The 40 or so African asylum seekers — majority Eritrean and Sudanese — who sang, danced and waved their flags at the World Refugee Day event in Tel Aviv last Thursday seemed full of pride and momentary joy. The event, sponsored by various aid organizations, including Amnesty International, Hotline for Migrant Workers and ASSAF, was an overall feel-good affair — though of course with grave undertones, as refugees and their supporters mourned those brethren who had died on the long, hard road to Israel and those 1,500-some migrants awaiting an uncertain fate in Israel's massive desert prison in the south.
Israeli lefties with warm smiles and flowy skirts urged their children, outfitted in Crocs and mullets (the kibbutz kids of the big city), to go dance with the Africans rallying at the center of Hasharon Garden. Dozens of amateur photographers — almost outnumbering the Africans — surrounded the group of bouncing migrants, frantic to capture their energy.
"Our goal was to share our culture," said Isayas Teklebrhan, a leader at the Tel Aviv branch of Eritrean Youth Solidarity for National Salvation, who became a prominent face of the refugee struggle in Tel Aviv after he starred in an Al Jazeera news short last year. "We sent the musicians to show people our community, and what our country looks like as a people."
But Teklebrhan said in an interview at his group's offices the next afternoon that the asylum seekers playing traditional African music onstage had a hidden message for the aid organizations who threw the event.
"The organizations were showing their tactics, and we were showing our tactics," he said. "We made an announcement with our own language. ... The organizations will hear the message because they have their own translators."
He said that the lyrics in the songs played at the event included: "We are a self-organized people; we are not a playing card of the organizations; the organizations here are not helping us, they are playing us."
Teklebrhan explained that many members of the Eritrean community in Tel Aviv are skeptical about how organizations who aid refugees in Israel — in particular, the UN Refugee Agency, or UNHCR — are using their millions of dollars in donations. "I believe that there are good volunteers," he said. "But the owners of the organizations, this is the trouble. They are getting their money, they are consuming our time — everything is done for the benefit of their organization, not for the benefit of the asylum seekers."
A representative from the UNHCR had not returned emails or calls by the time of posting.
But Sigal Rozen, public policy coordinator for Hotline for Migrant Workers (the oldest organization in Israel working for refugee rights), said that although she didn't catch the lyrics on Thursday night, she is very aware of a growing upset among the refugee community.
"The more the situation in Israel in general is deteriorating, the more and more people doubt our devotion to the cause," said Rozen. "It's frustrating because we work harder and harder, and achieve less and less. But I totally understand the criticism, because all they see is that there are no results."
Rozen added that refugees are particularly skeptical of the UNHCR, because the organization is having an increasingly tough time convincing the Israeli government that Eritreans deserve refugee status. There are even those at the desert prison who claim UNHCR representatives have tried to convince them to return to Sudan or Eritrea, just as the Israeli government has been criticized for doing.
"When a person is in such a distorted mental situation because of psychological pressure, he can no longer correctly understand what someone is telling him," said Rozen. She added: "It's such a tragic situation, and we don't see it ending soon."
Even if Teklebrhan and his supporters are wrong about corruption on the part of the aid organizations, it's easy to understand the frustration of seeing one's entire transplant population at the mercy of government and charity politics.
Of course, this "drama," as Teklebrhan called it, takes a backseat to the pressing refugee issue in South Tel Aviv.
World Refugee Day, observed around the globe, was filled with extra urgency this year in Israel's modern capital. As reported in a stunning new online spread by PBS Newshour, roughly 60,000 Africans have sought asylum in Israel since 2006. But even once they've made it through northern Africa and the harsh, hot Sinai desert — where kidnappers and Bedouin gangs reportedly inflict upon them unthinkable tortures, including beatings with electric cattle prods, rape, starvation, and "plastic bags melted onto flesh," while demanding ransom payments of $30,000+ — these thousands of downtrodden find a whole new world of hostility waiting in the Holy Land. Via PBS:
Many African migrants who work in Tel Aviv's restaurants, staff hotels, clean streets and work on construction crews are in Israel legally, but the visas they've been given are typically not work visas.
It's printed in plain Hebrew, right on the visa, says [Sara Robinson of Amnesty International], “This is not a work permit.”
