Tensions in Israel over its African migrants

There is growing hostility on both sides as Israel says most of African migrants seek work, not refuge.

Demonstrators in the impoverished Hatikva area of Tel Aviv last week protest against the growing influx of African immigrants. Roni Schutzer / AFPISRAEL OUT
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TEL AVIV // Unemployed and homeless, Ismail spends most days avoiding the sun in the shade of trees at Tel Aviv's Levinsky Park, waiting for the occasional van to stop and offer him and fellow African asylum-seekers a one-day cleaning or construction job.

The 24-year-old Muslim from Sudan's troubled region of Darfur often sleeps in the park's playground or on the grass, survives on donated food and uses showers at the beach two kilometres to the west.

Like Ismail, thousands of poor African migrants are crowding into public areas or cramming into tiny apartments in southern Tel Aviv.

Israeli residents of the disadvantaged Tel Aviv neighbourhoods in which the asylum-seekers are concentrated claim the newcomers relieve themselves in playgrounds and backyards, stash rubbish on streets and engage in crimes from petty theft to rape.

However, the migrants - mostly from Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan - say they are reduced to poverty because Israel refuses to examine their asylum requests or grant them rights that would be given by other western countries during the asylum process, such as work permits and housing aid.

The tensions have erupted into violence. Last week, an anti-migrant protest turned into a riot, with Israelis looting African-owned businesses, smashing car windows and beating African passers-by. In April attackers threw Molotov cocktails at two African homes and a kindergarten, causing serious damage but no injuries, just days after migrants were arrested in two separate cases of rapes of Israeli girls. Two refugee advocacy groups have reported receiving phone threats.

Some 60,000 Africans have made desert treks and crossed Egypt's porous border with Israel since 2006. Israel says most of them seek work rather than refuge, a claim that has been disputed by United Nations agencies and rights groups.

Most are caught and jailed for about two weeks and are then bussed into Tel Aviv where, typically, they spend a few weeks sleeping in Levinsky Park.

Activists say Israel performs worse than most western countries in processing asylum requests and has granted refugee status to only three Africans since 2009. The country does not examine refugee applications from Sudanese or Eritreans, claiming the temporary "blanket protection" from deportation that it granted them in 2008 is enough.

The migration has ignited a heated domestic debate about how much Israel owes refugees and has drawn criticism from rights activists about a shift towards increasing racism and xenophobia.

Right-leaning politicians have helped fan the flames. Eli Yishai, the ultra-Orthodox interior minister, has declared that all the asylum-seekers should be deported and said most "were criminals". Miri Regev, a legislator from Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, likened Africans to a "cancer in our body".

Also spurring tensions are police statistics showing that Africans are responsible for 40 per cent of southern Tel Aviv's crimes.

However, Sigal Rozen, the public policy coordinator for the Hotline for Migrant Workers advocacy group, said the police were distorting data in a bid to obtain "a chunk of the huge budget that the government has allotted to the war against African refugees". According to Ms Rozen, police officers have tried to entice Africans to steal by leaving open purses on streets near the Tel Aviv central bus station as well as bags on the beach. In an interview, a police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld dismissed the allegations.

Tel Aviv residents say Africans are making their already dilapidated neighbourhoods even worse. At last week's demonstration, protesters' signs read "Infiltrators get out of our house" and "Deport infiltrators now". A banner on the stage, referring to Israel's tensions with archenemy Iran, read "The Iranians don't scare me - the Sudanese do".

Sasi Ben Menahem, a 36-year-old native of southern Tel Aviv who took part in the protest, said fear of being attacked by asylum-seekers has spurred him to avoid walking the streets at night and stop volunteering for a civilian security patrol of the neighbourhood. He said Israeli families, including his sister's, are increasingly moving out of the area.

"I see them urinating in playgrounds, gathering in groups on the street to drink alcohol and acting violently towards each other," he said.

Still, Mr Ben Menahem expressed sympathy for the migrants. "I understand them - they don't have a legal status and no one is taking care of them," he said.

Africans say they are alarmed at the hostility, rock-throwing and beatings.

"Every African community in Israel is now scared," said Ghebrehut Tekle, a 31-year-old Eritrean owner of a clothing and food shop near Levinsky Park. "We live in very crowded areas and know that we have become a burden. But we didn't expect such violence."

Refugee advocates and southern Tel Aviv residents are united on one issue - that the Israeli government has done too little to defuse tensions.

Dov Khenin, a left-leaning legislator and an advocate for migrants' rights, said that Israel should stop importing hundreds of foreign workers from countries such as the Philippines every year and instead open up jobs for the Africans.

"The situation in Tel Aviv is intolerable not only for the asylum-seekers but also for the residents," he said. "Violence will escalate if people do not work and have no legal means for keeping themselves alive."