when the rates of acceptance is the Western world are so high,” says Anat Ovadia-Rosner, spokeswoman for NGO for Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. She further notes that until 2013, the authorities were not even checking individual asylum requests, until protests and pressure on the issue led to an announcement by interior minister Gideon Saar in the winter of 2013 that asylum seekers were welcome to submit requests. “Eritreans are usually rejected, due to the fact that Israel doesn’t acknowledge fleeing from the slavery-condition army as a refugee cause, even though most of the Western world does acknowledge that, especially after the recent UN report which called the rights violations in Eritrea a crime against humanity. However, even the rejections take a long time. As for the Sudanese, they also have to wait an outrageous amount of time, when the Darfurians specifically so far don’t get any response at all.”
She mentions Mutasim Ali from Darfur – a known activist in the Sudanese community – who has been waiting for a response to his asylum request for three years. Similarly, Darfurian Jamal Omer – who has also been on the Eilat-Holot-Herzliya route – says he has been awaiting a response to his request for asylum for two years.
He tells the Post two friends of his left Israel to return to Khartoum, and were killed by the government when it was discovered they had been in Israel. The possibilities seem bleak for these Eritreans and Sudanese who are afraid to return home, but feel they will never be accepted in Israel. But Hassan remains positive, saying he hopes there will be peace in Darfur soon, so he can return home to his family, whom he sorely misses.