African Asylum Seekers in Israel

Guest Post by Anonymous*
If you follow current headlines, you may have noticed a seemingly new conflict arising in the Middle East. Recent migratory trends in Israel have led to new challenges beyond the decades long occupation of the Palestinian Territories. The tension surrounding the influx of African asylum seekers and refugees to Israel has reached a boiling point resulting in racist violence against these groups over the last several months.

 In late April and early May, a series of Molotov cocktail attacks targeting asylum seeker and refugee communities, including a primary school for refugee children, marked a definite shift from xenophobic rhetoric to indiscriminate street violence. In late May, a 1000 person mob of right-wing Jewish Israelis vandalized African-owned shops and attacked asylum-seekers in the streets of south Tel Aviv. In the most recent attack, the home of Eritrean asylum seekers was fire bombed in Jerusalem, as violence spread beyond cities with high concentrations of migrants. A warning scrawled outside the house made the message clear — Africans should leave the neighborhood or suffer the consequences.

The recent attacks have instilled an increased sense of foreboding in refugee communities. Volunteers from refugee ally organizations accompany children to school to discourage attacks, similar to the situation experienced by many Palestinians in settlement plagued areas of the West Bank. Asylum seekers fear leaving their homes and many have lost what low-paying jobs they had due to governmental policies targeting refugees and their employers. Refugee aid organizations have been subject to threats of violence and even arrest for aiding “illegal migrants”. Yet this fear is not new, nor is the violence experienced by these communities.

Africans who have sought asylum in Israel since the end of 2006, currently number between 21,000 and 60,000 people, with the majority coming from Eritrea and Sudan, traveling through the Sinai Peninsula. Though Israel is a signatory of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, and both the 1954 and 1967 Protocols, the Israeli government does not have a functioning asylum process and has not adopted associated asylum legislation. As such, the situation faced by refugees in Israel is tense, as the asylum process is arduous; work permits and social services are lacking and/or outright denied. To date, the Israeli government has recognized less than 200 asylum seekers as refugees, portraying most as economic migrants traveling to Israel for work. UNHRC recently reported that in 2011, only one of 4,603 asylum applications was approved, with an additional 6,000 cases pending review.

As the number of Africans in Israel increased, so have levels of hostility from local Israeli communities, particularly in south Tel Aviv. The recent attacks that received heightened media attention are merely a continuation, though more explosive, of anti-African sentiments that have pervaded the Israeli state since the arrival of Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s and early 1990s. Anti-African protests in Tel Aviv began in 2010 and the home of Sudanese refugees in the city of Ashdod was firebombed in early 2011. The media, both in Israel and abroad, has largely failed to report the presence of racial incitement and violence as a process constructed over time, preferring to portray recent events as an overnight phenomenon in reaction to uncontrollable migration flows.

The American media landscape has largely ignored the struggles of African asylum seekers in Israel, focusing more closely on high-level political events surrounding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and tensions with Iran. In the period preceding the recent violence, there was only sporadic reporting of refugee-related issues, even as Israel began constructing the world’s largest asylum detention facility in 2011. This facility in the southern Negev is expected to open in late 2012 and will incarcerate upwards of 10,000 people, including children.

Of the limited reporting that has been done, most lacks a serious analysis of the political situation in Israel and displays a number of disturbing trends, namely the mimicry of government security claims, the prioritization of Israeli voices over those of refugees themselves, and a failure to address the role of political figures in driving racial incitement. A general lack of context and clarity has resulted in a number of misleading headlines and news reports. Following the recent xenophobic riots in Tel Aviv, CNN published a report titled “Hundreds protest in Israel illegal immigration battle,” in which the outlet refers to asylum seekers as “illegal African migrants.” Even more damaging, when highlighting the violence and arrests that ensued, the outlet does not illuminate who were the perpetrators of such violence, leaving it unclear to the reader that it was Africans asylum seekers that were under attack.

The New York Times displays similar trends, though paints a picture of re-establishing order in response to the chaos resulting from migration. Articles published by Isabel Kershner and Ethan Bronner include headlines such as, “Israeli Leader Pledges Hard Line on Migrants” and “Israel Acts to Curb Illegal Migration from Africa.” Bronner takes it a step further in parroting racist and discriminatory language such as the usage of the word “infiltrators” to describe Africans in Israel.

