The Israeli government’s stance on African refugees has recently been called into question and has become an area of controversy centered on human rights.
The Israelis know perhaps better than any nation just how difficult it is for a people without a homeland. However, this is not reflected in the attitudes of many of those in power within the Israeli government. For example, former interior minister Eli Yishai voiced in a statement smacking of racism that the government should “put every single one of the infiltrators in detention facilities, take their work permits, put them on aeroplanes and send them packing to their countries or a third country.” In most cases, this is exactly what has happened.
Yishai is anything but alone. Several other high-profile politicians have been swayed by a wave of xenophobia imbued with hostility. Parliament member Miri Regev went so far as to call Sudanese refugees “a cancer in our bodies.” It is the false belief of many in the Israeli government that the vast majority of African refugees are there not because they are actually refugees, but because they can find a better chance at economic gain in Israel.
This xenophobia is evident in the numbers of African refugees that have gained refugee status in Israel. Whereas nearly half of Sudanese and over 80 percent of Eritreans have found refugee status in other countries, less than one percent of refugees have received it in Israel. In fact, since its independence in 1948, Israel has granted fewer than 200 people refugee status.
In response to this, demonstrations and strikes by thousands of African refugees have taken place within Israel, most in Jerusalem, that ask for a restructuring of Israeli asylum and detention policies. Many more refugees in Israel have found their way into a detention center or have been deported than have found a place of refuge.
Signs at the demonstrations included benign statements such as “We are seeking asylum,” “Don’t split up families” and “We are refugees, not criminals.” Meanwhile, the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth ran the headline “The Infiltrators Conquered the Square,” with the subtitle “An existential problem.”
The square of the headline is Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, roughly 35 miles northwest of Jerusalem, where a demonstration took place that protested the recent amendment of the Prevention of Infiltration Law. Asylum seekers in the country are now under the threat of being placed into detention centers indefinitely. Because of this amendment, refugees must choose between being a prisoner and leaving the country.
However, there are many- refugees and activists alike- who are prepared to persist in their fight for recognition and acceptance as refugees. Only time will tell if Israel will have a change of heart.
– Jordan Schunk