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.
“I’m not against them because of their skin, their colour, their being African.”
Meir Ya’acoby owns a shop in Neve Sha’anan, a neighbourhood of South Tel Aviv. Once a gateway for Greek and later Iranian Jewish immigrants, the neighbourhood’s reputation today is one of poverty, drug-dealing, prostitution, neglect, and as the landing point for a massive wave of African – mainly Eritrean and Sudanese – illegal migration.
Today, there are 54,000 non-Jewish African migrants in the country. Just 10 years ago, there were practically none.
A Jewish-Iranian immigrant, Ya’acoby speaks in a deliberate authoritative tone, in his native Farsi. “They have been let loose here. They do anything they want here. They steal bikes, they get into fights. They are vahshee.”
It’s a Farsi word suggesting the feral or uncivilized, something between wild animals and savages. It can be used jokingly or as a more serious insult.
As part of Ya’acoby’s business, he interacts with the migrants day-to-day. “They are my customers, they buy things from me, they buy clothes from me.
“There are good people amongst them, but they all came here, all in Tel Aviv and have gotten together in one group and they have made a mess of life here.”
What should happen to them?
“The government should take care of them. I cannot take care of them, what am I, their babysitter?”
Israel has dealt with Palestinian refugees and Jewish refugees since its inception, but the influx of non-Jewish African migrants – that is a new problem.
African migrants started trickling into Israel over the border with Egypt in 2006 – at first mainly from Sudan, and later, mainly from Eritrea.
Sudan’s civil war displaced hundreds of thousands of people, a small subset of which made it to Israel.
Eritrea is an autocratic government – it has had the same president since gaining independence from Ethiopia 20 years ago. Military service is universal and indefinite. The pay is meagre and some of the military duties could be described as forced labour, according to Human Rights Watch. About 1,500 Eritreans flee their country every month, many to neighbouring Ethiopia.
As to why the migrants came to Israel – that is less clear. Israel had never been a serious destination for African migrants. But things changed in 2006. The crisis in Darfur, blocked routes to European countries, crackdowns on African migrants in Egypt and Libya – all played a role. Whatever the reasons, once a few had settled safely in Israel, family networks encouraged more migrants to make the trip.
The Israeli government’s policies have changed over the years. Initially, migrants were given a medical checkup before being dropped off to fend for themselves in cities around the country. As the number of migrants grew to the tens of thousands, virtual ghettos developed in places like South Tel Aviv. As Israeli residents protested against the transformation of their neighbourhoods into “refugee camps”, the government’s language and policies took on an increasingly anti-migrant tone.
Israel is one of the original signatories to the 1951 refugee convention, which defined the meaning of a refugee according to international law and the responsibilites of states in granting asylum. In short, the convention defined a refugee as someone who would be persecuted upon returning to their homeland, because of their identification with a particular ethnic, political, religious or other group.
But whether the Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel are actually refugees – that is the centre of the debate. While the term refugee is used loosely in the press, its official use would have legal implications, indicating that the migrant is protected under the UN convention.
Normally, govenments assess a migrant’s claims, checking to ensure that someone is not trying to subvert the regular immigration process (also known as a “refugee status determination” process or RSD).
Many Western governments recognize a high percentage of Sudanese and Eritreans as refugees. But in Israel, as the public mood soured against the migrants, the government employed popular and legal strategies to avoid labeling its African migrants as refugees – or even conducting RSD procedures. In official statements, the migrants are referred to as “economic infiltrators,” suggesting they are job seekers rather than aslyum seekers.
Instead of RSD, African migrants from Eritrea and Sudan are given a temporary protection visa, which allows them to stay in Israel – but without the legal right to work or access to the state’s social security (although under a promise made to the Supreme Court, the state mostly turns a blind eye to under-the-table employment). Since June 2012, new migrants are jailed upon entry into the country. Under a recent amendment, they can be held indefinitely at an open-air internment camp in the Negev.
With no official body actively resolving the migrants’ refugee claims, there has been debate, racially charged at times, over why the migrants are in Israel and what to do with them. This week, thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese protested in Tel Aviv, demanding an end to migrant detentions, the right to work, and the processing of their asylum claims.