Israeli media demonstrates similar trends, though there has been a marked shift in the general media landscape. Since the onset of the recent attacks, a number of news outlets began interviewing asylum seekers in response to the violence. The inclusion of these individuals has been a rare occurrence over the years, as even more progressive news outlets such as Haaretz have largely given greater space to Israeli elected officials and their associated ‘law and order’ narratives.

The recent inclusion of asylum seekers is not itself without flaw. Though these interviews illuminate the experiences of asylum seekers in Israel and touch on their want of greater rights including recognition as refugees, the overall portrayal erases the agency of these individuals, rendering them solely as victims of violence and exploitation. Very few outlets have reported on protests petitioning for refugee rights or asylum seeker-led demonstrations outside the Eritrean embassy demanding political reform. As a result, it is difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint a political solution that is sought by the individuals most seriously affected by recent events — African asylum seekers themselves.


7 thoughts on “African Asylum Seekers in Israel

  1. what bugs me about all the coverage and this article is well is that everyone avoids saying that the immigrants are majority Muslim. Why does this not figure into discussions? Strange.. no doubt racism the key problem, but this is where the notion of “infiltrators” is coming from partly, and definately a part of bigger as well

    • with all due respect mr kairn…ppl like yourself piss me off ….get your facts right before u offend someone. the refugees are south sudanese and it is a known fact that the majority of south sudanese are Christians.

  2. Hi Kairn, the answer to that is that the majority are Christian which can be very easily seen on any Sunday morning with dozens of churches of Eritrean, S. Sudanese, Nigerian asylum seekers entering and leaving. I would happily give you a tour if you need.

  3. Good replies here that made me think hard. Very sorry, didn’t mean to offend. Never noted that it was Southern Sudanese, most articles don’t mention that, and half Eritreans are Muslim, and never heard about Nigerian immigrants. Was trying to point out things might be even more complex than it seems. So do Muslim Africans avoid immigrating there? Wondering – want to get facts straight. One of my questions is how are the Ethiopians Jews being treated today, are they being targeted as well? Or in general, in addition to the racism aspect, would any of you say that religion is also playing into the attacks?

    • It’s impossible to get exact numbers of where the migrants have come from for obvious reasons. However, without a doubt there is a substantial of Dafuri refugees/migrants in Israel and the region is almost entirely Muslim. Many of course from Eritrea, South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, DRC, and many many other any other regions/countries in Africa and I would venture to say a majority are Christians.

      The Muslim vs. non-Muslim to me is not really important in this issue. Muslim Africans go to Israel because of economic opportunities and it is a government that won’t shoot at them or lock them up and throw away the key. I don’t think these refugees are necessarily in tune with the perception of Israel in the Muslim world, or more than likely, they just don’t really care.
      You also seem to be suggesting that Israelis distrust all Muslims regardless of where they come from or their viewpoints. While there are some who do, the majority of the population doesn’t think this way.

      Policy has regarding non-Jewish refugees is awful (ie non-existent) and ignoring the problem for a decade led to a complete overreaction now.The catalyst being a few high profile sexual crimes against women/girls. I’m sure someone better qualified then me could have a field day explaining the idea of “others” taking or sexually assaulting women and the psychological effects on a largely homogeneous society ( I know Israel isn’t homogeneous in terms of ethnicity, but in terms of religion it really is.) Nonetheless, it provided a spark for something that had already been simmering for years.

      It’s a shame that the Israeli press has pretty much played politics with this and politicians have been so irresponsible. When the police spokesman in Tel Aviv said violent crime rates is about the same among African migrants as the rest of the city, no one listened. Everyone seems to have forgotten that South Tel Aviv was known to be dangerous before these migrants/refugees got there. They forget that in the mid to late 1990’s the influx of immigrants from the former USSR brought with it organized crime and violence that at one point arguably challenged the authority of the state.

  4. Very ironic that Jewish people speak regularly about persecution but are committing the same acts themselves. Zero media coverage in the UK. I wonder why?

  5. I think the main issue here is that all the countries should make changes in there asylum/immigration law so that the people who relay deserve asylum should get it no matter from where they are from which religion they belong.

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