Tel Aviv — The iconic but crumbling Bauhaus building just off the Ayalon freeway in south Tel Aviv resembles the bridge of a ship, a tribute to the Jewish immigrants who reached pre-state Israel in boats.
In the last three months, an abandoned basement pub and a construction site at the same building have become a makeshift absorption center for dozens of illegal African migrants and an embodiment of Israel’s most sensitive immigration dilemmas as the state nears its 60th anniversary.
Eritrean and Ivory Coast nationals live in overcrowded conditions that resemble a third-world slum while waiting to get political asylum. While the surge in Sudanese refugees arriving to Israel through the porous Sinai border drew the lion’s share of the media spotlight last summer, Africans from other countries have taken the same route but with a lower profile.
“We left Eritrea because of the dictatorial situation, where the government keeps everybody in jail and you don’t know when you’ll get out,” said Zere Tekle, a 27-year-old biology student who fled his home country for Sudan at the end of 1996 to escape being pressed into military combat. His journey took him to Libya, Egypt and then to the Sinai desert, where he dodged a hail of bullets from Egyptian soldiers to cross into Israel.
“We heard that the [Sudanese refugees] they are accepted by the Israeli government. I hope that they will accept us because our condition is known all over the world.”
Rows of tightly packed mattresses nearly cover the floor of the abandoned basement pub, and backpacks dangle down from exposed ceiling wire. The only privacy is offered by a partition of sheets draped over a cable, but occupants with a spot inside the bar are lucky.
Just outside the door, overflow tenants have hunkered down on wooden pallets and in the “upstairs” scaffolding planks used for building renovation work by day. As buses rumble by on the street below to Tel Aviv’s central bus station just a block away, the dim light of street lamps shroud the men curled up in sheets in a ghostly half-light.
“It’s shameful,” says one migrant as he shows a visitor around the digs.
Unlike the Sudanese migrants, who have gotten tacit authorization from the government to work while UN refugee officials determine their status, migrants from other African countries are considered illegal workers, making it virtually impossible for them to support themselves.
“The Sudanese are granted a better deal. They got a bonus that everyone else didn’t get,” said Eytan Schwartz, the spokesperson for an umbrella organization of human rights advocates for the Sudanese. “It’s because of the political pressure and because they were the first large group. It’s not a precedent that applies for everyone else. “
Human rights activists have charged that the Jewish experience of being turned back while fleeing Nazi Germany should make the government more sensitive to the plight of the refugees. But so far, it has taken nonprofits to intervene on behalf of the migrants.
As a result, the African tenants live on donated food, sleep on dank floors and share two putrid showers and one toilet among as many as 150 refugees. There are similar conditions at a nearby shelter with 130 Africans. On Friday the migrants are scheduled to gather for a demonstration in downtown Tel Aviv to demand political asylum.
“We have no work, no papers, no food and no clothes,” explained Kiato Kamara, a 24-year old student from Abijan separated from family because of the civil war in the Ivory Coast. “I’m sleeping in a big room with men because I don’t have money to rent a flat. What can the Israel government do for us?”
The building is located in a neglected treeless slum of south Tel Aviv that has become home to foreign workers, many of them illegal migrants themselves. After being picked up by the army at the border, the refugees are dropped off in Beersheva, where student volunteers pay for transportation to the Tel Aviv central bus station. Upon their arrival, the locals point them in the direction of shelters.
The first shelter was opened up in June, when refugee workers realized that dozens of Africans were arriving in Tel Aviv without a place to stay. The second was opened in the basement of the Bauhaus building in July, but advocates say they need to find a more suitable location.
So far, public support has been limited to cleaning services provided by the Tel Aviv Municipality and a lecture on hygiene from a health ministry representative. Refugee advocates said that appeals to the municipality for assistance in subsidizing rent and locating a more suitable shelter have gone unanswered.
They charge that the government has dumped responsibility for refugee care on nonprofits. But with the onset of winter, a solution has to be found for the approximately 20 men sleeping outside.
“The building is not safe. It’s old,” said Yohanes Bayu, director of the African Refugee Development Center. “There are no windows. Infrastructure is not good. We are looking for resources to rent a better place.”
The tenants are mostly men in the 20s, but there are some who appear to be in their 40s, along with approximately 35 minors. The Africans carry letters in Hebrew on the stationery of the UN Higher Commission on Refugees saying that they are requesting political asylum and they are not to be arrested by policy. A representative from the Tel Aviv municipality did not return calls for comment on the shelters.
“I don’t know if the government is aware of this situation,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev. “Obviously we feel compassion for these people, but before we can deal with these people as refugees, the UN has to make that specification. It’s not clear what our obligation is toward them. The only thing clear is that the entered the country illegally.”
In an effort to grapple with the migrant overflow from Africa, Israel set up a camp next to the desert prison of Ketiziot to house refugees. That camp — in which women and children are separated from men — is believed to be nearly full.
Israel returned a group of 48 African migrants to Egypt in August, and UN officials said they have lost track of them. In the recent months, Egyptian forces have stepped up efforts to stop the illegal border crossings, an effort which has left at least two migrants dead from Egyptian border guards shooting at them.
“The bullets were falling at our feet and whizzing by our heads,” said Zemhret Sihatu, who crossed the border on Sept. 15 in a group in which one migrant was killed. “I was thinking, ‘When will my life be finished? In one second? In two seconds?’”
Despite the ordeal and despite the trying conditions in Israel, Tekle, like the other refugees, expresses optimism that the government will give him permission to work and continue university studies. The humanitarian conscience of Israel’s ministers, he believes, will spur them to seek a solution to their plight. “Everything has a time. The people in high positions don’t know what our situation is like. If they knew, maybe they would change it.”