The result leaves migrants in a state of uncertainty. Many fear being picked up off the street and put in prison one day or deported. And Israeli residents don’t know whether the uninvited guests are really here to stay.
The police are expecting violence this evening. The fear goes back to a demonstration earlier this summer that turned violent as a mob ransacked stores owned by Africans and threatened Africans on the street.
It’s almost too bizarre and horrible a story to believe. An 83-year-old woman was raped on Dec. 21. The police arrested an Eritrean man in his 20s, a resident of south Tel Aviv with a criminal record, with DNA evidence linking him to the crime. A gag order on that news was lifted a few days later, sparking the protest. Whether the suspect’s ethnic identity should have been released to the public is a subject for discussion in the country’s media.
“Ha’am doresh hasudanim legoresh,” the protesters chant. “The people demand the Sudanese be expelled!”
It rhymes in Hebrew. It’s a deliberate adaptation of the slogan from Israel’s version of the “occupy” protests in 2011 – where hundreds of thousands took to the street chanting, “the people demand social justice.”
But today, there are maybe just 100 people, some holding placards, some yelling, some just milling about. The protest has jammed up under the sweeping tentacles of the central bus station. There is a heavy police presence and a media one as well.
The protesters’ neighbourhoods were neglected for years, only to be used as a dumping ground for the thousands of Eritreans and Sudanese who illegally crossed the border into Israel, seeking asylum. And work.
Without a policy and without enough space in the country’s prisons, the state would drop them off by the busload near the central bus station. Today many work off the books in the city’s cafés or as day labourers in construction. On any given day, in the neighbourhoods surrounding the central bus station, there are far more Sudanese and Eritreans on the street than Israeli residents.
Orna, who declined to give her last name, says she’s here because she doesn’t feel safe. The “Sudanim,” Israeli shorthand for the non-Jewish Africans in the country, steal and drink at all hours of the night, she says.
“What brought me here today is my pain. From 5 p.m. women are afraid to walk alone. I am over 60 years old, should I be afraid to walk alone? They should be taken away from here – all of them. All thieves and rapists.”
Corine Galili’s mother was murdered on her way to the grocery store in the morning. Police later arrested a drunk Sudanese man. “I said at that time that it is impossible,” Galili says, “this phenomenon of so many infiltrators that enter Israel and to the centre of the city where people live… they let them enter with no supervision”. Infiltrators, or mistanenim in Hebrew, is the term the government favours for the African migrants.
“Only violence will wake the politicians … only if we go into their stores and start breaking things will they realize that we will not take it,” says Moshe Sapayov. He’s 28 and has five children, some of whom he brought to the protest.
Efraim Agami is also 28. He’s holding a sign for the ultranationalist party Otzma LeYisrael or “Strength to Israel” whose slogan is simply “returning the infiltrators home.” He is married with one child and sums up the mood when he says, “I am angry towards the government that doesn’t do anything, and the public that stays silent.”
A man is yelling on a megaphone in Hebrew. “Nothing will happen if we sit quietly. Bibi [short for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] will wake only by force. I’m not an activist. I’m a resident who worries for his family.” Across the street, a number of Eritreans are standing on the sidelines, watching the commotion. The mood is one of resignation.
Back in the protest, Sapayov sums it up for everyone. “The only reason I am not leaving the neighborhood is because I have no money. If I had the money, I wouldn’t have stayed here.”
In a metropolis without a subway, Tel Aviv’s tachana maerkazit or central bus station is a nerve centre for fleets of local and intercity buses. In the grand tradition of failed urban renewal megaprojects, the station was built in 1993 smack in the middle of a run-down working-class neighbourhood. At the time, it was the largest bus station in the world.
Today, half the cavernous structure is still empty. The lower floors are in varied stages of abandonment. A decade of dust clings to ‘90s-era signs to Haifa, Hadera and Jerusalem.
The upper floors harbour discount clothing shops, bakeries and fake DVD stands. It’s one of the most diverse parts of Israel: Jews and Arabs on day-trips; Thai and Filipino migrant workers queuing up at the local version of Western Union; Mizrahi shop-owners selling pizza and falafel, and commuting Israeli soldiers carrying oversized backpacks and assault rifles.
