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Jewish Journal

When Africa Comes to Israel

by Larry Derfner, Contributing Writer

January 5, 2011 | 5:12 pm

Thousands of African refugees, largely from Eritrea and Sudan, have moved in ever increasing numbers into the poorer neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv such as Hatikva, leading to increased friction and recent xenophobic outbursts. Photos by Jonathan Bloom.

Thousands of African refugees, largely from Eritrea and Sudan, have moved in ever increasing numbers into the poorer neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv such as Hatikva, leading to increased friction and recent xenophobic outbursts. Photos by Jonathan Bloom.

There is a new threat to Israel, although the people raising it are entirely innocent. The threat is represented by a growing population of African refugees, mainly escapees from the hellish dictatorships of Eritrea and Sudan, who are pouring over the Egyptian border into Israel and settling in some of the country’s poorer neighborhoods, especially in Tel Aviv. They’re now coming at the rate of more than 1,000 each month, according to recent government statements.

In summer 2006, when the presence of these new immigrants first gained public notice, the State Attorney’s office numbered them at fewer than 200. Then, they were strictly a humanitarian concern. And this continues to be so: The people from Darfur and Southern Sudan have fled annihilation; those from Eritrea fled war, lifetime military conscription and persecution. A substantial proportion of refugees from both places were tortured along the way, many of the women have been gang raped by their Sinai Bedouin guides, and all the refugees dodged brutal imprisonment or death at the hands of Egyptian border guards.

The African migration through Sinai to Israel began in 2005 with tiny numbers of Sudanese leaving Cairo, where they had been hounded by police, denied the right to work and treated with ruthless contempt by racist Egyptians. After a police massacre at the end of that year of at least 30 and as many as 200 Sudanese refugees outside the United Nations’ compound in Cairo, the routes through Sinai to the Israeli border began heating up.  

The first arrivals were held in an Israeli prison for a year, or more. But Supreme Court challenges and pressure from the U.N. and the media got them out in 2006. They began moving to Eilat, to sympathetic kibbutzim, and to South Tel Aviv. The cell-phone grapevine between Israel and Cairo told of a relatively great life here.

Soon, the Eritreans started coming, too, and the numbers of African refugees entering Israel each month grew from dozens to hundreds. 

Three years ago, prime minister Ehud Olmert, under pressure from American Jewry because of the worldwide concern over Darfur, granted temporary residency — which means the right to work and to receive Israeli social benefits — to the roughly 500 Darfurians in Israel at the time. Since then, about 2,000 more Darfur refugees have arrived, and they have not been given temporary residency. And, now, even Darfurians from among those original 500 say the Interior Ministry is refusing to renew their temporary residency, according to attorney Anat Ben-Dor, who represents many of them.

Israel’s leading activist on the refugees’ behalf, Sigal Rozen, former director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, estimates that 19,000 refugees in Israel are from Eritrea, 8,000 from Sudan and another 4,000 or so from various other, mainly African, countries. As these numbers continue to increase, they also signal a danger, potentially an existential one to this country, whose entire population is 7.5 million and whose size is roughly that of New Jersey.

“The flood of illegal workers infiltrating from Africa [is] a concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said at a July cabinet meeting.

Officially, the Africans are called “infiltrators,” a misleading term because not only do they not hide from Israeli troops after crossing the border, they give themselves up eagerly. They are taken to Saharonim holding facility in the Negev, then released, usually within days, with a bus ticket to Beer Sheva. Afterward they usually head for Tel Aviv and settle wherever they find work.

A refugee family from Eritrea with their Israeli neighbors — Jewish immigrants from Uzbekistan.

None of them has been linked to terrorism or any kind of security offense, according to Deputy State Attorney Yochi Gnessin and William Tall, the representative in Israel for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Most are young men who live together in rented apartments, several to a room, and they take on whatever work is available, “doing the rough, dirty work that no normal person would do, for whatever money they can get,” said Dror Krispi, who runs an all-night snack bar in Hatikva Quarter, where many refugees have settled. Most commonly, they work as garbage collectors, gardeners, packers in outdoor fruit-and-vegetable markets, house cleaners, janitors and dishwashers in the Tel Aviv area and as menial staff in the hotels of Eilat.

Yet in those poor neighborhoods of South Tel Aviv, Eilat, Ashdod, Bnei Brak and other cities where they’ve settled by the thousands, they have set off a wave of xenophobia. The backlash, once confined to nonviolent expressions, now appears to be heating up. In early December, a gang of teenagers in South Tel Aviv reportedly attacked some refugees, and an apartment building in Ashdod, where several refugees live, was torched, although it has not been determined who committed the arson or why.

Meanwhile, the asylum-seekers continue to come over the Egyptian border into Israel. To use Ehud Barak’s phrase from the bad old days of the Intifada, Israel proper (not counting the occupied territories) is a “villa in the jungle” — a democratic, relatively tolerant, prosperous country in the middle of the impoverished, repressive, sprawling Third World. To quote Netanyahu from late November, it is also “the only developed country that you can reach on foot from the poorest countries in Africa.”

Also since November, Israeli bulldozers have been building a security fence along the 150-mile border with Egypt. It is expected to take two and a half years to complete, said Udi Shani, director-general of the Defense Ministry, at a recent Knesset hearing. Construction of a detention camp is planned in the Negev desert, near the Egyptian border, to house up to 10,000 refugees. Netanyahu has given assurances that they will receive “humane” treatment; the Prime Minister’s Office’s official English-language term for the camp is “open housing center.” Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, however, has noted that a camp meant to keep people in cannot at the same time be “open.” The refugees are to be prohibited from working.

The government’s hope is to find foreign countries to take the refugees in, reportedly with financial inducements. But U.N. representative Tall calls this plan “a non-starter.”

“Other countries are already dealing with much larger numbers of refugees, they don’t want to take in Israel’s, too,” Tall said. In early December, he said, some 150 Southern Sudanese refugees were flown back home, with their consent, via an unnamed third country, joining a similar number who repatriated last year to Southern Sudan, which is in the process of gaining independence.

But even though 300 refugees are gone, at least that many new ones are coming across the border from Egypt every week.

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