Middle East

African Refugee Crisis in Tel Aviv

Adam Moscoe

This posting does not necessarily represent the positions, strategies or opinions of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The monkey bars and swingsets of Levinsky Park – a stone’s throw from the Tel Aviv New Central Bus Station (possibly the country’s ugliest structure) – no longer plays host to children passing long, hot summer days with some free play. Instead, the park has become the visible hub of an African refugee crisis currently polarizing Israeli society.

The arrival of an estimated 70,000 individuals predominately from Sudan and Eritrea as well as South Sudan and Côte d’Ivoire by way of the Sinai desert and the Egyptian border with Israel has launched a compounding crisis of absorption and integration while raising an important discussion both here and in the diaspora surrounding Jewish values in the Jewish state.

Tip of the Tongue

The issue has unfortunately spurred rhetoric in the political realm which presupposes the criminality of the entire population of arrivals and incites uprisings and even violence against these fragile communities, as we have witnessed already in recent assaults in Tel Aviv. Likud MK Miri Regev labeled the arrivals as a “cancer,” and Israel’s interior minister, Eli Yishai, accused these “infiltrators” of criminal involvement and of carrying diseases. As Canadian parliamentarian Irwin Cotler put it recently while testifying at the Knesset’s Immigration and Absorption Committee: “the notion of them as criminals or bearers of disease – these are the things that can end up being prejudicial speech, and can incite incidents like those we saw in Tel Aviv.” Professor Cotler also evoked the Hebrew proverb: “life and death are on the tip of the tongue.”

The choice of words matters, but so does the degree of action and inaction taken thus far. The government has accelerated plans to build a security barrier along the border with Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula to stem the flow of migrants trafficked in by a shady and exploitative Bedouin business. There are also plans to add thousands of extra beds to a detention facility in the Negev. Meanwhile, a dizzying array of questions remain: what is the current state of Israel’s migration system, bearing in mind Israel’s instrumental role in drafting the 1951 Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees? Are there limits to Israel’s capacity to absorb non-Jewish migrants from Africa? To what extent are such migrants a threat to the Jewish character of Israel? What practical steps can Israel take to ensure consistency with international refugee laws to whose creation Israel was a vital contributor? What is the state of relations between Israel and the countries from which we are seeing an influx? How must Israel protect the continuity of Jewish values while simultaneously honouring the Jewish value of continuity (as explored beautifully by Donniel Hartman).

Wednesday in the Park

One of the most interesting aspects of my time in Jerusalem as a JDC Entwine Service Corps Fellow this summer has been learning about JDC’s historic role in navigating complex and critical issues such as these. I had the pleasure of exploring the above questions while sitting in Levinsky Park last week with JDC Fellow Jimmy Taber. Jimmy has been working at the JDC’s The Center for International Migration and Integration (CIMI). While practically every Israeli (cab-drivers included) can offer up an opinion with regard to the African arrivals, few people have dedicated so much time to understanding the situation as has Jimmy. Specifically, Jimmy works on a unique project called Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) aimed at those arrivals whose claims of asylum have been rejected and who voluntarily decide to return to their countries of origin. AVR is a partnership with the African Refugee Development Center and the International Organization for Migration. The program seeks to offer a “dignified return home, providing information and guidance in Israel and offering reintegration assistance and follow-up upon returnees’ arrival back home, within the framework of what is available and viable there.” This includes capacity-building, training and in-kind support to enable returnees to start businesses and initiate community development.

Sitting in the park and walking through it utterly transformed neighbourhoods of South Tel Aviv, one cannot but be overwhelmed by the scope and scale of the issue. Beyond the hyperbolized political rhetoric one thing has been made quite clear: this is not a question of criticizing fine details of Israel’s policy on handling asylum seekers. Rather, Israel does not have a policy to speak of. Yet, Israel is required to establish maintain a mechanism for recognizing refugees and grating asylum. Instead, current arrivals are granted temporary permission to stay (but not work) in Israel. Moreover, those arriving from Sudan and Eritrea (the bulk of the asylum seekers) are granted a form of group exemption in light of the gross human rights violations emanating from those two countries in particular. Sudan’s President, Omar al-Bashir, is the only sitting head of state indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Returning asylum seekers to, for instance, the contested Nuba Mountain region of Sudan – with its nightly aerial bombings, mass displacement and widespread denial of even the most basic humanitarian supplies – is not an option for Israel.

Building a functional refugee system in Israel

An important aspect of a functioning border management system is a well-honed and efficient interview process for each individual arrival. A better organized process – not to mention increased manpower to execute it – would allow Israel to identify those individuals considered refugees under the UN Convention. It should be noted that those individuals seeking asylum on account of economic needs – including imminent starvation back at home – are not covered under the Convention. However, a country can certainly opt to absorb economic migrants on humanitarian grounds.

Another urgent concern lies outside of Israel’s official borders: the Bedouin-run human trafficking regime which has allegedly engaged in torture, organ harvesting, and hostage-taking of those individuals unable to pay exorbitant fees for being transported from the Sinai desert to the border. Furthermore, while construction work at the border and at the Negev detention facility are certainly understandable (and apparently quite profitable) initiatives, I worry they are merely band-aid solutions. The fence may not stop the regular arrivals process and the expanded holding facility will likely fill up in a matter of weeks – and then what?

At last month’s Israeli Presidential Conference, which I attended, the President of Côte d’Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, was given a sizable welcome before 3,000 delegates. The President, who addressed the plenary in his native French, was in Jerusalem meeting with President Shimon Peres. As Israel considers possibilities for deporting migrants to their countries of origin – without violating the non-refoulement principle which makes repatriation to tyrannical regimes such as Sudan and Eritrea an absolute no-go – President Peres is likely concerned about boosting relations with South Sudan and the Ivory Coast. Israel was among the first country to recognize South Sudan as an independent state last year and relations have been strong ever since. As these discussions deepen – and indeed last month’s deporting of some 300 South Sudanese migrants set a precedent for further action – I am personally hopeful that Israel will adhere to the non-refoulement principle and ensure all forced returns are executed with a great deal of prudence.

Rising to the challenge, holding onto core values

The arrival of 70,000 asylum seekers to the gates of the Promised Land has challenged Israel to reconcile the fundamental values on which the Jewish State was founded with the demographic and economic constraints on this tiny sliver of land in a volatile-as-ever Middle East. While the tenor of the debate both in the Knesset and on the streets of Tel Aviv remains hostile, there is a significant amount of positive work being done by JDC and other organizations such as the African Refugee Development Center and the Hotline for Migrant Workers.

For example, I am inspired by efforts to ensure those migrants who can and do return home do so armed with the tools to build a livelihood. I am also moved to see member of Israeli society applying their well-honed skills in immigrant absorption and integration to provide education and social services to the African arrivals.

This month, roughly 1000 individuals – many of whom impoverished, desperate and fleeing incomprehensible threat and assault – will arrive at Israel’s borders. They are seeking stability and the possibility of enjoying civil and political rights and freedoms in the one true democracy in the Middle East. Debates surrounding the fate of the refugees will likely continue to be heated, yet Israelis must not lose sight of the urgent, concrete tasks ahead, starting with the enactment of a comprehensive refugee system consistent with the UN Convention to which Israel was a vital contributor.