Between Hell and a Hard Place

By Asher Greenberg

Since 2006, tens of thousands of non-Jewish Eritreans and Sudanese have migrated to Israel, crossing what was then a lightly defended border with Egypt’s Sinai desert. Their arrival has upended neighbourhoods, charged Israel’s already polarized political atmosphere, led to the frantic construction of a $400 million fence to keep them out, and to a massive prison complex meant to hold them. Their migration has sparked a Bedouin kidnapping and trafficking industry in the Sinai, which in turn has led to the torture and mutilation of thousands. This is the story of Israel’s African migrants. This is a longer version of an article that appeared in Tablet Magazine

Part 1 – A Refuge for Infiltrators 

Part 2 – Welcome to South Tel Aviv

Nitzana sits just a kilometre or so inside the Israeli border with Egypt. Relics of previous wars dot the desert landscape, as in much of Israel – rusting barbed wire, abandoned guard posts, and dirt tracks that lead… where? Off into the desert, to 1,000-year-old ruins, to army patrols, to Bedouin traffickers.

Entrance to Nitzana

Entrance to Nitzana

The Nitzana youth camp sits on a hill. On one side are waves of rocks and sand that make up Egypt’s lawless Sinai, through which tens of thousands of Africans have been smuggled, some enduring torture and cruelty at the hands of their Bedouin captors. You can almost imagine the final few hundred metres, half-starved men and women running past shooting Egyptian soldiers, trying not to get caught in the barbed wire.

On the other side of Nitzana – impossible to miss – sits the massive Israeli prison complex Sahronim. Just about every African asylum-seeker who makes it into Israel will spend time there. It’s the first stop, where the government processes the people it calls ‘infiltrators.’ It’s also become the last stop for nearly everyone, after the government passed legislation that imprisons every new illegal arrival. Just driving up to the main entrance brings out several officers. “This is a closed military zone, do not to take any pictures,” they say.

In between the prison and the Bedouin, there is Nitzana, part-school part-refugee camp for underage Eritrean migrants. It is the unlikely offspring of law, bureaucracy and a few good hearts. Inside, 50 Eritrean teenagers study Hebrew and English, mathematics and sciences.  The bureaucratic term for them is “unaccompanied minors” – their parents and relatives are missing or struggling back at home in Eritrea. Here the teenagers recuperate, some from their journeys, some from the beatings and torture they endured in Sinai, within sight of the desert and prisons they escaped.

In this lonely corner of Israel, Sahronim and Nitzana make plain the contradictions of the country’s response to a situation that no one asked for and no one saw coming.

***

Sigal Rozen is the founding member of the Hotline for Migrant Workers. Started in 1991, the organization advocates for Israel’s most vulnerable non-citizens.

“At the beginning, we focused on those detained for deportation. But in 2000-2001 the main problem was the trafficking victims from the ex-Soviet Union. So we became expert on sex trafficking victims.

“You can say that our focus shifted according to the population that was in prison.”

Rozen’s voice has a sweet timbre but she rolls her R’s harder than most Israelis.

She studied French and English literature before joining a high-tech company in the ‘90s.  While on maternity leave, she read news articles describing the Israeli government’s deportation of migrant workers.

“I got upset and some other people got upset. We got together and started the Hotline. At the beginning, I was on maternity leave, so I was working industriously around the clock on this issue. After three months, it was clear I could not go back to my work.”

***

Today, there are about 54,000 asylum seekers in Israel. Close to 36,000 of them are from Eritrea. But this is still a relatively new problem.

Sudanese migrants started coming in the mid-2000s. Much of the early migration was connected to the conflict in Darfur. The Sudanese government responded to a secessionist movement by backing Arab militias called the Janjaweed. The resulting wanton destruction led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and massive displacement. In July 2010, the International Criminal Court indicted Sudan’s president on charges of genocide.

In Israel, at first there was empathy for the arrivals. The human rights catastrophe in Darfur represented an echo of both the Holocaust and the Israeli situation. And Darfur, like the Holocaust, was being ignored by the West.

“It is critical for the Jewish community to respond to this genocide,” the head of the American Jewish World Service said back in 2004. “We would never again let the world idly stand by.”

And, while this wasn’t explicit, it resonated that the Darfuris were being slaughtered by Arab militias. Israel was just beginning to come out of the bloody intifada, a traumatic period when Palestinian suicide bombings ripped through Israeli cafes and buses.

In 2006, there were just 200 Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel. And “as long there were 200 (or) 300 Darfuris, there was a lot of sympathy in the Israeli street,” Rozen says. “They are genocide survivors and the number was small and not threatening.”