If you never stepped outside, you might be left with the impression that this is some kind of poor but harmonious and cosmopolitan part of a Middle Eastern city.
And yet, outside, everything changes.
In a country purportedly made up of only Jews and Arabs, a sea of African faces greets you. The sound of Tigrinya, an Eritrean-Ethiopian language, fills the air. African barber shops and convenience stores neighbour Israeli-owned furniture stores and auto-body shops. Just a few blocks north, in the heart of Neve Sha’anan, an open-air market runs down the middle of a decrepit low-rise street. Migrants hawk their motley assortment of household items, simple electronics, clothes, shoes, and tools all laid out on cheap mats. Big Russian men sit drinking big bottles of Carlsberg.
A few blocks east in the Hatikva neighbourhood, there is low-rise housing, a multitude of scrawny undomesticated cats, some Eritrean bars, and the old Yeminite Jewish market.
This South Tel Aviv was born out of political and economic factors beyond its borders.
After the violent Palestinian revolt against Israel sent people strapped with explosives to Israeli cities, the government shut out Palestinians from its cheap labour markets. To replace the agriculture workers, the construction workers, and caregivers, Israel gave temporary work permits to hundreds of thousands of Thais and Filipinos. Many of them stayed on illegally. Added to that now are tens of thousands of African migrants living five or six to a room in subdivided apartments.
Ground zero is the central bus station. In a neighbourhood of three or four story apartments, the station’s ramps stretch out like tentacles between dusty crumbling buildings. It looks as if an alien ship took out half the neighbourhood when it crash landed, then decayed and faded 20 years to match its run-down surroundings: Neve Sha’anan to the north, Florintin to the west, Shapira to the south and Hatikva to the east.
While you can feel the poverty anytime, the neighbourhood’s tensions come out more frequently at night.
One evening last summer, South Tel Aviv boiled over. Politicians revved up a protest crowd of nearly 1,000. Miri Regev of the governing Likud party infamously referred to the Africans as cancer (she later apologized). After the rally, mobs roamed the Hatikva neighbourhood, beating up Africans, and looting African stores.
Rahwa Hayle remembers that night. “They threw a lot of stones [at the house]. Even when I called the police, they didn’t answer.”
Hayle lives in the heart of Hatikva. It’s a small house; two beds share one room, one for herself and one for her five-year-old son, Nachum. To distract him, Hayle plays videos on her computer. She speaks to her son in a mixture of Hebrew and Tigrinya.
Like the other Eritreans in Israel, Hayle’s life here is unstable. Her visa doesn’t permit her to work. But she works anyway as a housekeeper, bringing home the equivalent of just under $1,500 per month. Nachum goes to school in the local gan or Israeli kindergarten.
Hayle left Eritrea in November 2007. She was 23. Like many others, she paid Bedouin traffickers to smuggle her through Sudan and Egypt on her way to Israel.
Hayle’s reasons for making the trek are more complicated than others. Her story tumbles out episodically, but without chronology. It takes an hour to understand that her use of the phrase “the father of my child” is deliberate and not an example of a poor command of English.
“My parents they force me to marry. Because if you marry and you have children, you will not be all your life in the army.”
Hayle married in 2004 when she was 20. But she was not allowed to marry the man of her choice. When she became pregnant after an affair, she fled the country. The plan was for her lover to join her in Israel, but he never made it. He was caught on two attempts, spending years in jail. He can’t risk trying again.
As for her husband, still in Eritrea, he knows about the child. Hayle asked for a divorce, but he didn’t accept. “I said the child is not yours. My life is now changed. I need to be alone. He says until the end of your life I’ll be with you.”
But Hayle is afraid. Some of her husband’s family is in Israel. She says that other Eritrean women have been killed by their husband’s family over infidelity.
“Because of that I’m afraid because the brother of my husband is here and also he has family here.
“To kill is not easy. I say to his father, his brother. If he need to kill me, he can do here. But don’t hurt my son. He’s another life. Another child. He don’t know anything. The mistake is from me.”
