African Refugees in Israel

In April 2019, I was working in Tel Aviv for UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), when my wife took the kids for a beach day in Tel Aviv. On the way, they stopped by my office for the first time. Afterwards, I explained my work to our 3½ year old. She had been learning about Passover at gan (preschool). I told her that I helped people who had to leave their homes because there was a bad government that forced them all to work as slaves. I explained that the government punished them harshly if they resisted. I told her that they had endured a long hard journey through the Sinai to get here. She understood what I was telling her. She had one question:

“Now it’s alright, right, because they got to Eretz Israel?”

* * *

My family and I ended up in Jerusalem almost by accident. In November 2016, we had been living in Kampala, Uganda for nearly two years, and I had recently started working for UNHCR as a refugee resettlement caseworker, processing refugees from nine African countries, primarily for resettlement to the United States. When America elected a new president, hostile to refugees and to Africans, we were pretty sure my work in Kampala wouldn’t last. My wife Sarah took a job with the World Health Organization in Geneva and left Uganda with our daughter with a plan for me to join them a few months later when my contract was up. When our Swiss visas didn’t come through immediately, we decided to come to Israel for a few months, starting in August 2017. The visas never came through, and we stayed.

I worked for UNHCR Tel Aviv through 2019. In 2020, I moved to the Jerusalem African Community Center (JACC), the only NGO serving African refugees and asylum seekers in Jerusalem. After a few years of working for an international agency, my current work has particular pleasures. UNHCR’s Tel Aviv office is small and frequently overwhelmed by the demands of 30,000 asylum seekers with high expectations. Reception there is stressful and involves a lot of saying no.

By contrast, JACC has an open-door policy for members of our community. People come by to say hi, have a cup of coffee or just chat with our staff. It’s not that we can always help — our resources are more limited than UNHCR’s — but with fewer refugees in Jerusalem, we can at least give people more individual attention. UNHCR is not permitted to employ asylum seekers for fear of appearing to favor certain clients over others. JACC was founded by a collaborative of asylum seekers and Israeli activists, and retains the cooperative spirit of its founding with asylum seekers working and volunteering for us, and participating in events including annual management meetings.

There are about 30,000 African refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, about 80% of whom are from Eritrea and about 10% from Sudan, with smaller populations from Ethiopia, South Sudan, DR Congo and other countries. The vast majority arrived in Israel after traveling through the Sinai Peninsula, getting here between 2008 and the completion of a wall on Israel’s border with Sinai in 2013. About 3,000 of them live in and around Jerusalem. JACC works to provide full-spectrum assistance to these refugees with a staff of seven, only three of whom are full-time, and a large group of volunteers. We teach Hebrew and English; sponsor sewing, computer, carpentry and parenting classes; distribute food, diapers, baby formula, Covid tests and anything else useful that comes our way; and provide psychological counseling and other psycho-social assistance.

Several months ago, a woman past her due date came into our office in downtown Jerusalem during a staff meeting and asked to be accompanied to the hospital. Two staff members left right away, including one who could translate from Tigrinya to Hebrew for the expectant mother. We knew her well from the work we had done helping get her care for an eye condition.

Another expectant mother had her employer of several years refuse to sign the papers that would have allowed her to claim maternity leave payments from the Israeli government. The employer was afraid of getting in trouble with employment regulators. We explained to him that it was legal to employ asylum seekers, but illegal to do so without paying the required benefits. We’re still negotiating, but this one might have to go to a lawyer.

I know the backgrounds of our clients well from my time at UNHCR Tel Aviv, where I interviewed about 400 African asylum seekers who were in the process of resettlement to a third country. Nearly all of them meet the definition of a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention, of which Israel is a signatory. The Eritreans and Sudanese have particularly strong cases.

The abuses perpetrated upon its citizenry by Eritrea’s military-totalitarian state are well-documented. After Syria, Eritrea has the highest percentage of citizens who have fled the country, escaping indefinite forced conscription under inhuman conditions. Eritreans soldiers have suffered for decades under harsh military discipline and arbitrary punishments, many of them performing civilian jobs in construction or road building, or in agriculture or fishing, under military discipline and often for the private benefit of their military commanders. Upwards of 90% of Eritrean applicants are recognized as refugees in most European countries. The government campaign against the “African” ethnicities of Sudan’s Darfur region are, if anything, even more thoroughly documented than Eritrea’s repressive regime, and the victims of Sudanese government violence are also recognized as refugees at high rates. Many of them witnessed the murder of relatives and the destruction of their homes at the hands of government-affiliated militias, part of a scorched-earth anti-insurgency campaign that some governments regard as a genocide.

