This past weekend, a couple friends and I helped four Sudanese families move out of Tel Aviv. The families, refugees from conflict zones in Darfur and South Sudan, were grateful to us for our help.
We rented a van (which of course broke down mid-move), loaded up their possessions along with some furniture donated by several kind people, and set off for Nazareth, Hadera and Ashdod – distant cities where they hope to set up new homes.
Leaving Tel Aviv was not their choice – as of the beginning of July, they are no longer allowed to live and work in Israel’s largest urban area.
Refugees everywhere tend to concentrate themselves on the fringes of big cities. Here, too, most of African refugee community, which began arriving here after Egyptian police attacked and killed Sudanese refugees protesting in Cairo in late 2005, took up residence in Tel Aviv’s poorer southern neighborhoods.
A particularly large wave of refugees arrived in Tel Aviv during the winter of 2008. During that time, it became common to see people sleeping outside in public parks or cramped into overcrowded shelters. Noticing the obvious distress of these newcomers to our city, several friends and I set up a voluntary organization to provide them with food, English and Hebrew lessons, children’s activities and whatever other services we could muster on a shoestring budget and with the help of a handful of volunteers.
Around the same time, the Israeli government, which also caught wind of what was going on, decided to restrict African asylum seekers from living inside Greater Tel Aviv(illegally, according to the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees). This policy still applies to the vast majority of the almost 20,000 refugees from Sudan, Eritrea and other countries currently living in Israel.
Apparently, the policy stemmed from a combination of NIMBYism on the part of the Tel Aviv Municipality, economic nationalism (“they are taking jobs from Israelis”) and the government’s fear that, if treated well, the refugees would tell all of their friends and family to come to Israel as well. The policy, called Hadera-Gedera after the two cities that delineate the edges of Metropolitan Tel Aviv, recalls (to my mind, anyway) the Pale of Settlement, Imperial Russia’s attempt to physically remove the Jews from the mainstream of Russian society.
While a small minority have been officially recognized as refugees, and thus granted ID cards and the right to work legally, the rest have been labeled by government officials as “refugee work immigrants” and “illegal infiltrators from enemy countries,” and told the leave the center of the country.
Until recently, the Hadera-Gedera policy was only loosely enforced. However, July 1st marked the inauguration of a new unit at the Population Administration, called “Oz,” charged with arresting and expelling all “illegal” foreign workers and asylum seekers. Whether the new unit’s appearance has anything to do with the rise of the nationalist far-right in Israel is unclear.
In any case, since then they have been conducting daily manhunts on the streets of Tel Aviv, targeting anyone with a foreign appearance. After they arrested hundreds of African refugees and ordered them to leave the city, the refugees got the message, and thus began the latest in a long series of displacements that this community has suffered.
The tragedy of it all is that the refugee community was finally beginning to find some stability and normalcy in Tel Aviv. Here, their kids studied in Israeli schools, they found jobs, free health clinics and aid organizations. How they will find jobs to pay their rents outside of the center of the country, where work is scarce, I do not know.
Needless to say, this is a community of sharp, resilient and warm people fleeing unimaginable circumstances. Many, many people in Tel Aviv reacted to their arrival with an outpouring of hospitality and generosity. There are more than a few people in Tel Aviv for whom the decision to expel them from the city represents the crossing of a red line – and it takes a lot for people to really take up such a cause in a country where every week seems to bring some new scandal or political upheaval.
The government, however, has hardened its heart toward these uninvited guests. Passed around like a human hot potato, the African community has not always been made to feel welcome. Almost every refugee that I have met spent the first several months of his or her stay in an Israeli prison, and, for most, the only official document they carry is still their “conditional release” from incarceration.
The government is promoting a new law which would criminalize the refugees, threatening them and those that assist them with long jail terms. According to the bill, my friends and I, by choosing to spend our weekend helping refugee families move, could find ourselves sentenced to 20 years in jail (http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE15/024/2008/en/f418e992-4108-11dd-a280-615aa3eb3c6f/mde150242008eng.pdf).
For the sake of comparison, Avraham Hirshson, Israel’s former Finance Minister who was found guilty of stealing millions from a workers’ federation, got five and a half years in jail.
Like most Israelis, I come from a family that was forced to flee its home more than once. Almost everyone in this land, whether Jew or Palestinian, knows what it is like to be a refugee. If anyone should have compassion for these unfortunate people, it is us.
Jesse Fox is an urban planner, freelance journalist and activist. He runs a volunteer organization called Fugee Fridays, and blogs at www.sustainablecityblog.com.