This interview was published in the blog “Un català a Israel” in the newspaper Ara for the first time. I decided to leave the introduction to it as it was in the original publication:
Despite the fact that the sociopolitical and diplomatic realities in Israel are never stable, it seems that for many people they are more stable than in their own countries. In the last few years, Israel has witnessed how tens of thousands people came into the country through its borders. These people, mostly of African origin, are running away from dictatorships and oppressing regimes, poverty and hunger, and other unsustainable realities.
Israel seems to be the most secure place in the region for many asylum seekers, especially in recent years which have been dominated by certain instability in their region and neighboring countries because of the popular revolts and social protests, including important changes in governments.
Israel is a young country with a very clear identity. The Jewish State has been built via the arrival of Jewish migrants from the five continents and now finds itself in front of a new reality, a reality that is well-known in Europe, migration. An important part of the migrants, a part desiring to have a successful socioeconomic experience in Israel, exposes other kind of reasons, not economical ones. Generally the motivation to leave their countries comes from political regimes and fears for their own individual security and safety. To better understand the way Israel is dealing with this reality, I had the opportunity to interview Yael, a worker from the African Refugees Development Center (ARDC).
Voices III: A meeting with Yael, a worker from the ARDC
G.Y: Can you explain the refugees’ and asylum seekers’ recent history in Israel?
Y: It is difficult to talk about the refugees in Israel without talking about the Palestinian refugees, which is not my area of expertise. The difference with the Palestinians refugees is basically that there is a specific entity that deals with their reality–the UNRWA– because they became refugees due to a decision by the UN. About the others, we should call them asylum seekers. Why? Because the convention of 1951 (the UNHCR) states what a refugee is, what a state should be doing when someone is recognized as a refugee, and when to recognize someone as a refugee.
In Israel it is actually a big problem since almost nobody is really recognized as a refugee. Since 1954 (when Israel signed and ratified the UNHCR), only 118 people were recognized as refugees and got all the rights. All the rest are asylum seekers. They came here and they asked for asylum and then they were given some kind of protection–if we can call it protection. So the history is that until 2009, the UNHCR was taking care of all the people who were coming to Israel by foot through the Sinai borders or by plane, and they were conducting all the interviews and then making recommendations to the government about whether or not they should be recognized as refugees. From 2005-2008 the number of people coming in started to grow, but it was in between 2008 and 2012 that numbers became almost unmanageable. In 2008 you had something like 8,000 people who entered Israel through the Sinai border; in 2012, you had 60,000.
G.Y: How is Israel dealing with this growth of the asylum seeker population?
Y: So it was multiplied by seven and Israel decided not to check the asylum claims of Eritreans, Sudanese and Congolese. What does this mean? We can’t send these people back for different reasons. For the Congolese, it’s because of the situation in their country. The Eritreans are in danger if we send them back after they left Eritrea illegally. For Sudanese it is because we don’t have any relations there, and also those in the north of Sudan are not allowed to come to Israel, so they would also possibly be prosecuted based on that. So for all these different reasons Israel decided not to send them back. This is what is called a non-removal policy or non-deportation policy. And because of that policy they don’t check their asylum claims on an individual basis. An asylum claim is always on an individual basis. Ninety percent of the people, their claims are not checked. Only 10% are checked. These 10% are coming from Chad, Guinea, Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopians.
G.Y: Which status is more convenient, the individual asylum seeker claim, applied to 10%, or the non-deportable regime, applied to 90%?
Y.A: Well, as an individual you should always have the opportunity to claim “I’m seeking asylum, I want to be recognized as a refugee”–this is a right. It’s a right for the temporary protection of the individual. The Israeli government said, ok, all those people, because there are so many of them coming in we can’t deal with them, nor can we deport them because the situations in their countries is too crazy right now, so let’s give them some rights that are not exactly refugee rights but it is better than being illegal or in prison. But this is not temporary because for some people, it has been more than seven years that they are under this kind of legal status. It might change now because there are some movements in the courts; then those people might have the right to do an asylum claim and then the government will decide whether they are a refugee and if they have rights as a refugee or not. For the moment, the status that they get is a status of “limbo”. They can’t be deported, they are not imprisoned but also, officially, they don’t have the right to work nor do they have public health or social services. No rights but the right of not being deported. They have access to emergency care and they have two organizations in Tel Aviv. One of them, the Magen David Adom (which is under the Ministry of Heath) runs a clinic for refugees, and there is also Physicians for Human Rights that gives attention to anyone who needs it. They have to renew the permits every three months, so every three months they think, “ok, am I gonna get it?”
