South Sudanese refugees waiting in the Ben Gurion airport on Sunday. They were deported to south Sudan alongside 120 people on a flight leaving the same night.
(Photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)
“Go back to your country!” “She just wants easy money here!” “Stop raping our women!!” “You’re a gorilla! Look at her eyes!
Twenty demonstrators, soon to become two hundreds, were demonstrating last 30th of May 2012 in the neighborhood of Shapira, South Tel-Aviv. Every time an African migrant or an Israeli citizen from African origin found him/herself on their way, their anger and violence seemed to have no boundary. If it was not for the presence of the media, of large police forces and of counter-demonstrators, it feels like these words have become acts in a second.
This demonstration is just one of the numerous “haganah” (demonstration in Hebrew) which have recently been organized in the neighborhoods of Hatikva and Shapira. On the 23rd of May, the gathering of anti-migrants activists in Hatikva led to the beating of two African migrants and to the arrest of under-age Israelis for the vandalizing of African owned shops.
Two years ago, a large population of asylum seekers started flocking to the neighborhood of Shapira and Hatikva, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea. Following cases of rape allegedly committed by Sudanese and Eritrean men on Jewish girls, politicians and rightists (including Israeli settlers illegally implanted in West Bank) started a violent war against African migrants.
“These people are Jihadi, says a demonstrator. They are paid 2000 dollars by the American government to come to Israel!”
From Africa to Israel: story of an endless journey
At first sight, the poor quarter of Shapira seems relatively mixt, with Israelis, Arabs, Turkish, Philippians and African living “together”. Yet, after a quick tour, it is easy to notice that, even though all of the area is plagued by precarity and social dispear, the African migrants are clearly their primary victims.
Near the Central Bus Station, in the Levinsky park, hundreds of African migrants gather to sleep and spend the day between job searches. A lot of these refugees ran away from war, violence and discriminations, even if the majority of them is not recognized as refugees. Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister states that only 1% of them qualify to the refugee status, against more or less 50% of the Sudanese and 85% of the Eritreans in the USA and worldwide. According to the coordinator for refugees and asylum seekers in Kav Loaved, migrants have to go in person to the Israeli Interior Minister in order to ask for a refugee status. Yet, depending on their nationality, they will only be allowed to enter the “Infiltrator unit”, as it is the case for Sudanese and Congolese for example, but not the room dedicated to asylum seeking. They are thus even denied to ask for a refugee status and immediately criminalized.
Some of these refugees have left their families and their dreams in their home country. Abdo, who graduated in Arts and English, left Darfur to find work abroad. His tribe being discriminated against, it was impossible for him to find work in Sudan. Tisfey, a 22 year-old Eritrean man, explains that leaving was the only way to avoid being recruited by force by groups of rebels. He didn’t get the chance to enter university.
Arrived one week or several months ago, they entered Israel illegally. Sudanese were allowed to enter Egypt, but from there, they had to resort to smugglers. Crossing the Egyptian border costs from 1,500 to 2,000 Egyptian pounds (from 200 to 267 euros)*
For Eritreans, the situation is even more complicated as they can’t reach Egypt legally. The trip lasts several weeks, on foot from Eritrea to Sudan and then by car to the Israeli border. They are asked to pay $4,000 (3,200€)* by the smugglers to cross the border. A lot of them die in the Sinai or are abused and beaten by the smugglers who ask them $40,000 (32,000€)* in case the migrants wanted one of their brothers or parents to cross after them. If the migrants refuse to pay or, more often, can’t afford to pay, the smugglers threaten them to kill their relative. Women are also forced to smuggle drug into Israel.
Once in Israel, refugees are presented to the Israeli authorities to try to obtain a visa. They are kept in for two weeks: “they interrogate us and make us go through health test to check if we have any disease. Then, they release us,” says Abdo.
Refugees then gather, like in Tel Aviv in Hatikva’s and Shapira’s quarters. Most of them start looking for work. The only “job” they find are “tchik tchak works”: one hour or two hours tasks consisting in unloading a truck or cleaning a shop. They are paid around 20 to 25 shekels per hour (from 4 to 5€)* by Israeli employers. Arab employers are known among the refugees for cheating on the salaries or for not paying at all.
In Shapira, from two to three hundreds of refugees are sleeping in the park, surrounded by rats. Some Sudanese sleep in a house provided by other Sudanese for a 150 shekels rent per month (30€). Every evening, the “Soup for Levinsky” distributes almost 800 hundreds meals. This organization was created in 2011 after a law was passed by the Knesset, preventing illegal migrants from working in Israel. These migrants are supposed to be detained in camps – “concentration camps” as the opponents to the law call them – in the Negev desert, in the south of Israel, before being deported.
A dozen of organizations work in support to the migrants in South Tel-Aviv. They try to give the migrants access to health care, psychological support or legal aid. In Kav Loaved’s office, a thirty-eight year old woman from Congo Kinshasa is asking for help as one of her employers refuses to pay her days off. Arrived in 2001, former teacher, she is now employed as a house keeper. According to her, Israeli employers pretend not to be aware of the regulation concerning the employment of foreign workers. Her rent is 2,800 shekels a month (576€) and she is only paid 25 to 30 shekels per hour (5 to 6€), depending on the willing of her employers. As for her allowance to stay in the country, she only gets 6 months renewable visas.
Racism and increase of violence: a social explanation?
African migrants in Israel are increasingly targeted by racist attacks. According to the woman met in Kav Loaved’s office, verbal violence has increased since a couple of years. Insults, interpellations, calls to “go back to their country”, many Israelis demonstrate a real racism against the people they call “kuchim” (“niggers”).