Nonetheless, Israeli politicians continue to refer to asylum seekers as “infiltrators” or “economic migrants.” Israel’s judiciary has reaffirmed Israel’s obligation to grant asylum seekers timely access to refugee status determination procedures and to interpret the Refugee Treaty in accordance with international law. Israel, however, has not implemented a functioning Refugee Status Determination process. Instead, consecutive governments have attempted to grant asylum seekers the minimum they could get away with. Thousands of asylum seekers have had cases pending for years. The government has agreed not to deport Eritreans and Sudanese back to their countries of origin, but has given them visas intended for those awaiting deportation, which they are forced to renew every few months. With these visas, asylum seekers are in a perpetual limbo — allowed to stay but never knowing for how long; allowed to work but prohibited from obtaining any form of professional license and unable to own a business. Many were separated from close relatives, including minor children, but they have no right to family reunification in Israel. Even if it were possible to arrange to meet their family members in a third country, they would not be allowed to return to Israel after doing so.

In recent months, increasing numbers of asylum seekers have approached us worried about relatives affected by Ethiopia’s civil war, which began in November 2020. Many Ethiopian asylum seekers in Israel are from the Tigray region, where the conflict has been focused. That region also hosts several refugee camps full of Eritreans who have fled over the nearby border. Several million Tigrayans are estimated to have been displaced by the fighting, both internally and over the border into Sudan. There have been reports of massacres and other atrocities perpetrated by the Ethiopian army, affiliated militia and the Eritrean army, which has crossed the border to fight alongside the Ethiopian army, as well as, to a lesser extent, by the Tigray rebels fighting them. Two of the large refugee camps for Eritreans were destroyed, with an unknown number of refugees kidnapped and forced back to Eritrea, where many of them were forcibly conscripted into the Eritrean armed forces.

When asylum seekers have come to us hoping to reconnect with (re)displaced relatives, we refer them to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is sometimes able to connect them with their missing relatives. They were recently able to arrange for a mother to speak to her missing teenage son. When she came back and told us that she had heard from her son that he knew people whose mothers had been able to get them out of the conflict region, we had to explain that Israel would not allow her to do the same.

Despite the hostility from certain corners of the government, there are advantages to seeking asylum in this country. Israel’s social-welfare state provides substantial protections for all Israeli residents, which are accessible to asylum seekers. Like all residents of Israel, they enjoy robust worker protections. All children in Israel, including children of asylum seekers, have access to municipal education from age 3 through 12th grade. At JACC, we routinely assist terminated employees to recover thousands of shekels owed to them by employers who never paid their pension or national insurance obligations. A generation of Eritrean children is being educated as Israelis in all respects, learning to read and write in Hebrew, dressing up for Purim, and standing at attention for the sirens of Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron. Many asylum seekers would happily stay in Israel if given a chance.

The strangest and most natural question that I hear from Israelis when I tell them about my work is “why are they here?” The answer seems so obvious to me; there are refugees and asylum seekers in Israel because there are refugee and asylum seekers everywhere. A bit more than one-tenth of a percent of the world’s population live in Israel. The 30,000 asylum seekers in the country are a bit more than one-tenth of a percent of the world’s refugees.

There may be some reason for hope for Israel’s asylum seekers. Last year, the Supreme Court finally lost patience with the Interior Ministry’s stalling and ordered that Sudanese asylum seekers who had submitted asylum claims before mid-2017 and had not received a response be granted temporary resident visas of the sort they would be eligible for if they were granted asylum. These visas make them eligible for many social benefits and, crucially, permit them to leave the country and return, allowing for reunions with family members outside of Israel.

The Supreme Court case was brought on behalf of Sudanese asylum seekers from conflict regions and therefore its ruling applies only to them, but the case’s logic applies equally to Eritreans and others who have been waiting for years for resolution of their asylum claims.

As always in Israel, there’s also reason to be pessimistic. The opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his allies have been running a multi-year campaign against judicial independence, in part because independent judges protect the vulnerable, including asylum seekers. Elections, the fifth in four years, will take place on Nov. 1.

Asylum seekers keep knocking at our door, looking for help for themselves or looking to help others. We can hope that the Israeli government will recognize the refugees within its borders. In the meantime, we will continue our work.

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