G.Y: What have been the most recent movements from the government towards this reality?
Y.A: Now the law has changed. The new asylum seekers who come into Israel can be arrested and imprisoned for at least three years without judgment. Now the only way for them to be released is to get refugee status in Israel. To give you an idea, the number of people receiving refugee status (if you look at the whole population of asylum seekers and the ones receiving asylum in Europe) is 25%. It is not very high; then they can appeal, but first request is 25%. In Israel since 2009, 0.25%, a hundred times lower than England. And this is for this 10% who actually can apply for asylum. If you look at the Eritreans and Sudanese in Europe and the US, the percentage of recognition of refugees is something between 74 and 84 percent. So we have 10,000 people from which 25% should be recognized. And another 60,000 from which 80% should be recognized, but they don’t have access to the individual claim so they won’t be recognized. They should be given the opportunity to ask for asylum since it is the only way they can get out of prison. This law is new so we are just beginning to deal with this situation.
On the other hand, Israel is not deporting that many people a year. In many countries they don’t have diplomatic relationships, so it is very complicated. So 0.25% are getting refugee status, meaning that either we get all the liars of the world or the asylum system it is not really functioning properly. What experience has showed is that people are rejected for credibility on really small issues like: “Well, you said two weeks and now you are saying 15 days.” The system for asylum is not working properly, yet we know that most of the Eritreans and Sudanese people who come to ARDC should get refugee status but they can’t claim it. People may get other kind of protection, like humanitarian and medical… If the system would work properly and would give refugee status to some people and other protection to others, it would be under the legality that Israel would deport some of them. The issue is that, for the moment, people do not have a fair process and we know that. So until people have a fair process we should fight.
The Ministry of Interior says that all those people came here to work. And why? Because they ask: “Why did you come?” and then people say: “I want to work.” If you left your country three months ago, you have been starving…so the question: “Why did you come?” is not the right question. The question would be: “Why did you leave your country and why can’t you go back?” Everybody wants to work, obviously–that is the only way to survive, so it is an unfair question. We also heard from testimonies that the guards tell them to say that they came to work and that this way they will be released. I also had one testimony from someone once who told me he was claiming for months and months that he was seeking asylum and they didn’t want to release him until he said he was here to work. I’m wondering if it was because Israel has diplomatic relations with Erithrea and Erithrea doesn’t want Israel to recognize that there is an issue. I don’t know…it is very political.
G.Y: So, is it a very different attitude towards this reality carried on in Israel?
Y.A: The grass is always greener on the other side. My friend on Facebook put a picture on her wall about something in Australia, that asylum seekers are not illegal and that they shouldn’t be imprisoned. She put that on her wall so I said “well, the same for Israel” and some other people said “the same for Europe”, “the same with US”. And I thought: “You don’t know what you are talking about. In Europe the courts are really in favor compared to here. Spain and Greece are considered to deal with the situation the worst in the EU, in Israel it’s even worse. Obviously, on the other hand, Israel is a lot newer than the others dealing with this reality. It is an issue of 4 or 5 years old, not more. It was not a concern before in Israel, while in Europe it has been a lot longer. But what it is really amazing is that instead of taking something from what Europe or the US did, we are reinventing the wheel again. We are dealing with it in a way that will have to change because it is under international law that Israel has to protect and take care of these people properly.
G.Y: Can you explain a little bit more about the new law?
