Africans Lost in ‘The Promised Land’

As published by Human Rights Tribune on April 16, 2008.

TEL AVIV, Apr 15, 2008 (IPS) – The young man who agreed to be called Hamed has come a long way to do nothing. The Ivoirian would prefer to work but, after sneaking into Israel from Egypt about a month ago, he’s got nothing better to do than sit in a park everyday in central Tel Aviv, wait, and hope for a government decision on his refugee application.

Hamed, 22, who asked to remain anonymous fearing retribution from the Israeli government, joins about 7,000 African refugees who have arrived in the Jewish state since 2005. Steven Wolfson from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Tel Aviv told IPS that about 2,200 Africans have arrived in the past three months, creating a “crisis situation”.

Hamed said he fled Cote d’Ivoire because his father was murdered and he feared the killers would come after him. His family spent about 3,000 dollars to get him to Egypt and then paid another 800 dollars in late February for a Bedouin smuggler to sneak him into Israel’s southern Negev region. After travelling for three days by jeep and on foot through the Sinai desert, he heard a gunshot along the border.

“I was thinking at that (moment), maybe that’s an Egyptian. They are going to kill me or not?”

His fears are not without reason. Since the start of the year, Egyptian border guards have killed 10 African asylum-seekers trying to enter Israel, including two Ivoirians.

Amnesty International has called on Cairo to investigate the killings. The human rights organisation claims the Israeli government has pressured Egypt to reduce the number of Africans entering Israel illegally. Ilan Lonai, director of Activism and Campaigns for Amnesty’s Tel Aviv office, told IPS the result has been the disproportionate use of force by Egyptian border guards.

“When somebody is asked to stop and he’s not threatening you, there’s no reason in the world to shoot him, especially people who are running away from you,” Lonai said. “There are different ways of stopping them.”

Most of the asylum seekers are from Eritrea and Sudan. Human Rights Watch reports that thousands of young men have fled Eritrea to avoid “endless military conscription.” The U.S.-based group has documented torture against military deserters there.

In Sudan, 2.5 million people have died in the country’s 22-year-long civil war, and another 2.5 million have been displaced in the western region of Darfur alone since 2003, according to HRW. Sudanese who visit the Jewish state risk execution if they return home.

Lonai says Israel should not be using Egypt to stop people that need protection from entering the country.

“This is a very sad issue in a country that has built itself on this notion of protecting refugees to so easily forget all of our history and push it all away,” said Lonai, referring to the creation of the Zionist state after the Nazi Holocaust nearly 60 years ago. “This is a very, very sad issue.”

The “main problem”, according to Shevy Korzen, executive director of the Tel Aviv-based Hotline for Migrant Workers, is Israel doesn’t have an established system in place to manage incoming refugees. Korzen told IPS that Israel needs to set clear guidelines and provide appropriate protection to refugees.

“If someone reaches the border and asks for asylum, then according to international law their claim has to be assessed,” she said. “Israel cannot say, ‘Oh, we’re ok. We’re not shooting. We’re just asking the Egyptians to do this.’ This is wrong.”

When it comes to deciding who can stay and who will be sent south, back to Africa, Korzen said, Tel Aviv’s decisions are made “ad hoc”. Korzen cited the example of Israel’s August 2007 return of 48 Sudanese asylum seekers to Egypt, which then sent 20 back to Sudan.

When the refugees first started arriving in Israel a few years ago, the State granted temporary residence to 600 Sudanese from Darfur, and gave work permits to 2,000 Eritreans.

About 5,500 African asylum-seekers crossed the 160-mile wide Israel-Egypt border last year alone, according to UNHCR. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described the refugee influx at a Feb. 24 Cabinet meeting as a “tsunami that could grow.” Olmert ordered his ministers to immediately deport about 4,500 “illegal infiltrators”, according to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release.

But this hasn’t happened. Instead, Tel Aviv decided in March to take over the evaluation of claims of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees from UNHCR. Wolfson said the Israeli Ministry of Interior is registering but not yet assessing the claims “due primarily to the volume of them.” Africans from elsewhere, like the Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria, are still evaluated by the UN, which submits its recommendation to an Israeli committee. While Israel has no quotas, typically the committee grants asylum to about 10-20 Africans a year, Wolfson said.

“In the long run, obviously this can’t work,” said Korzen. “In the long run, Israel has to accept the fact that it has become, like other countries, a country that accepts asylum seekers. It’s not the only one – it seems to think so but it’s not – and it needs to be able to handle this in accordance to its obligations, to international law, to the Refugee Convention, which Israel was the first country to sign and promote.”

As for Hamed, he made it across the border, and was found by Israel Defence Force troops. They detained him in a military camp for two days and then released him into Israel. Like thousands before him, Hamed registered with UNHCR in Tel Aviv.

He now lives on the support of a non-governmental organisation that feeds and houses him in a shelter near the Tel Aviv central bus station. Neither the UN nor the State of Israel provides food, water or shelter. Without a work visa, he can’t work, legally, to support himself.

“Well, don’t forget that Israel is a developed country,” Wolfson told IPS at the UNHCR’s downtown office in Tel Aviv, explaining why the refugee agency doesn’t provide aid here. “We understand the worry that providing assistance to new arrivals will create a pull factor, but, at the same time, I think basic humanity requires a more comprehensive response from the various authorities, and at least cooperation among the various actors.”

Wolfson said there are “excellent” NGOs doing a “very, very good job against tremendous odds. But they are sometimes working in isolation, and some government coordination at the very least if not actual government support would go a long way to making the job of everyone easier.”

Until a definitive policy is established, Hamed will remain in limbo. He said he will continue to come to Levinsky Park each morning, like he has for the past month, to sit and talk with about 40 other African refugees who, like him, don’t know their status in Israel or their future.

“What I have to do?” asked Hamed. “I have to be patient (and) wait for that. I can’t do anything.” (END)