Hayle’s story is unique but exemplifies the difficulty in defining Israel’s African migrant population. They didn’t all appear at once because of a war next door, as did Syrian refugees in Jordan. Nor did Hayle run away from famine. Instead, it was a loveless marriage, an infidelity, and, like everyone else in Eritrea, a life with no future.
If the residents of South Tel Aviv need a spokesperson, Haim Goren could be it. Able to describe the neighbourhood’s problems articulately, Goren walks that fine line between legitimate grievance and the stereotyping that comes from making generalizations.
Goren is part of a group of Jews who have moved into the South Tel Aviv neighbourhood of Shapira and see it as their religious and national duty to turn things around. He moved from a West Bank settlement to Shapira together with his wife. Her great-grandparents lived in the neighbourhood.
“In no other place in the world does a refugee camp ‘sit’ on top of an existing neighborhood,” Goren says. “The lives of the residents became unbearable. I cannot go out with my child after dark to the playground, because people are living and sleeping there.”
Goren is a geography teacher at a local religious high school. He is clean-cut and talks quickly. He wears a kippa, a skullcap worn by observant Jewish men.
He points out a public park in the middle of the neighborhood: a playground in the centre of a grassy square. There are dirty blankets and clothing in the plastic slides. A gated kindergarten lies adjacent to the park. The central bus station is in sight, just a few blocks to the north.
Over the last three years, the park has become a home for African migrants, he says.
“In the morning the park seems pretty peaceful and empty, but in the afternoon when I pick up my kids, there are many immigrants in the garden.”
And at night, he makes sure to walk his wife to the central bus station. “Many young men came here, in their 20s and 30s … they have an African mentality and do not understand the Western mentality. The way they treat women is completely different.”
“We understand that these people escaped great distress, and from countries where they have experienced great suffering. But it is impossible that the government allows all of them to be in one place, small and narrow, in South Tel Aviv. There are 25,000 residents here, and an additional 40,000 immigrants sharing one space. It means that our entire infrastructure has collapsed.” (Estimates for the number of migrants in Tel Aviv range considerably, as the government does not keep regular statistics.)
Goren is a member of the neighbourhood association. The migrants, despite their numbers, are not able to join. “It is a matter of status. They need now to move people, check them and see who is a refugee and who isn’t. If they get a temporary refugee status and live here, then they are part of the community … but at the moment, people don’t have responsibility to the state and its rules because they don’t have citizenship.”
The softness and hesitation in her tone suggests careful consideration of what she will share with a stranger. She begins by giving short answers, stumbling on her words as she forms full sentences. She skims over her journey to Israel, casually mentioning two men in Sudan, describing the situation as “very difficult.”
Zabib came to Israel in 2009, leaving behind her family in Eritrea. She came on the advice of a friend, who told her Israel was a safe place. “I was thinking is like a democratic country and a developed country so I can work and study. And when I came here I found it difficult. It’s just different from what I was thinking.”
She cleaned houses for $6 an hour before starting an Eritrean daycare and women’s centre in a decrepit building in Florintin last June. The room is lined with cribs and babies. As she gets into the details of her current work and what she is doing for the community of Eritrean women, there is a growing sense of warmth in her voice.
Besides looking after children, the centre runs English and Hebrew classes, health, family planning, and human rights courses. Everything in the centre, the toys, the cribs, are donated by the U.S. Embassy and Israelis, she says.
She doesn’t make as much money in the centre as she did from housekeeping. “It’s not enough but I’m okay. You can’t do two things at the same time. You have to pick one. Less money and contribute something to the community…it’s important.”
Zabib says she does not like to dwell too much on plans for the center, because for her, the future is uncertain. Though, in a way, her future has never been certain.
“Even in Eritrea, [a woman] can’t plan for the future. You can’t move by yourself. If you want to leave to visit family far away you are not allowed. You need a document to visit the other part of Eritrea. This, in my home, my country.”
While the centre is a relative success, she does not feel that much more secure in Tel Aviv. “You don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Tomorrow the government may send you to prison.”