Last October, African asylum seekers living in south Tel Aviv held a demonstration demanding "security." By that, they meant refugee status and the rights that accompany it: for example, the basic police protection most of us take for granted, including the right not to be attacked by a racist mob, like the kind occasionally seen in South Tel Aviv's streets.
Three months later, Tel Aviv's African asylum seekers are back out in protest against their treatment by the Israeli government. Last week I went to a demonstration in Jerusalem and found thousands of people gathered in front of the Knesset, Israel's parliament building, chanting "We are refugees! We need protection!" Along with the already huge number of people who'd arrived over the previous few days, supporters were still streaming in by the busload, with estimates putting the total number of demonstrators at more than 20,000.
"Today we're here to find our rights," said Sumia Nadiy, an asylum seeker from Sudan. "We came to speak with the government members in the Knesset, to see and talk to them to find a solution about the situation for refugees or asylum seekers here."
The protests have been galvanized by the Israeli government's passing of an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Law, which—among other measures—allows asylum seekers to be detained indefinitely in an "open prison." Hey, it's not all bad: migrants taken to the "Holot" detention center in southern Israel are free to walk out whenever they feel like it; they're even allowed to get jobs if they want. Only, the jail is located in the middle of the Negev desert and detainees have to check in three times a day, which presumably makes it kind of tricky to hold down any kind of nine-to-five in any of the neighboring towns.
The legislation also increased the compensation payment for those who choose to deport themselves from just shy of $1,600 to over $3,275. It's not clear where asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution are supposed to go, even with a cool three grand in their pocket, but it's clear that Israel really doesn't want them to stay.
In December, just after the legislation had been passed, around 200 of the refugees marched out of the Holot detention camp and made the 100-mile walk to Jerusalem, sleeping outside in the cold. When they got to the capital, they held a protest, which resulted in the violent arrest of many of them, and they were sent back to the detention center or, in some cases, to a different prison from which they couldn't escape.
However, that technique wasn't hugely effective as far as preventative measures go, as, over the past weekend, 30,000 people marched in Tel Aviv to demand an end to the system of indefinite detention and a recognition of their status as refugees. The migrants, who tend to work in irregular jobs, like dish-washing or house keeping, also started a strike. The strike ends today, but more protests are expected on Wednesday.
December's new legislation is not the first hostile measure Israel has taken against asylum seekers. Less than 1 percent of those applying for refugee status in Israel receive it, making the Promised Land—a haven for Jews from all around the world—one of the least refugee-friendly countries in the world.
The irony of this situation isn't hard to miss. Yael Netzer, a Jewish Israeli activist, was at the demonstration last week holding a sign that read: "You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt," which I accurately guessed was a quote from the Torah. "I chose to quote from the Torah because what I really mean is we were refugees in Europe, and I think it should not be a question," she said. "We should accept the refugees here in Israel, inspect their application, and give them the rights that they deserve."
All the asylum seekers I spoke with repeated the same complaint: the Israeli government refuses to distinguish between asylum seekers and work migrants. Bsow Balula, a refugee from Sudan, explained, "They call me a migrant worker. And I'm not a migrant worker. I came here because I have a different problem," he said. "Now they decide to send many of the refugees back to their country. And they face a dangerous situation when they go back there. For example, some of the Sudanese, they get killed and they get arrested."
Considering South Sudan has now spent almost a month descending into civil war, you would have thought that asylum claims from South Sudanese refugees would be viewed as legit, but Israel doesn't want to hear it.
Many of the demonstrators are calling on Israel to either respect the UN's Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, of which Israel is a signatory, or remove its name from the document. Moussa Abdoulave, an asylum seeker from the Central African Republic and a spokesman for the Tel Aviv-based African Refugee Development Center, said Israel misleads people into thinking it will be a safe country for refugees.
"We have no other choice than to come into the country that we believe. We trust this is a democratic country that [has signed] this international law, so we knew that we believed [in] it," he said. "That's why we call on Israel today. If you know that you are not going to check every asylum demand according to the international standard, then just withdraw your signature… We will find a way to go to another place."
The demonstrations are showing no sign of slowing down and Balula said they plan to continue the protests until the Israeli government shows some basic human decency. "We need the government to cancel the [indefinite detention] law," he said. "We need the government to release all of the refugees whom they arrest from the street, and also we need the government to check our asylum-seekers request and to check it through the UN. Not through the Israeli government. Because we don't trust them."