Y.A: The asylum seekers who came before the new law used to cross the Sinai border, they used to get arrested and then they would get identified. You would identify them as Congolese, Eritreans or Sudanese and then release them really quickly and then send them to Beer Sheva, Tel Aviv or wherever, left on their own with this temporary visa. Then you had the ones who crossed the border and had stayed in prison quite a long time until they could get help and get released by an administrative judge. People stayed sometimes 2, 3 years and then they were released, either because they were identified but not deportable or not identified. That was before the new law; now everyone is imprisoned and that’s it. I mean, unless a lawyer succeeds in taking you out of prison, but then the lawyer has a very hard task because the law says that they have to be imprisoned, so it needs to be very specific circumstances in order to release them.
G.Y: How do they get in touch with your organization?
Y: Sometimes they have problems getting visas and this is how they arrive to us, to ARDC. Their community knows us, they refer, they tell them: “you should go there” or they go to another association and the other one refers them to us, and sometimes it is the Ministry who tells them to go to ARDC. People know about it. There are some organizations but we have a very clear separation of tasks. Physicians for Human Rights would do the medical issues, medical visas, and they do also psychosocial therapies.
We develop different projects. Our organization has an educational project for people who want to apply for higher education (since there is a center where the legal status of the person who wants to study doesn’t matter). We teach the students how to get scholarships, we teach Hebrew and English classes. There is a humanitarian project that includes psychosocial support, food distribution and shelters, usually shelters for pregnant woman or single mothers. Then there is the project that I’m responsible for that deals with legal issues, paralegal support for people who have problems with their visas or with the authorities in general. We have advocacy in different institutions, we help them to prove their identity when necessary, we have support for family reunification in other countries, when possible. Then we have technical support to deal with the police, with the Ministry. We also have some community activities to get the community more involved. And there is the research department which does research on the different policies and on the evolution of the policies. Finally we have a hotline and so that everyone who is imprisoned can use this hotline to contact us.
G.Y: How does it affect the concentration of asylum seekers in the poor neighborhoods?
Y.A: I was talking about the status. So their status is in limbo, they don’t have rights and they don’t have access to services, so they have a very hard time to support themselves physically. So what happens in this situation is that population gets into a solidarity mood a lot and they get along with each other because it is easier, it is cheaper and then you have the community to support people and help each other. It is amazing what is going on in there. They live in a really, really though situation but there is a full sharing of resources, there are a lot of initiatives from each community to support their own. You have the Nigerian church, you have the Sudanese shelters, the Eritreans, and everybody lives with everybody. They don’t really let people outside, which is amazing.
The problem is that, obviously, when you have a very poor population they go wherever they can live and usually it is in the poorest neighborhoods and then it is affecting the poorest neighborhoods that are already cast aside by the authorities, by the municipality, no resources going there, no infrastructures… The people living there, instead of turning to authorities who are in the Ministry of Interior who put those people into this situation, or turning to the municipality who doesn’t give the resources and the infrastructures, they turn against each other.
G.Y: What does the government say about their situation?
Y.A: The Ministry of Interior doesn’t deal with these problematics, they just say: “these are savages, all the Sudanese are barbarians, they are all rapists, and that is the way they deal with it, looking at something else. They are talking about 60,000 people and they don’t talk about the 200,000 illegal tourists, mainly from Eastern Europe, who come for three months and then they stay and work and they are actually illegal migrants, while asylum seekers are not illegal. So they insist on talking about the asylum seekers and they forget to talk about these 200,000 who are actually illegal, but they are white.
They say “there won’t be more jobs”, “those people will take our jobs” and in the meantime, every year they sign to bring in foreign workers, 100,000 per year. They come for a temporary period of time from Sri Lanka, India, Philippines, Thailand… In this process there is a lot of money. Working agencies which are connected to the government make a lot of money because these people come here to work. It was decided to bring those migrants to work here when there was an embargo on Gaza and we didn’t have any more Palestinian workers, so they started to bring in foreign workers. The government says that they keep the asylum seekers in the situation to prevent the pulling effect but it has been proven by other means that it doesn’t change the pulling effect. What is really important is the pushing effect, the reasons they leave their countries.
I worked many years in Africa and most of the people would rather be home if they could live quietly and not fear for their lives; they would rather be home than in a refugee camp. There are economical migrants everywhere, but the pushing effect is a very important factor and fearing for your life is the first reason. There was a conference last week about why the number of people who came to Israel increased during 2008 and 2009, and it increased not because of the pulling effect but because the doors of Europe closed so people had to change their routes. The migration flows can change, but the fact that less people are coming to Israel doesn’t mean that less people are leaving their countries for the same reasons. That’s something to take into account: that they are not coming in because we give them work (or not), but just because they have good reasons to leave their countries.
