After a three-day strike, tens of thousands of African asylum seekers boarded buses to Jerusalem yesterday and protested in front of the Israeli Knesset demanding to meet with Israeli authorities.
“This is our second tactic, addressing the Israeli Knesset,” said organizer Mustaim Ali. “We are demanding to have a meeting with the prime minister and the interior minister inside.”
In the morning 10,000 asylum seekers congregated in Levinsky Park, the hub of refugee political activity near Tel Aviv’s central bus station. Ali and fellow organizers, a group of twenty-something activists from Eritrea, North Sudan and South Sudan, coordinated the flow of protesters into 200 rented city buses. After two hours the entire protest was relocated to Roses Park between the Israeli High Court and parliament.
“The idea of the movement is to find a solution for our situation. If we are part of the problem we must be part of the solution,” said Ali.
In Jerusalem, African speakers called on the government to stop sending asylum seekers back to home countries, Israel’s policy of “voluntary deportation” in which some Africans are given $3,000 and taken to their embassies for early morning rush passports and then driven directly to Ben Gurion airport. The policy has not yet ensnared Africans from Eritrea and North Sudan. The Jewish state is unable to deport these asylum seekers, as Israel does not have diplomatic relations with North Sudan, and Eritreans face imprisonment or death if they are “hot returned.” And so the 60,000 African asylum seekers cannot be sent back to their country of origin. Africans from Darfur also have a special status of “collective non-removal” from Israel.
Yet since mid-December the interior ministry has cancelled renewing “conditional release” permits, visas that allow Africans to remain in Israel. Even with those visas it is illegal for them to work or seek services such as medical care. Facing imprisonment for the duration of their refuge in Israel, African are demanding a “fair and transparent process,” to file for asylum, said Ali.
However, the Israeli government has remained firm in its decision to not review any asylum claims. While in other countries Eritrean refugee status seekers have a 70 percent, and Sudanese a 50 percent acceptance rate, Israeli officials continue to assert the Africans in Israel are economic migrants, not persons fleeing persecution. Only “a fraction of one percent” are “legitimate refugees,” said Israeli prime minister spokesman Mark Regev in 2012 in an interview with Omar Rahman.
That same year Regev announced a four-pronged plan that the state began implementing earlier this winter. The project included imprisoning refugees indefinitely in a new desert detention facility, Holot. Regev said it’s not a jail, but more like a halfway house for homeless asylum seekers under armed guard. It is “to make sure their needs are taken care of, that they have housing and healthcare and other services, until…you know… humanitarian treatment,” he continued.
By afternoon in Jerusalem protesters were joined by African asylum seekers living in the holy city and the crowd expanded to some 20,000 demonstrators seated on the grassy field.
“Why isn’t everyone here” said Veronica Cohen, 69, a Holocaust survivor who held a sign in Hebrew that read: “We were once asylum seekers—have we forgotten.” Cohen and her husband Elliot Cohen, 71, are regulars at protests for African refugee rights. “It’s unbelievable that the Jewish state should behave like this towards asylum seekers.” Elliot Cohen added, “My wife could have used asylum in the 1940s in the ghetto in Budapest.”
On Tuesday African asylum seeker protest organizers announced the strike would continue indefinitely. Today, thousands again packed Levinsky Park for a peoples’ assembly to plan future actions.