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Prison or deportation: The impossible choice for asylum seekers in Israel

Jack Guez/AFP

Just two months from now, the Israeli government says it will begin indefinitely imprisoning asylum seekers who refuse deportation. IRIN Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod explores what this means for the tens of thousands of people now facing an uncertain future.

After escaping torture in Sudan, after walking 11 hours through the Egyptian desert, and after handing almost all his money to men with guns who blocked his way, Adam slipped through an opening in a border fence and laid down on the sand.

The respite didn’t last long.

The 24-year-old told every Israeli official he met – first soldiers, then officials at a detention centre – that he was seeking safe haven.

It didn’t go down well, as Adam recounts calmly from his Tel Aviv kitchen table.

“I told them, ‘I’m a refugee’. They said, ‘we don’t have a place for refugees here’.”

“I asked for the UN… They said, ‘here in Israel we don’t have the UN’.”

“I said, ‘so let me go back’. They said, ‘no’.”

Little did he know it would go so badly that four years later he would be labelled an infiltrator and that, as an unmarried, childless male with no official refugee status, he would be high on the list for deportation.

Adam, who told IRIN he was tortured in prison in Sudan for refusing to fight in the military, has fallen foul of a new Israeli government plan to rid the country of the 38,000 African asylum seekers inside its borders.

A new policy

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Tel Aviv has been overrun by “illegal infiltrators” who, it maintains, are largely responsible for driving up poverty and crime in working class southern parts of the city.

Starting the first of April, the government says it will give the asylum seekers – more than 90 percent are from Sudan and Eritrea – the choice between prison and “voluntary” deportation. Those who agree to leave will be given $3,500 (this sum will decrease after 1 April) and reportedly then be sent to Rwanda or Uganda, although both governments have denied entering into agreements with Israel.

Asylum seekers began making the trek to Israel in the mid-2000s. Between then and 2014, when the country fortified its border with Egypt, Israel’s policy towards new arrivals has changed often.

It gave them visas – renewable every few months – that read, “this permit is not a work permit”, but opted not to fine employers who hire them. It sent men to indefinite detention in a series of centres, until the high court limited this to a year in 2015. It has also paid asylum seekers to leave the country – reportedly via secret deals with Rwanda and Uganda (believed to be the destinations in this latest push).

Forced deportations haven’t been officially announced, but at least one of Netanyahu’s ministers has said they’re on the table.

When he announced the new policy at a January cabinet meeting, Netanyahu spoke of the “plight of the long-time residents” and said his new deportation plan was aimed at, “restoring quiet – the sense of personal security and law and order – to the residents of south Tel Aviv, and also those of many other neighbourhoods”.

Welcome to the medina

South Tel Aviv has become a hive of controversy – and a useful rhetorical tool for politicians – because the government and some locals (but not all) blame poverty and deteriorating conditions on the influx of African asylum seekers, even though one official report suggests state neglect was largely to blame.

Most did not choose this city anyway. With a dark sense of humour, and a bit of profanity, Adam explains what his one-way ticket to the Central Bus Station in the south of Tel Aviv was like.

Mya Guarnieri/IRIN
African asylum seekers sleep in a Tel Aviv park in 2012

After being apprehended at the border – an incident that involved running from a searchlight, losing his shoes, and an act of kindness when a soldier gave him his own boots – Adam was told he couldn’t claim status as a refugee but could stay in Israel and work a while, in what officials kept calling the “medina”, city in Arabic.

He didn’t speak much of that language, but after weeks in detention he heard his name called a few times: “Adam-medina”, “Adam-medina”. Loaded onto a bus with other African asylum seekers, he eventually figured out what medina meant and that he was going to a city that turned out to be Tel Aviv.

Unlike some of his fellow passengers, he already feared his prospects were bleak. “We didn’t speak Hebrew; we didn’t have any experience,” he remembers. “People were so happy getting on the bus.”

“I said to them, ‘Why are you happy? This medina is going to be messed up [in more colourful language]. It’s not going to be easy’.”

Adam took one look at Tel Aviv, saw men sleeping rough in a park, and got on the first bus out of there. But eventually he came back and found work as an electrician.

Over time, many asylum seekers found jobs and places to stay near the bus station in south Tel Aviv. Nowadays, shop signs in Tigriniya (the language spoken in Eritrea and northern Ethiopia] compete for space in the area alongside those in Hebrew; barbershop and salons have sprung up to cater to a black clientele; coffee shops display posters of Eritrean musicians.

Teklit Michael, a 29-year-old Eritrean activist (and middle-distance runner) who fled his country in 2007, says he came to Israel “to be safe from detention, torture, imprisonment”, but never truly felt at home.

He recounts episodes of discrimination: “When you get on the bus and no one wants to sit next to you… when you cook at a restaurant and people say, ‘I don’t want to… eat what he made’.”

Refugee status

As Adam learnt upon arrival in 2013, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, doesn’t process asylum claims in Israel. The government has handled refugee status determination since 2009, and until 2013 it was almost impossible for Eritreans and Sudanese to even submit applications.

When applying for refugee status did become an option, it was still extremely difficult and bureaucratic.

“I thought, if you can apply you can at least prove that you tried,” said Anwar Suliman, a Sudanese asylum seeker who IRIN profiled in this 2017 film and interviewed again for this feature.