But what began as a trickle soon turned into a steady stream. And not just Sudanese, but Eritreans too. The Eritrean story was not so widely known. To Israelis, Eritrea was just another poor African country. Most Eritrean asylum seekers were army deserters, a cultural taboo in Israel. By June, 2007, only a quarter of the African migrants were from Darfur. And 600 more were crossing into Israel every month.

Florintin neighbourhood of South Tel AViv

Florintin neighbourhood of South Tel AViv

At first, there was no real policy in place. Most migrants were kept in prison or small settlements. But soon there wasn’t enough room in the prisons. By the end of 2007, there were close to 8,000 in the country. The government had to do something: so after being documented and checked, many migrants were just dropped off in front of police stations in cities like Tel Aviv, Be’er Sheva and Eilat.

It was in 2007 that stories first started appearing in the press about ghettos in places like South Tel Aviv. The media and the public started using the government term for the asylum-seekers: “infiltrators.”

“We totally lost the fight on this,” Rozen says. “Even when [the media] are on our side, they call them infiltrators. The choice of word is influencing a lot. We believe after we lost the fight in the terminology, we lost it with the audience, with the Israeli public. Because the term infiltrator reminds Israelis of al-Qaeda or the Fedayeen [Palestinian militants].”

And, meanwhile, more kept coming.

Between 2008 and 2011, a period of just four years, another 45,000 crossed the border, many of them Eritrean. The African population in Israel quintupled from 2007 to 2011.

Tel Aviv, Eilat and Be’er Sheva grew restless. Protests broke out and the government was under pressure.

The first order of business was to keep out new “infiltrators.” Israeli soldiers were ordered to turn back as many migrants as possible at the border while the government constructed a 230-kilometre-long, $400-million fence.

The barrier was completed earlier this year.  It has been so effective that the government has halted plans to expand detention centres. According to the latest figures from the Israeli immigration authority, only 36 migrants crossed into Israel by Oct. 2013. By the same point in 2012, more than 9,000 migrants had crossed.

But when it came to the tens of thousands migrants who’d already made it in, the government was stuck. The Sudanese could not be deported because Israel had no official diplomatic relations with the country – they are technically at war.

This was made clear when South Sudan became a country in 2011. The new state developed ties with Israel and roughly 1,000 South Sudanese migrants were “voluntarily deported” there in short order – each was offered 1,000 euros to go. Rozen believes there are only about 60 South Sudanese left in the country. For many of the other migrants, the hasty removal of the South Sudanese is a window into their own future.

As for the Eritreans, who make up the bulk of the migrants, they cannot be deported directly to Eritrea because of the oppressive practices of its pariah government. And Israel did not want to be ejecting or seen to be ejecting probable refugees directly to a place where they may be in danger (the international principle is called non-refoulement). But on the other hand, granting the Eritreans refugee status would have enabled the migrants to stay in Israel, an untenable political position for most Israeli politicians by the late 2000s.

So instead, the explicit plan was this: make life as difficult as possible for those who’d already made it in, in the hopes that they may leave on their own.

***

Israelis possess this unique way of talking. It can be an affront to Canadian sensibilities. Israelis will refer to it as no-nonsense, no-bullshit straight talk. Canadians might just call it rude.

As its best, this style avoids the circuitous pleasantries used to avoid talking directly about an issue and, also, unnecessary drama in emotionally charged conversations. But at its worst, in conversation you can pick up a whiff of the attitude, “You don’t know what you’re talking about, but I do.” It’s an essential Israeli quality born out of the army and a civilian life on the edge.

Asaf Weitzen embodies the quality. He arrives in a Tel Aviv café, his hair disheveled, wearing a trench coat, sunglasses, and a few days’ beard. Weitzen is a lawyer, with a dozen African asylum-seeker cases on his plate at any given time. He also writes in the press about government policy.

“Every time I publish an opinion article in Haaretz [about the African situation],” Weitzen says, “people attack me. They say I’m only doing this because I’m getting paid.”

He’s laughing as he says this.

“Now it’s funny from two perspectives. First, and it’s quite obvious, I used to be a commercial lawyer.  So, really, this is the reasoning?

“I could have made more money as a teacher probably. This is the best argument you can find?”

Weitzen speaks quickly and with the utter confidence that comes from believing what you’re doing is right. Or at least, that you’re the right one to do it.  He speaks with the exhaustion and dark humour that comes from years of fighting a bureaucracy.

Sahronim detention center

Sahronim detention center

In June 2012, the government amended the Prevention of Infiltration Law, then empowering the state to imprison new migrants for up to three years. But what really got under Weitzen’s skin is that the law also gave the police sweeping powers to detain any African suspected of crime. It’s a procedure called administrative detention.

