The Israeli controversy over the country’s treatment of African refugees came to the streets of Manhattan last week.
As part of an international day of protest, about 50 people gathered on Jan. 22, despite a billowing blizzard and frigid temperatures, in front of the Israeli Consulate in Midtown.
“It was so cold it hurt! After half an hour I was ready to pack up,” said Fnot Tesfom, one of the coordinators of the protest. “But the people kept telling me, ‘No, let’s stay a little longer, maybe they’ll hear us, maybe it will make a difference.’ ”
Similar rallies demonstrating solidarity with African asylum seekers in Israel also took place last Wednesday in several European cities.
An estimated 60,000 Africans, most fleeing political strife and persecution in either Eritrea or Sudan, now live in Israel. As part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy of discouraging the non-Jewish migrants from staying in Israel, a few thousand are now in a jail near the border with Egypt.
Coordinated by Freedom For Refugees, the rally participants demanded that portions of Israel’s newly amended Anti-Infiltration Law be repealed, that the arrests made under it stop, and that those already arrested be released. They also demanded that Israel implement a more transparent procedure for processing asylum claims.
The amended law, which went into effect last month, authorizes Israel to imprison so-called “infiltrators” for up to a year. Those who can no longer be imprisoned are kept in an “open holding facility,” in a remote area of the Negev desert, which holds up to 3,300 asylum seekers. They receive food, healthcare and “pocket money,” so they need not work illegally. They are allowed to leave, but must sign in three times a day and are locked in at night.
Abraham Gutman, the Israeli coordinator of the New York demonstration, said he was shocked by the conditions in which the migrants were interned. He began volunteering twice a week in Maon Oz, a small daycare for migrant children in south Tel Aviv.
Tesfom, an international service graduate student at The New School, called her involvement with the asylum seekers personal. “My family arrived here as refugees from Eritrea in the 1980s,” she said. “So I myself am an example of what can happen when a country recognizes the rights of refugees, and allows them to grow and fulfill their potential.
“We aren’t asking for a blanket amnesty, or for legal residency to be given to everyone,” she said. “We’re simply asking for an asylum claims procedure, so that applications can be processed correctly and people’s claims can be heard.”
“Branding refugees as infiltrators, subjecting them to official discrimination and humiliation, meting out to them physical violence in the streets, and locking them away in the middle of a desert is a travesty of international norms — to put it mildly,” stated Dr. Awet Woldemichael, professor of history at University of Kentucky and a human rights activist, in a press release issued by the protest organizers. “On behalf of the African refugees and asylum seekers, we are calling on the Israeli government to implement a functional, fair, and transparent Refugee Status Determination procedure that allows for each individual to apply for asylum and provides protection and support for refugees.”
Following the protest, the Israeli Consulate issued a statement declaring that Israel is within its rights. “Israel, as any sovereign nation, has the right to enact an immigration policy that limits illegal entry to its sovereign territory while it simultaneously allows legal immigration and protects refugees,” the statement noted. “Israel makes sure to examine each and every individual case in accordance with international law.”