The refugees’ struggle for recognition – a civic and moral example to all

The struggle of the African asylum seekers in Israel to be recognized as refugees and to be treated as human beings has been in the headlines regularly during the last few weeks. This follows their declaration, on Jan. 5, 2014, of a mass campaign including a strike to demand that the government cease abusing them. On the first day of the campaign, some 25,000 (half of all asylum seekers in Israel) gathered in Tel Aviv’s central Rabin Square in an unprecedented demonstration, showing the government that this is indeed a real human issue. Later, the asylum seekers demonstrated in front of foreign embassies and the UN representative in Israel, declaring that they would continue their struggle until the cancelation of the law that enables unlimited detention, violation of the right to work, and the current policy of not investigating asylum claims.

The struggle of the African asylum seekers in Israel to be recognized as refugees and to be treated as human beings has been in the headlines regularly during the last few weeks. This follows their declaration, on Jan. 5, 2014, of a mass campaign including a strike to demand that the government cease abusing them. On the first day of the campaign, some 25,000 (half of all asylum seekers in Israel) gathered in Tel Aviv’s central Rabin Square in an unprecedented demonstration, showing the government that this is indeed a real human issue. Later, the asylum seekers demonstrated in front of foreign embassies and the UN representative in Israel, declaring that they would continue their struggle until the cancelation of the law that enables unlimited detention, violation of the right to work, and the current policy of not investigating asylum claims.

The struggle is led by two prominent groups of activists from the two main communities which make up the asylum-seeker population here: those from the Darfur region in Sudan who fled a genocide which has gone on for over ten years, and those from Eritrea who fled a dictatorship which has turned citizens into slaves. According to various estimates, there are about 53,000 refugees from Africa in Israel, including 35,000 from Eritrea and 15,000 from Sudan. The others are from other African countries that suffer from serious political crises.

The government’s refusal to recognize the refugees

These two states, Sudan (the Darfur region) and Eritrea, are defined by the UN High Commission for Refugees as states whose citizens are persecuted and eligible for refugee status. But Israel stubbornly refuses to recognize this and is not prepared to process applications for that status. Moreover, even though Israel has made no investigations, it insists on referring to them as infiltrators or migrant laborers who entered illegally. Thus it denies its obligation to grant them political asylum under the UN refugee convention.

In 2012, the government passed a law that enabled up to three years behind bars for illegal entry into Israel. It then began locking up hundreds of refugees in the Negev Desert’s Saharonim jail. This cruel and illegal policy provided no solution to the problem of thousands of asylum seekers, who – lacking reasonable employment arrangements – are compelled to live in south Tel Aviv, where the rents are cheapest. This situation puts pressure on the veteran residents of this area, who have for years endured a policy of systematic neglect from Israel’s governments and are now forced to contend with overpopulation and yet another weak group. The government, whose ministers have kept up a campaign of blatant racist incitement against the African refugees, has taken advantage of this distress to encourage fascist, rightwing groups that incite public opinion, particularly in south Tel Aviv.

The fact that the Interior Ministry prevents these asylum claims from being investigated enables the government to continue its incitement. The result is an impossible situation: Israel cannot forcibly put the refugees on a plane back to their countries of origin, since this would be a gross violation of its international obligations. On the other hand, the government refuses to shape an effective policy for determining the asylum seekers’ status. Furthermore, we must not ignore the contradiction between (1) the government’s claim that the asylum seekers take jobs from Israelis and (2) its continued importation of migrant laborers, by the tens of thousands, from Thailand, the Philippines, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

The government’s machinations have been revealed

This policy was given a severe blow in September 2013, when Israel’s High Court ruled that the article enabling up to three years’ imprisonment without trial is unconstitutional and violates the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Freedom. But since this ruling, officials have done all they can to maintain the policy and ignore court orders. Thus the Infiltrators’ Law was amended to enable administrative detention for up to a year in a facility described as “open.” To this end, the Holot Center was established in December 2013, in the middle of the desert, far from any town. This center is run by the prison services. The few thousand refugees who have had the ill luck to be sent there are compelled to be present every night from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. as well as three times each day. This measure prevents them from finding work. Human rights organizations have petitioned the court against this latest measure.

The fiction of an “open” detention center was exposed during its first day of operation, Dec. 15, 2013, when hundreds of asylum seekers who were detained there began marching towards Beer Sheva. The march began as a natural step for prisoners who have done no wrong and who have not tried to escape. They then marched to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, forming a demonstration in which human rights activists and aid organizations took part. There the police arrested them.

The demonstrators’ firm stand had an empowering and unifying effect among the various refugee communities. It led to thousands of asylum seekers joining a wide, well-organized public campaign which directed a spotlight on the government’s acts.

An exemplary struggle

The asylum seekers’ demands are simple: investigate refugee claims, grant them political asylum, enable them to earn a living and educate their children, and allow them freedom of movement, as required by the conventions Israel has signed. These are basic humanitarian demands which a person of conscience cannot ignore. The asylum seekers are in dire economic straits, yet they are able to come together in a well-organized public struggle. This sets an impressive example to other groups in Israel who, till now, have never managed to achieve such a level of unity and organization.

The rightwing (including from MK Miri Regev and the journalist Ben-Dror Yamini) claims that leftwing figures are behind the Africans’ struggle. Against this, WAC openly and unequivocally supports the asylum seekers. WAC sees their courageous campaign as an exemplary civic struggle and does all it can to assist. WAC cooperates with those activists and organizations in Israel which help the asylum seekers, believing theirs is an important battle in the fight against racism and discrimination.

Those who hound the asylum seekers and lock them up are the same government ministers who refuse to move towards peace, and continue to oppress workers with extreme neoliberal economic policies. We reject the claim that the workers and the poor in Israel would pay the price for granting asylum seekers their rights. A policy of social equality based on taxation of the wealthy, investment in the public sector, and reduction of the defense budget will benefit both the citizens of Israel and the refugees, who in recent years have become an inseparable part of Israel’s cultural and human mosaic.

[stextbox id=”custom” caption=”The UN Refugee Convention requires recognition for the refugees of Darfur and Eritrea” direction=”ltr” image=”null”]The Un Refugee Convention 1951 and the additional protocol from 1967 ,which Israel has signed, determine signatories’ obligations regarding asylum seekers who reach their territory, following the terrible experiences during two world wars and the civil wars in Africa. According to this convention, a refugee – someone who would be in serious danger of death or imprisonment, even though he has done nothing criminal, were he to return to his country of origin – is to be granted a range of basic rights including the right not to be deported and not to be penalized for illegal entry; the right to housing, education, and welfare; the right to freedom of worship; access to courts and freedom of movement; and the right to receive identity documents. Israel is bound by the convention to grant these rights to the asylum seekers from Darfur and Eritrea, yet Israel violates them all blatantly.[/stextbox]

Moreover, according to the Handbook of the UN High Commission for Refugees – the organization charged with ensuring that the convention is applied – there are circumstances which cause entire populations to flee from tyranny or persecution of minorities, including political or social groups (such as homosexuals). In such circumstances, there is an urgent need to find rapid solutions; therefore, refugee status should be granted to all members of the group in question (Article 44 of the Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status, http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/refugeehandbook.pdf).

– Translated by Yonatan Preminger

* Assaf Adiv is Secretary-General of WAC-MAAN

 

אודות Assaf Adiv