Walking in a three square block area of south Tel Aviv earlier this month with Sigal Rozen, the Public Policy Coordinator for Israel’s “Hotline for Migrant Workers,” was like moving through an urban African slum. This is the neighborhood, run-down, dirty and vastly over-crowded that has been designated by the Israeli government for 35,000 mostly African migrant workers and political asylum seekers to live.
Three years ago thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese refugees began entering Israel illegally from the Sinai desert seeking political asylum. Alarmed by the large numbers and concerned that Israel could be overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands more refugees, the Israeli government began constructing a security fence along the southern border to stop the human flow. As a gauge of the dimension of the migration, in 2012, 285,142 Eritreans and 112,283 Sudanese sought asylum all around the world, and for good reason.
For years the Sudanese government has conducted a genocidal war against the people of Darfur as well as widespread human rights abuse including sexual violence against women, torture, drafting and arming children for the military.
Eritrea, a small African nation adjacent to Ethiopia, is among the world’s most egregious human rights offenders, and Eritrea’s President, Isaias Afewerki, is among the world’s most brutal dictators.
The UN reports that the Eritrean government pursues systemic and widespread human rights abuse including extrajudicial killings, shoot-to-kill orders of those attempting to leave the country, enforced disappearances of citizens without family notification, arbitrary detentions, physical and psychological torture by police and army interrogators, inhumane detention conditions, sexual violence against women and children, drafting children into the armed forces, compulsory and indefinite military service, no free speech, assembly, religion, or movement.
Sigal Rozen told us that there are currently 54,201 African asylum seekers in Israel, among which are 36,067 Eritreans and more than 15,000 Sudanese. However, no one has been granted asylum by the state of Israel despite the fact that 84% of Eritrean asylum seekers around the world are recognized as refugees. In fact, since signing the Refugee Convention in 1951, for unexplained reasons, Israel has recognized only 202 refugees in total for political asylum.
Israel claims that the Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel are “work infiltrators” who come solely to improve their quality of life, and that there is no basis upon which to grant them political asylum.
The presence of so many Africans in Tel Aviv today has provoked a strong negative public outcry by many Israelis. In response the Knesset passed an amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law to allow the incarceration of asylum seekers for up to three years. However, on September 16 the High Court of Justice unanimously invalidated the amendment as unconstitutional because it compromised Israel’s Basic Law regarding human freedom and liberty. The Court instructed the government to examine all cases of Africans currently incarcerated (i.e. 1750 people) within 90 days.
To Israel’s credit, the government has not deported any of these refugees, most likely because Israel’s leaders understand the fatal consequences should these people be returned to their home countries.
The Israeli public’s ire against African migrants has grown and was heightened this year following two highly publicized criminal acts by Eritreans in south Tel Aviv. One case involved the alleged rape of an 83 year-old Tel Aviv woman in her home. A second was the near fatal encounter of a young Israeli husband and father who was dragged out of his car at a stop light and beaten by five Eritreans as his wife and children watched in horror. As bad as these incidents are, Sigal Rozen says that the actual crime rate among African migrants is six times lower than the crime rate among Israelis.
These refugees want badly to go home, but they fear for their lives. In Israel they quietly do whatever work comes their way in order to survive. They live crammed together in dilapidated apartments, many to a room sleeping on the floor and on boarded-up balconies. Refugee children do attend school, as required by Israeli law, and have done well, passing Israeli High School matriculating exams at high rates.
Sigal urges Israeli employers in agriculture, construction and the nursing sectors to employ these people and help relieve their hardships, and she urges the government to grant them extended work permits so they can remain in Israel legally until they feel safe enough to return home.
Judaism teaches, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20).
One would hope that the Jewish people and the state of Israel will treat these refugees with kindness and open hearts. As a people we have been where they are today. We know the heart of the stranger.