G.Y: Is the Jewishness of Israel one of the arguments that the government is using to act this way?
Y: The Ministry of Interior is very afraid of losing the Jewishness of the country, and for me it all depends on how you define Jewishness. If you define it as something that is in the blood and it’s transmitted only by blood, or if it is also a culture, a way of seeing the world and mankind’s history. I believe that it is worse for our Jewishness that we are not letting these people in, that we are not remembering our history as refugees. It is not actually being Jewish to treat people who need help in a bad way, to be racist or to be discriminatory. All this is absolutely not Jewish. So when people are scared of losing our Jewishness because there are people who are not Jewish on our soil, it is nonsense because we can integrate them into the society. Most of them just want that. For example, the Sudanese left a government that is an enemy of Israel. We should receive our enemy’s enemy well. They are the ones who are fighting politically the government that we are fighting politically. They might be the future of their land. The people who are here are very highly educated. They are going to study international relations, political science, they want to become diplomats, they want to change their country’s government. We should think that they are the people who we gave a chance to actually be able to change their governments.
G.Y: Do you know if Ethiopian Jewish communities are protesting against this situation?
Y: You know, it is a paradoxical situation. “You were the underdog and then someone else became the underdog”. How are you actually going to treat the “new underdog”?
There was a journalist from Yehediot Ajronot who went undercover into Erithrean community and afterwards he wrote in his journal and he just said very bad things about them. I know where he was, he was really well taken care of, he was given hospitality.
In another, newspaper, Haaretz, there was this really annoying thing. It was one of the demonstrations against the migrants and then the newspaper wrote that “by mistake” an Ethiopian Jew was attacked. He was just walking around there and some people from the demonstration attacked him. The wrote something like: “Racist attack, Ethiopian Jew was mistakenly attacked.” I say to myself: “What do you mean mistakenly?” This is not mistaken, this is the whole point of racism. Racism doesn’t mean that you are attacking someone because of what he is but you are attacking actually because of the color of his skin. So Ethiopian Jew or not Ethiopian Jew, it doesn’t matter. This is what racism is, this was not mistakenly. So… why is it a mistake to attack an Ethiopian Jew but not a mistake to attack an Erithrean?
I don’t really know how the Ethiopian community is dealing with it because I am not involved but racism is racism, it doesn’t matter.
G.Y: The Ministry of Interior said that they will “make their lives miserable.” In other countries they just do their best to “make their lives miserable” but don’t say it so openly. What consequences does it have?
Y: There are no consequences, there are some racist comments from some people in the government in the Knesset and there are absolutely no consequences. If these words had been said in France, there would already be a complaining court on the laws against racism. Here people just say what they want and nothing happens. People don’t care. It is not affecting their lives. It is the same thing that is happening with the law that pretends to put them in prison for three years, nobody is reacting but a few organizations.
G.Y: I heard there was a moment in which many asylum seekers who were in Egypt came to Israel, how did it happen?
Y: They weren’t given any rights, there is a lot of racism against black people. In 2005 there was a big demonstration in front of the UNHCR to request their rights and the police just shot the crowd. More than 40 people died and after that they just left. Then, obviously, you had the situation going on last year, the revolution. It was violent and unstable, so they left.
G.Y: Do asylum seekers arrive from the Gaza Strip?
Y: That is a good question. I’m sure some must arrive, it is impossible that they don’t, but not with these numbers. It would be interesting to have these numbers. As they are not a state I guess they didn’t sign any convention.
G.Y: Do you see the light at the end of the tunnel? Can some positive changes happen?
Y: Only if the judges and the courts decide to do what is morally right instead of doing what these laws are saying. The court can go against the law. Which is the way it happened in most of the countries that were trying to avoid recognizing refugees, and the courts changed that.
G.Y: Can you define Israel with a few adjectives?
Y: Complex, surprising, hopefully evolving and beautiful.