So the migrants work under the table. This allows employers to take advantage of the migrants, underpaying them or violating handshake agreements. The work is hard, manual labor and the pay isn't much.
The migrants’ families have paid so much ransom, selling houses, animals and even their gold, says Sister Azezet. “They want to repay, but here, they can't even work.”
Much like in Southern California, where there exists a widespread misunderstanding about why, exactly, so many Mexicans and Latin Americans are risking their lives to hop the fence into the U.S., many right-to-center Israeli citizens are under the impression that the majority of Africans in Tel Aviv have come to exploit the Israeli system and strike it rich in the Middle East's rare first-world oasis. Meanwhile, they argue, the migrants are turning South Tel Aviv into something of a little Eritrea, rife with petty crime. "All of a sudden you're walking inside your country and it looks like a different country with a different culture,” one rabbi told PBS.
Indeed — the shoddy streets and parks surrounding Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station bear almost no resemblence to the posh neighborhoods along the beach and to the north, where the city's African problem is largely out of sight, out of mind. Levinksy Park in particular has become a central camping ground for homeless migrants; volunteers can often be seen handing out soup to the park's inhabitants.
Although African immigration has ebbed recently due to the Israeli government's fancy new fence at the Egyptian border (worth over $400 million), the migrants who already fled to Israel are under constant threat of imprisonment and/or deportation.
Refugees can be sent to the desert prison for being involved or suspected in any crime, said Rozen of Hotline for Migrant Workers, including being the victim of a rape — all thanks to Israel's horrifying Anti-Infiltration Law, which essentially says that non-citizens can be held for over three years without trial, simply for not being a citizen.
There are currently a few thousand spots left in the prison for anyone who steps out of line. And Rozen said that over the last year, 2,000 Sudanese prisoners have been coerced into returning to Sudan under the threat that they will otherwise be jailed in Israel indefinitely.
Africans in Tel Aviv were delivered an extra jolt of panic earlier this month when news leaked that Israel was planning to send its huddled masses to one or more unnamed African countries. Haaretz reports:
"The characteristics of the [migrant] population and the pace of their arrival will be coordinated with the target countries," [an envoy appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] said, noting the migrants will be deported via commercail flights.
While the envoy has not said so outright, the confirmed deportation agreement applies mainly to Eritrean migrants. In the four other forthcoming deals, the states in question could serve as layovers for Sudanese nationals on their way to their home country.
According to the African Refugee Development Center, since Israel's establishment, "fewer than 200 individuals have been recognized as refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention." Compare that to other countries around the world who also took part in the convention, where the UN reports that about 84 percent of Eritreans are granted refugee status.
Human Rights Watch painted a grim profile of the country in its 2012 World Report:
Eritrea marked 20 years of independence in 2011, but its citizens remain victimized by one of the world’s most repressive governments. They suffer arbitrary and indefinite detention; torture; inhumane conditions of confinement; restrictions on freedom of speech, movement, and belief; and indefinite conscription and forced labor in national service.
"Military service in Eritrea is like slavery," said Rozen. "Soldiers are living in conditions of slavery, and for women it means also being a sex slave. And there is no way out of it — you can't just stay for 10 years and that's it."
Activist organizer Teklebrhan said he used to work at an independent newspaper in Eritrea and write articles that challenged the dictatorship. This earned him seven hellish years in jail, where he said he was tortured on a regular basis. His newspaper's editor in chief committed suicide in the prison by strangling himself in protest, said Teklebrhan, and he would have done the same — but multiple attempts to kill himself failed, he said, because jail guards had dislocated his right shoulder during a torture session. Teklebrhan's shins are covered in scars from lashings with sticks and electric wires.
The racial slurs on the streets of Tel Aviv hurt him at first, said Teklebrhan, but he's deaf to them now. He and his organization, Eritrean Youth Solidarity for National Salvation, are more concerned with plotting the overthrow of the Eritrean government so they can one day make their way back home.
That's exactly why 200 Eritreans gathered for their own event in Levinsky Park on the night before World Refugee Day. They created a large circle, lighting candles for the "martyrs" in Eritrea's struggle for independence from dictator Isaias Afiwerki. "It's important to respect the memory of the people who fought so we can return to our homeland," asylum seeker Davit Damuz told Ynet.
Because believe it or not, most Eritreans want to live in Israel just about as much as Israel wants them to live in it.