[Update, Jan. 26: Meet 5 African asylum seekers who have been summoned to Israel’s desert prison.]
Here in Tel Aviv, embedded in one of the most heart-wrenching, blatantly unjust human-rights struggles I've ever witnessed, it's hard to imagine the rest of the world isn't consumed by it, too.
But of course I realize Los Angeles has its own problems, and you all still have work and kids and traffic to worry about, and maybe a few of your own human-rights struggles, to boot. But if you do find a free moment today (Wednesday, January 22), the 55,000 Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers and their supporters in Israel urge you: Please put pressure on Israeli authorities to free them from a bleak future of indefinite imprisonment.
Weeks of protests and marches through Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have all been leading up to today, International Solidarity Day. Protesters at 15 major cities around the globe — Tel Aviv, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles (!), Washington D.C., Boston, Toronto, Stockholm, Berlin, Frankfurt, Rome, London, Exeter, Den Haag, Paris — will be rallying outside their respective Israeli consulates in support of Israel's African asylum seekers.
The L.A. leg of the protest begins at 9:30 a.m. outside the Consulate General of Israel, located at 11766 Wilshire Blvd.
According to their event page, asylum seekers will be "demanding Israel stops its policy of imprisonment, recognizes us as refugees and respects our human rights, OR the UN's refugee agency takes immediate responsibility!"
I also understand that screaming and waving signs outside Israeli consulates are activities typically reserved for the BDSers and anti-Semites of the world. But try to think of this differently: A better Israel is a better Jewish people, a better Middle East, a better universe. And Martin Luther King, Jr. — he of the recent birthday — would be apalled at the segregation that still exists today in Tel Aviv.
Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers have been journeying through Egypt and the Sinai to reach Israel since 2006, under the impression that they would be offered asylum from the violent dictatorships from which they fled. They claim they are refugees; the Israeli government claims they are illegal migrant workers. Whatever you want to call them, they're human beings, and many have been my kind neighbors in South Tel Aviv for the past year. Most have been here for years longer, and speak far more fluent Hebrew than I.
However, Israel sees them all as dangerous criminals, and has begun summoning them en masse to Holot, a desert prison camp for "illegal infiltrators" along the border with the Sinai. (Pictured below.)
So far, hundreds of asylum seekers have been ordered to report to Holot within 30 days. I've been trying to get the exact number of those summoned to Holot from Israel's Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration for two weeks now. I call back daily, but the spokesperson's office keeps telling me it is still compiling the information. (Can't be a good sign, right?) The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, however, said at least 1,000 had been summoned since December.
And that's just the first round. Asylum seekers who stand in long lines outside the Ministry of Interior every day to extend their work visas, like they've been doing for the past eight years, now say they are instead being handed letters demanding they report to Holot. (The only ones apparently being spared are those who can prove they have a wife and/or children in their care.)
The worst part, said Darfuri asylum seeker Muhamad Musa, who received one of the dreaded Holot letters, is that "they won't tell us why."
Levinksy Park, known in Tel Aviv's northern parts as Little Sudan, was filled with thousands of African protesters this morning, as well as a few dozen Israeli activists sprinkled near the speakers' stage. Worried whispers of "Holot" ran through the crowd like an uninvited ghost. One man had torn out a few stories about Holot from Hebrew-language newspapers, and was examining the photos with a frown. A couple other groups of asylum seekers (pictured below) went through the letters summoning them to Holot line by line, translating where necessary.
After the rally, protesters marched to a handful of international embassies and United Nations offices this afternoon, begging for someone to intervene. They will also begin another workers' strike today, community leader Mulugeta Tumuzgi told me — even though the last one cost some of them their jobs.
The local Eritrean and Sudanese populations really have no other choice at this point. Israel is finally pressing its mighty thumb down on the lot of them: Those who have not yet been summoned to Holot said they believe it is only a matter of time. And inside Holot, prisoners have told me that authorities pressure them daily to accept $3,500 to return to their home countries.
But of the dozens of asylum seekers I've spoken to, each one said that returning to Eritrea and Sudan is not an option in the current climate. Twenty-six-year-old Suliman Abaker (pictured below), who I found standing with a group of friends at today's rally, said that he was living with his family in a Sudanese refugee camp outside Darfur when he escaped the country in 2012. "When you're a young man, [the Sudanese government] thinks you will fight them, and they will kill you," he said. Abaker and his friends explained that they came here seeking asylum, but because they haven't been granted refugee rights, they must work to support themselves — a fact which the Israeli government then turns against them, calling them migrant workers.
"Our families are still in the [Sudanese refugee] camp, and when they hear we are here suffering, they also suffer for that," Abaker said. "We didn't think we came to an enemy country."
There are tens thousands of asylum seekers in Tel Aviv, and across Israel, with stories just like Abaker's. I could go on and on. (For starters, see: "African asylum seekers battle fear in South Tel Aviv" and "‘You’ll be free. Welcome!’: Seeking asylum.")
And because the Israeli government has shown no signs of halting its isolation/expulsion plan, the most important thing right now is that the rest of the world — that means you! — show Israel that this isn't just a forgotten population, worthy of being dumped into one big pile in the desert.