Israel’s Forgotten Refugees: African Asylum-Seekers Trapped in Limbo
By Andrew Green
Eigigeino Workwo has lost track of her time spent in Israel. It’s been years since the 61-year-old ran afoul of the government in her native Ethiopia. Fearing that Ethiopian security officers—who regularly arrest people viewed as political opponents—might also come for her, she boarded a flight out of the country and ended up in Tel Aviv. Upon arrival, she asked for asylum.
She has been waiting ever since.
The Israeli government initially threw her into prison, where she waited a year for them to investigate her claims. Eventually she was released into Tel Aviv, sick, alone, and with an unclear status.
“The situation is not very good, especially in my health,” Workwo said, though she doesn’t like to discuss what is wrong with her. “I cannot work. I cannot do anything. I have no home.”
She is one of the thousands of African asylum seekers who fled to Israel, only to be systemically ostracized by a government that has made it clear it wants nothing more than for them to leave. The situation is especially difficult for women, who sometimes experience abuse from their partners and their employers or have particular health concerns, but without access to vital social services.
Throughout Israel’s short history, non-Jewish asylum seekers have trickled into the country, but never at a rate high enough to encourage the government to flesh out what was, at best, an incomplete refugee policy.
That started to change in the mid-2000s, when people from Sudan—victims of the genocide in Darfur, escapees from the southern civil war, and political dissenters from other parts of the country—began to make their way across Egypt’s Sinai desert and into Israel. They were followed by asylum seekers from east Africa, especially Eritrea, where the oppressive regime forces its men into often-unending military service. Some came from Ethiopia, Niger, Central African Republic, and other countries, according to civil society groups working with the asylum-seeking populations, though never on the same scale as the Sudanese and Eritreans.
According to official statistics, there are currently 42,000 asylum seekers in the country—more than 30,000 of whom are Eritrean—though that number was once much higher. The government does not provide statistics by gender, but, in keeping with global trends, the vast majority of the asylum seekers are men.
The majority, who came through the Sinai, received a ticket to Tel Aviv from the government. They were dumped at the central bus station in the city’s south, left to find their own accommodations, their job status unclear. Many simply slept in a park across from the bus station for weeks on end.
The new arrivals soon started to draw the ire of some members of the southern Tel Aviv community, who were beginning to feel overrun and fearful. The sentiment crystalized in a 2012 statement by Miri Regev, then a ruling-party member of the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, who told a rally, “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” Regev is currently the country’s minister of culture.
One of the first fronts that opened was over the work status of the asylum seekers. The visas they received upon entry barred them from working, which increased the tension in the community.
“It’s not only these people, by themselves, who are in trouble,” said Dawit Demoz, an asylum seeker from Eritrea who arrived in Israel in 2010. “It’s also the neighborhoods who are hosting them that are also in problems. If they don’t have what to eat, what to do and where to stay, they’re going to do crime. They’re going to steal.”
Rather than granting work permits to the asylum seekers, though, the government agreed to turn a blind eye to business owners who hired them. This satisfied no one. The foreigners did not have basic legal protections and many say their employers exploited the situation to pay them little and make them work long hours. Local groups worried that the opening of jobs would further entrench the asylum seekers in the communities.
On the services front, the visas gave them access to little more than the country’s emergency health services. As a result, “something that could be an emergency in the future, but now is not an emergency, they wouldn’t take care of it,” according to Elisheva Milikowsky, who heads the migrant workers, refugees, and asylum seekers department at Physicians for Human Rights–Israel. “Maybe [an asylum seeker] fainted and they did his blood tests and other examinations and determined he has cancer. But it’s not an emergency. They might give him medication that will make him feel better for a short while, but they wouldn’t provide long-term [care].”
This extends to obstetric and gynecological services for women, Milikowsky said. While they can access facilities for delivery and emergencies, “they really don’t have even close to what Israeli women have.” And services become even more limited outside Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government began issuing shorter and shorter visas, to the point where the asylum seekers were having to register—a process that could take several days—every month or two.
At the same time, the refugee status determination remained opaque, at best.
Asylum seekers said they were confused about whether they had applied and how long the process took. When a refugee seeker’s application was rejected and they were deported, word spread quickly through the close-knit community, making others wary of applying
The government currently offers collective protection to asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, so they cannot be forcibly deported. But in 2012 the government began to deport South Sudanese nationals after that country gained independence from Sudan and a court ruled they could safely be returned. The memory of those departures still lingers.
And then came Holot. Following an amendment to the country’s Prevention of Infiltration Law, the government opened Holot, an open-air detention facility in the country’s southern desert. The amendment that created Holot made it possible to hold single, male asylum seekers in the facility for more than a year. They are unable to work and had to check in daily with the officials from the Israeli Prison Services who operate the facility, which holds 3,300 people.
Activists have consistently challenged the legality of Holot. The Supreme Court recently ruled that the maximum sentence should be no longer than 12 months, but also sanctioned the existence of the facility.
More than a detention center, the state uses it as a psychological weapon to encourage asylum seekers to leave Israel—either for their countries of origin or third countries with which Israel has entered into secret agreements.
Women are not yet being sent to Holot, but the threat of the facility still looms. During visa interviews, officials looking to confirm marriages will put women through a barrage of questions, according to activists.
“The worst is when they start to ask women about their sex lives,” said Anat Ovadia-Rosner, the spokesperson for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. “Horrible questions. Of course, many people are shocked and silent and embarrassed and don’t answer. The clerk can say, ‘You don’t answer me? I guess you’re not married. So he can go to Holot.’ Horrible and sadistic things.”
Ultimately, asylum seekers said, the Israeli government has succeeded in creating a climate where they feel not just unwelcome, but also hounded and under constant threat.
“As time has developed, it’s a lot of hopelessness, because nothing has changed and nothing’s developed and there’s this feeling of there’s no future. I’ll just get one day sent back to Eritrea. I can’t build a life for myself,” said Dr. Diddy Mymin Kahn, a clinical psychologist. She is behind an initiative, the Kuchinate African Refugee Women’s Collective that provides some of the female asylum seekers with an income and a place of refuge.
The situation also creates stress within the communities, she said, which can take the form of domestic violence. She knows of at least six cases of women who were killed by their husbands or partners.
Twice a week women from across the different asylum-seeking communities, including Workwo, gather in Kuchinate’s small workshop in southern Tel Aviv, where they make baskets, drink coffee, and talk. Kahn is available to meet with women individually to discuss previous or current trauma.
She started Kuchinate after recognizing that, more than counseling, women needed access to income. The opportunities for discussion and socialization grew out of that. Basket sales are good and women are making some money, Kahn said. She eventually hopes to open a formal storefront.
It is a start, but the situation is still a far cry from what the women were looking for when they arrived in Israel. And there are still so many needs. “At least having some kind of status, at all, would go a long way to help them,” she said.
*TOP PHOTO CREDIT: LYNSEY ADDARIO: GETTY IMAGES/REPORTAGE