Weitzen explained the legal rationale: “If I go to Israel and I do something illegal, the state has two options. It could put me on trial but why waste the money? They could say instead, ‘I’m sorry this isn’t working out. It’s not you, it’s us. Take care.’ So they’d put me on a plane, stamp my passport ‘10 years denied entrance to Israel’ and, end of story.”

But the asylum seekers cannot be deported. “So they say, ‘It’s not you, it’s us, it’s not working,’ but instead of expelling them, they just put them in detention for unlimited period of time.”

It’s a legal trick, putting someone in detention for administrative reasons. Because someone can be put in jail for the smallest offence, it creates a lot of fear and uncertainty in the migrant population. Which may have been the idea.

“So in this environment, it’s easy to see what bad Israelis are incentivized to do. Blackmail.”

In one case, an Israeli took pictures of an Eritrean wedding, Weitzen says. The man fell and broke his camera. He demanded the couple buy him a new camera. “He said that they pushed him. So of course they paid him for the camera.”

In the past, the government argued that the purpose of this law was security. “But in the last version, they did not ‘hide’ anymore. In this law it was clearly stated that the purpose of the law is to deter work infiltrators from entering Israel. They didn’t say anything about security anymore. Because they realized it’s a joke. None of these people ever attempted to violate our security.” 

***

Most of those involved in migrant issues believe the problem lies with Israel’s refugee status determination process (RSD). That’s the process by which any state decides which asylum seekers are genuine refugees and which can be safely deported.

In Israel, the RSD process is barely functional. The acceptance rates are among the lowest in the world: only 0.2 per cent of claims processed. Since the state was created in 1948, only about 170 non-Jewish refugees have been officially recognized. And since 2009, only one African migrant has been declared a refugee – an albino baby born to parents from the Ivory Coast.

“No country really likes refugees,” Weitzen says. “But what is amazing is that in other countries, the recognition rates are 10 to 30 per cent. The refugees are the same refugees; how come there is such a huge difference?”

The majority of Israel’s migrants are from Eritrea and Sudan.  Until very recently, their claims weren’t even being processed. “The government decided strategically to prioritize the non-Sudanese and non-Eritrean caseload. Their decision was practical, to the best of my understanding,” says Sharon Harel, the UNHCR’s (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) representative in Israel.

Weitzen argues that the government isn’t in a hurry to assess claims because recognition rates for Eritreans and Sudanese are high in the developed world. In Canada, 97 per cent of Eritreans seeking asylum have been recognized. In the United Kingdom, 76 per cent. In the United States, 86 per cent.

“That’s a good indication that even here in Israel, the ratio could be the same if people’s cases could be documented and heard, you know if they will have an interview,” Harel says.

Many of the migrants feel the same way. “I want the Israeli government to check us, to interview us, to make the refugee status determination and to interview every individual to know why he is leaving his country, why it made him run away,” says Gabriel Tekli, an Eritrean shop owner and political activist in South Tel Aviv. “And based on that, to make a decision, whether he is a refugee or not. But giving us a collective name – work infiltrators – without checking individual stories … you know, it does not feel good.”

Many NGOs argue that giving the migrants access to Israel’s social safety net – health care, for example – would introduce stability in neighbourhoods like South Tel Aviv, reducing desperation and crime.

“A person doesn’t want to live his whole life not knowing,” Rozen says. “Right now [the migrants] want food and they want a roof. But the moment they get it, they’ll start thinking about their future. ‘Should I go to school, should I open a business?’ It’s so difficult to do when you don’t know where you’ll be five years from now.”

***

Nitzana, the youth camp between Sinai and the prison, is a few hours’ drive from Tel Aviv.  In a country where every scrap of land is contested, the wide expanses in the Negev give you some room to breathe. Farmland gives way to rocky desert; green orderly Israeli villages to Bedouin shanty towns of corrugated metal and dirt paths.

Toyotas from the ’90s suddenly veer off the main road and follow some previously unseen dirt track at the kind of speed that says, “This is my land.” The army uses a lot of the rest of the empty space. There are long stretches where every turn-off is blocked off with the ominous sign, “danger, firing zone.”

Yair Amir is the director of Nitzana. The settlement is a youth boarding and agricultural school. Besides 50 African minors, it houses an eight-month “origins” program for Russian Jewish youth to learn Hebrew and about Judaism, a pre-army preparatory camp for Israeli teens, foreign workers studying agriculture, and the occasional elementary school field trip.