These insults, added to the demonstrations recently organized by rightist movements can maybe find a partial explanation in the precarious situation the inhabitants of Shapira and Hatikva live in. They don’t see with a good eye the recent arrival of African refugees and tension is increasing.
In Shapira, a family of shopkeepers says having more problems with the Eritrean population than with the Sudanese. Some of them, drug and alcohol consumers, can become violent at night. Others steal mobiles or bikes, before re-selling them to other migrants. In this family, the father comes from Hebron (West Bank – Palestine) and the mother came from Philippines to Israel 34 years ago. Although she seems to sympathize with the refugees, she doesn’t understand why the Israeli state let them enter the territory while “there are so many unemployed people begging for work in Israel from Ramallah, from Hebron” or from other cities located on the other side of the “separation” (“apartheid”) wall.
The cheap workforce constituted by the African and Asian migrants, is actually a real bargain for Israeli employers: instead of employing an Israeli worker for 40 shekels an hour (8€), one can «get» a migrant for 20 to 25 shekels an hour (4 to 5€)… Even more as migrants can no longer legally work if they don’t have a working visa. According to the inhabitants met in Hatikva, this situation also explains the recent raise of violence as many of them are currently unemployed.
Some residents, especially in Hatikva, have started to act against the migrants. One of them explains that she has written to the Knesset, asking the government to “clean the streets” from the migrants. She affirms being scared and being bothered by the Eritreans living in the surrounding houses. According to another resident, all migrants are not refugees and some of them, coming for work, would deprive Israelis from job opportunities. According to him, the cultural gap between migrants and Israelis, the fact that most of them are men, that they abuse alcohol and drugs explain the fact that the population fears them.
Yet, this is not enough of an explanation. The violence recently demonstrated against the migrants and the recent declarations of members of the governement and of the Knesset are reaching a level of racism which goes far beyond social anger over precarity and unemployement.
The apartment of an Eritrean asylum seeker was set on fire on the 3rd of June, four people were injured. This attack is one in a long list of violences. Molotov cocktails were also thrown at the apartments of Africans in South Tel Aviv last April and May. In January 2011, young Jewish Israelis attacked the daughter of Nigerian migrants with a knife. The same night, an apartment rented by Sudanese refugees was set on fire in Ashdod. Last Saturday, 16th of June, an Eritrean-owned shop was destroyed for the second time in Hatikva.
Israel “belongs to the white man” (Eli Yishai, Interior Minister)
According to a resident met in Hatikva, the Israeli population fears that non-Jewish migrants end up constituting the majority of the population. They fear that violence against Jews could start within Israel itself. According to him, Israel shall remain a Jewish country.
“It’s not nice to say, but people want Israel to be and remain as a Jewish state. I don’t know why. They don’t think about other people. It’s twisted. How do you explain that Israel has been occupying [Palestine] for so long?” says the creator of the “Soup for Levinsky”. According to her, “the Holocaust was so shocking that the only thing we learnt from it is to be strong, and racist.” Her parents and grand-parents were victims of the Holocaust themselves.
According to the Annual Report on Racism in Israel, published in 2012 by the Coalition against Racism (CAR), Palestinians, Ethiopians, Mizrahim (Jews from Eastern Europe) and foreign workers are the first to be targeted by racism. The number of racist incidents has kept increasing since 2008, going from 109 to 510 in 2012. To be added on the social violence, around 35 laws are seen as discriminative against the ethnic and national minorities by the organization.
This violence is indeed not only social but also legal, economical and political as government and Knesset members keep adding oil on fire, qualifying the African migrants of “cancer”, as the Member of Knesset Miri Regev (Likud). The Interior Minister Eli Yishai recently stated that the “infiltrators” don’t understand that this country “belongs to the white man”, a statement which even denies the right to African or Arab Jews to be in Israel…
“[I thought] no one would ever talk about my skin here in Israel—that was the expectation many southern Sudanese had. We expected [acceptance] because we know that this country is [made up of] refugees. And it’s formed of many nationalities including black people so we were sure that we would not be at risk of racism… now we [are] being hunted in the street.” (Gabriel Kuol, for +972, South Sudanese)
The only solution proposed and currently executed by the government is based on one word : deportation. The arrests have already started all around the country. About 120 South Sudanese are about to be deported on Sunday 17th of June and others have been arrested to be detained in Saharonim detention center.
For the moment, the authorities are only allowed to deport Ivory Coast and South Sudanese asylum seekers. According to the General Attorney Yehuda Weinstein, there is no reason to keep South Sudanese in Israel any longer as the situation in their home-country is now “safe and stable”, in spite of the warnings sent by international organizations which qualify the situation in South Sudan which they qualify as “a humanitarian disaster and pending war”.
The situation is about to radically worsen as the Knesset is currently discussing the possibility to detainand deport 60,000 African migrants: the whole population currently living in Israel. A law was also passed on Sunday, allowing the authorities to jail illegal migrants for up to 3 years without having access to court and without being deported.
According to the coordinator for refugees and asylum seekers in Kav Loaved, the current situation is dramatic. The asylum seekers are being fired or deported without being able to access their last salary and pension. Some employers tend to fire them before they even receive notification of their deportation. Three workers are currently being deported while their last salary has been gathered by Kav Loaved. Yet, there is no practical way for the organization to access these workers anymore.
According to her, the asylum seekers are accepting their fate as they fear for their own life and understand that there is no other solution coming.
* numbers given by the refugees met in Levinsky’s park.