African refugees in Israel get a cold shoulder and worse
The influx of migrants has triggered a sometimes violent backlash in the
country. Prime Minister Netanyahu says their presence 'threatens Israel's
By Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times
May 27, 2012, 5:00 a.m.
02011344.topic> TEL AVIV - The first Molotov cocktail ignited a backyard
fence, just a couple of feet from where three Eritrean refugees were
sleeping outdoors on makeshift beds of wood planks atop old TV sets. One man
burned his arm trying to extinguish the flames with a blanket.
Moments later, a second firebomb was tossed through an open air vent into
the adjacent apartment, where another family of African asylum-seekers was
sleeping. It exploded in the shower without causing injury.
The post-midnight attacks last month by unknown assailants continued across
Tel Aviv's dilapidated Shapira neighborhood, striking another refugee house
and a kindergarten catering to African children.
"We're just looking for some peace in our life," said Berhun Gergrehra, 60,
a former Eritrean soldier who fled poverty and repression there two years
ago, arriving in
> Israel after
> Sudan and
> Egypt with his
teenage son and daughter. "But everyone here just hates us. Why?"
Israel is a nation founded by refugees, mostly Jews escaping persecution in
Europe and the Middle East. It grew and prospered thanks to additional
immigration from Russia, Ethiopia and other nations.
But now Israel's identity as a refuge is being challenged by an influx of
tens of thousands of Africans, who also see the country as a haven from
oppression in their native lands. Since 2006, more than 60,000 Africans -
mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, including the latter's Darfur region - have
poured over the border from Egypt's Sinai desert, taking advantage of
Israel's proximity as one of the nearest modern democracies accessible to
But unlike past waves of Jewish immigrants, the flood of Africans is
triggering an ugly and sometimes violent backlash in Israel. Refugee
activists say some government leaders are fostering the intolerance and
anger toward Africans, who are accused of committing crimes, stealing jobs
from Israelis and potentially undermining the Jewish character of the
At a Tel Aviv rally last week, hundreds of Israelis gathered to protest the
presence of African refugees. Right-wing lawmaker Miri Regev called Sudanese
arrivals a "
topic> cancer" on Israel and urged immigration officials to deport all
Soon after, angry mobs rioted through the neighborhood, smashing store
windows and attacking a car carrying Africans, police said. Seventeen
rioters, mostly minors, were arrested.
It was the latest in a string of attacks, disturbances and incidents of
harassment in the last month, after three Eritrean migrants were arrested in
connection with the rape of an Israeli woman.
Amid a national uproar over the rape, Interior Minster Eli Yishai called
most African immigrants "criminals" and vowed to either deport or jail them.
He said on Israel Radio that a firm response was the only way to discourage
more refugees from entering the country. "Once they're in jail, they won't
want to come over here anymore," he said.
min-netanyahu-PEPLT00007616.topic> Benjamin Netanyahu echoed the sentiment,
saying the presence of African migrants in Israel "is extremely serious and
threatens Israel's social fabric and national security."
Most of the African refugees walk into Israel via the Sinai desert, paying
Bedouin smugglers thousands of dollars to deliver them from Egypt. In
response, the Israeli government has begun construction of a massive fence
along the border and an 8,000-bed detention facility in the southern Negev
desert to hold those who get through. Both are expected to be completed this
After a brief detention at a military facility, most African refugees are
released without government assistance and are given short-term visas that
prohibit them from working. Many end up homeless in the resort city of Eilat
or in the poor areas of cities like Tel Aviv, where they sleep in parks and
seek jobs as construction workers or dishwashers, for which they are paid
under the table. Children are allowed to attend school, but their parents
receive no health insurance or other social benefits.
Interior Ministry officials say they are doing their best to deal with the
influx, their goal being to provide basic protection without offering so
much that it will encourage more arrivals.
"There's a pull factor," said Daniel Solomon, a legal advisor for the
ministry. "If the government gives them a sense of permanence, millions more
in Africa might come."
Critics call the government's treatment coldhearted and say the recent tone
is fueling hatred, racism and xenophobia. In Eilat over the last month,
there's been an increase in reports of Africans being pelted with rocks or
doused with white paint.
Aid groups that have come to the defense of refugees say they, too, are
coming under attack, receiving anonymous death threats.
"It's a frightening situation," said Orit Rubin, social coordinator at
Assaf, a Tel Aviv-based organization that assists asylum seekers. Rather
than calming tension, she said, government leaders are demonizing refugees,
perhaps in an attempt to deflect attention from what she said is the
government's failure to cope with the influx.
"The government is feeding on the fear and manipulating Israeli society,
Rubin said. "If we don't start treating these people like human beings, we
are going to lose our own humanity."
Critics also contend that the legal process appears designed to prevent the
Africans from obtaining formal status as refugees.
"The government goes to great lengths to avoid calling these people refugees
or asylum-seekers because that would imply certain responsibilities," said
William Tall, senior protection officer with the Office of the
ions-ORCUL000009.topic> United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Instead of conducting interviews and providing individual refugee status,
Israel has determined that refugees from Eritrea, Darfur and northern Sudan
should receive collective protection against deportation. As a result, only
a few hundred African refugees have been officially declared refugees, which
triggers certain rights and protections under the 1951 U.N. Refugee
Convention, of which Israel was a founding signatory.
By not classifying individual Eritreans and Sudanese as refugees, Israel is
"not in compliance with the full spirit of the convention," Tall said.
Solomon said the government was too overwhelmed to conduct individual
interviews, but will offer them before any deportations occur. "The bottom
line is that Israel is granting these people protection, and that's the
spirit of the convention," the legal advisor said.
Yishai, the interior minister, said this week that he would move to deport
more than 700 South Sudanese asylum-seekers, arguing that the creation of
the state of South Sudan last year removed any rights they had for blanket
protection. An Israeli court is expected to rule on the issue shortly.
Solomon said the government hopes many refugees will decide to leave
voluntarily. And some say that given the recent hostility, they are thinking
about doing exactly that.
Leaning against the charred remains of his fence, Gergrehra said the recent
attack was the second time his house had been firebombed in a year.
"We're thinking about leaving," he said. "This country just won't accept
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Received on Sun May 27 2012 - 13:41:10 EDT