Yair Amir, Director of Nitzana

Yair Amir, Director of Nitzana

But the African program is new, started in May, 2011, in response to a specific problem. While the majority of Africans entering Israel were young men, some were younger – 12, 13, and 14. Without parents, they could not be processed as adults. After being recognized as minors, they were sent to a special prison – Matan.

“They take classes there. They have social workers. But it’s still prison. They have a yard, a fence, like every prison you know,” Amir said.

After a few months in Matan, the children are sent to boarding schools around the country. Nitzana is the only one geared entirely for African children.

As part of his job as director of Nitzana, Amir goes to out to Matan every few months to interview new students. “I want to meet them, explain exactly what’s here. I want to know if he wants to be here.”

Amir lives in Nitzana with his wife and two children. His kids, along with his top nine African students, go to an Israeli elementary school. The other 40 study in Nitzana’s classrooms.

“We are under the supervision of the Ministry of Education. But we have to make some changes to fit to their needs. They come without Hebrew, with only some basic knowledge in English and Math. And we have to start at their level. There’s no curriculum for this in Israel, for 14- or 15-year-olds who come from Africa.”

There are no walls at Nitzana, but not many have tried to run. “It’s happened. Not so often, but it’s happened. We cannot block them. There’s a bus here.”

But “most of them want to study. They come under so many kinds of pressure. Even someone who really wants to study can get a phone call from Eritrea – your mom is sick, please send money. And then the kid is screwed up for weeks.”

Almost all of the kids are in debt.

“It’s not what happens to them. It’s what happens to their families,” Amir says. “They get a phone call from Israel or from Eritrea. I have one kid with more than $20,000 debt. If he works half his life, he won’t cover this.”

In some ways, an unaffordable $20,000 debt is better than a reasonable $1,500 one, Amir says. “Because [with] $1,500, you have some aspiration that you will cover this in one or two years.” In that case, the temptation to disappear into the streets of South Tel Aviv may be too high.

***

Between the Prevention of Infiltration Law and administrative detention, there are now roughly 2,000 Eritreans in prison. Earlier this year, a coalition of NGOs won a Supreme Court decision arguing that migrants cannot be kept in prison and denied the opportunity to ask for asylum. So the Interior Ministry has begun processing RSD claims for Eritreans in prison. So far, several dozen have been rejected.

Weitzen and other lawyers help migrants through the process.

But after experience with the bureaucracy charged with assessing refugee claims, Weitzen says the process is flawed.

He describes a client, an Eritrean born and raised in Ethiopia, who went through the Israeli RSD process.

“They interviewed her and decided she was lying. How come? Because they asked her questions about Asmara [the Eritrean capital] and she didn’t know the answers. But she said from the first place ‘I’ve never been to Asmara, never been to Eritrea.’ ”

She was also rejected because the state erroneously believed she had lied about a 1998 deportation she faced in Ethiopia.

Weitzen collected 15 official documents, including U.S. State Department reports, Human Rights Watch reports, and a judgment from a U.S. court that compared the situation faced by Eritreans in Ethiopia to Jews in Germany.

“I presented all this to the court. The state said, ‘okay, we will re-interview her.’ They rejected her again just a few days ago. Their reasoning for rejection?  She says there was a deportation in 2005 and they say there was no deportation in 2005!

“I will help her and finish the case. But so few of them have lawyers and there is so little we can do for them.”

Weitzen used to be a commercial lawyer for communications companies. Back then, he says, “the answers came in a minute, because it deals with money. But when dealing with refugees and asylum seekers, it’s kind of what we call ‘effective balagan,’ or ’effective chaos.’ Because when I’m not getting an answer, [the Africans] are still without status, and everything is okay from the point of view of the state.”

***

In Nitzana, Amir’s voice changes in tone.

“I don’t have to tell you about Sinai, what we find on their bodies. Their bodies were exposed and their eyes were exposed to the traumatic events that took place in Sinai. They saw people murdered. Women raped. Men raped. It never ends, this story.”

One Friday, one of Amir’s wards came into his office. He had a severe stomachache.

“I say ‘Why you didn’t tell me.’ He says ‘I try to throw up, get over it by myself.’ And then he told me that in the Sinai he didn’t eat for months, just half a bottle of cola for a few kids per day, and some bread.

“Two social workers for 50 boys. It’s not enough.”

Looking ahead, Amir is as uncertain as everyone else.

“For these kids, you don’t know what their future is. I want to prepare them for the option that they might go to a third country or maybe the option that one day Eritrea will change and they can go home.

“They had a chaotic life before they came here, and maybe they’ll have a chaotic life after. I want to give them some island, some tools for life, some tools of school and also to feel like a teenager. On their journey here, they didn’t have this option.

“And after they leave here, I don’t know.”

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