He, like Teklit and many others, is still waiting for an answer.

Adam never filled out the refugee status determination form – what everyone calls the RSD.

Why? “They told me in the beginning they had no place for me.”

Plus, he says he knew a lot of people who filled out the form and it amounted to nothing.

The statistics bear this out – as of mid-2017, more than 12,200 people had filed asylum claims; more than 7,400 had received no reply. Only 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese – 11 people total – have been granted refugee status since 2009, even though Israel is a signatory to the refugee convention. One more Eritrean man is said to have been granted status this week, although IRIN could not independently confirm the report.

Fighting back

Despite utter mistrust in the system and frustration over the miniscule recognition rate, those RSDs have suddenly begun to feel like some sort of protection.

That’s because it is childless men who never applied or were rejected who Israel says it will send away first, although later phases of the policy could see others deported.

IRIN visited Anwar at his home near another central bus station, but not in Tel Aviv – after detention in a desert centre called Holot he was told not to return to the city.

He has been the face – and name – of lawsuits; he has encouraged his fellow activists to speak out; and he has learned Hebrew and English.

Now, he says, “we’ve struggled enough. We did everything by the law; we protested; we spoke to the international media, the local media; we did everything.”

“I think now is the time for the Israeli citizens’ to [join us in the] struggle.”

Some have heeded his call.

There have been protests (including some by residents of south Tel Aviv) against the proposed deportations, promises by rabbis to hide asylum seekers (should it come to that), and a letter from a group of pilots at Israel’s national airline, El Al, saying they would refuse to fly asylum seekers if they were forcibly deported.

Condemnation from human rights organisations and international Jewish groups perhaps led Rwandan President Paul Kagame, after a recent meeting with Netanyahu, to issue a statement saying he “would only accept a process that fully complies with international law”.

At local NGOs that serve the asylum seeker community, activists say they will do everything they can to put a stop to the new policy. Dror Sadot of the Tel Aviv based NGO Hotline for Refugees and Migrants told IRIN that there is “a lot of panic” about the possible deportations, and that “now is our time to do everything we can”.

Adi Drori-Avraham, spokeswoman for ASSAF – which provides psychosocial support for asylum seekers who are especially vulnerable (torture victims, single mothers) – says her organisation will keep doing what it has always done.

“We had an Eritrean woman, who is a single woman with three kids, sitting on a chair in her office, sobbing with her head between her hands, asking, ‘Are we going to have to hide?’ It’s a horrible situation, basically the stuff of nightmares.”

Deported to what?

In a recent cabinet meeting, Netanyahu reportedly called the notion that Rwanda is unsafe “a joke”.

But asylum seekers who have taken Israel’s “voluntary” flights to Rwanda in the past have told researchers they arrived to find no support, only a night or two of hotel accommodation, and no legal right to remain there.

With $3,500 in their pockets, they were easy targets for robbery and trafficking to other countries.

Jack Guez/AFP
Asylum seekers protest Israel's deportation plan outside the Rwandan embassy

They felt they had little choice but to leave Rwanda and chance it through dangerous countries like Libya, and, according to UNHCR, “along they way they suffered abuse, torture, and extortion”.

These reports back up stories every asylum seeker IRIN spoke to in Tel Aviv had heard (from friends or friends of friends who took Israel up on the offer of cash), and everyone had also seen the video of three Eritrean refugees who were voluntarily sent to Rwanda, attempted to make it to Libya, and were killed by so-called Islamic State.

“[Rwanda and Uganda] are not our countries… nobody wants to go there,” says Teklit. “What is waiting for them is human trafficking to other countries, torture, other horrible things.”

Teklit says he can only describe how he feels as “desperate”, but calmly says he will choose prison if forced and must remain composed because “the good guys are always the winners, not the bad guys”.

Anwar feels the same: “100 percent I will go to prison. This is a crazy decision [to have to make]. But it’s the best I have.”

Adam has a different take. He knows the risks – he knows he’ll be a sitting duck – but he reckons if he is deported it could help those still in Israel.  If he’s kicked out of a place “that doesn’t feel like your home… maybe people will start paying attention… one day the people here will feel something.”

Changing hearts and minds

On a recent Friday night at the Eritrean women’s centre in south Tel Aviv where Teklit works – women and children are celebrating a move to new offices with a coffee ceremony and snacks.

In one corner is an odd-looking pile of plastic heads with hair, which made more sense when Teklit explains that hairdressing, along with cleaning, is one of the few avenues of employment for women from Eritrea.

Behind the chitchat and selfies, in another room, a group of Eritrean and Ethiopian asylum seekers quietly fills out RSDs – with the help of volunteers, as the forms can only be filled out in English, Hebrew, and Arabic.

The Israeli government says this won’t make a difference, and insists that the deportation exemption only applies to those who had open applications as of the first of this year.

So why are they still giving it a shot? “Maybe it makes them feel better,” offers one volunteer.

Because of the recent move, the centre’s walls are nearly bare, but for a painting of one black hand and one white, linked together. Printed beneath, in Hebrew and English: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.

(TOP PHOTO: Asylum seekers protest outside the Rwandan embassy in Hertzliya, Israel. Jack Guez/AFP)


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