Ignored by Israel, African Asylum Seekers Look for a Future Elsewhere

R. and her 12-year-old daughter left for Canada, along with hundreds of other asylum seekers leaving Israel every month. Behra, who fled Eritrea 15 years ago, describes Israel as an ‘open prison’ in which he and his children live with no status and no future. A special Shomrim report: How Israel is pushing asylum seekers out, and why the issue has dropped off the national agenda

R. and her 12-year-old daughter left for Canada, along with hundreds of other asylum seekers leaving Israel every month. Behra, who fled Eritrea 15 years ago, describes Israel as an ‘open prison’ in which he and his children live with no status and no future. A special Shomrim report: How Israel is pushing asylum seekers out, and why the issue has dropped off the national agenda

R. and her 12-year-old daughter left for Canada, along with hundreds of other asylum seekers leaving Israel every month. Behra, who fled Eritrea 15 years ago, describes Israel as an ‘open prison’ in which he and his children live with no status and no future. A special Shomrim report: How Israel is pushing asylum seekers out, and why the issue has dropped off the national agenda

Shahar Smooha

40-year-old teacher Behra Teama (Left), Minister of Interior of Israel Ayelet Shaked, African asylum seekers in Tel Aviv. Photos: Bea Bar Kallos, Reuters

October 27, 2022

Summary

One evening during the recent Sukkot holiday, the quiet public garden in Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighborhood became the scene of a small confrontation. Sheffi Paz, the long-time and provocative activist and leader of the South Tel Aviv Liberation Front, invited MK Itamar Ben-Gvir to an event entitles “End the Occupation! Ben-Gvir is coming to South Tel Aviv.” Activists sent by Meretz faced down Paz, Ben-Gvir, and their people, and the opposing sides did precisely what was expected of them – they shouted at each other. Paz and Ben-Gvir (the former recently joined forces with the latter after the political disappearance of her previous patron, Ayelet Shaked) were not talking about the decades-long Israeli occupation of Judea and Samaria. As far as they are concerned, that loaded word relates to the presence – also decades-long – of foreign citizens, most of them African, in the southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. The solution they are proposing, at least out loud, is clear: immediate expulsion.

The timing of the event, just two weeks before the election, was designed to show supporters of Paz and Ben-Gvir that their campaign against asylum seekers had not been forgotten. The reality, however, is a little different: For more than four years, the status and future in Israel of asylum seekers, refugees, or infiltrators, call them what you will, has almost entirely disappeared from the public agenda.

Ever since 2018, when the Supreme Court rejected the state’s plan to deport many Eritrean and Sudanese nationals who were in Israel to third countries (Rwanda and Uganda), and ever since then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu crumbled under pressure from Paz and, within 24 hours, reneged on an agreement that had been reached under the auspices of the United Nations, whereby thousands of asylum seekers would be transferred to countries in the West, Israel has not had a clear policy when it comes to the future and status of Eritreans and Sudanese nationals in its territory.

According to Paz, there are two main reasons that the argument over the status of African asylum seekers in Israel has been sidelined. “Once expulsion and the UN proposal were off the table, Bibi wanted to distance himself from the issue, in my view,” she says in a conversation with Shomrim, during which she expressed herself using provocative language, as ever. “He gave May Golan a place on the Likud list [of candidates for the Knesset] as a fig leaf, and since then, nothing has happened. As far as the public is concerned, I can tell you that most of the media is boycotting me and that I think that people have become accustomed to the situation in those places. Listen, it’s been like that for 15 years already.”

When I ask Paz if it is possible that there are now fewer asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv, she admits that there has been a steady and continued decrease in the number of Eritrean and Sudanese nationals in the city. The primary problem, she believes, is with the second generation – the children of these asylum seekers. Paz argues that Tel Aviv Municipality is providing these foreign children with better conditions at the expense of the children of Israeli-born parents and that city hall’s investment in them is driving native Israelis away from these neighborhoods. At the same time, she says, these children are responsible for many acts of vandalism and violence, which the mainstream media ignores.

Paz admits that she no longer believes implementing the expulsion plan she originally proposed four years ago is feasible. Instead, she wants Israel to pressure those Western countries that welcome refugees to increase the number of refugees allowed in and solve the “problem” for Israel.

In practice, this is already happening. Over the past several years, around 60 percent of the asylum seekers who entered the country via the land border with Egypt have left. Statistics also show that the decline of the coronavirus pandemic has led to a gradual increase in the number of Eritrean and Sudanese nationals leaving Israel for other countries. In January and February of this year, a total of 74 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals (45 from Eritrea and 29 from Sudan) left the country “voluntarily” – in other words, in coordination with the Israeli authorities, rather than having received an expulsion order. From March to September, the numbers climbed significantly, and the average number of people leaving during those seven months was 225.

Assuming that this trend does not change in any significant way, it seems that around 3,000 Eritrean and Sudanese nationals will leave the country during 2023 under similar circumstances.

African Asylum Seekers in Tel Aviv. Photo for Illustration: Reuters
Filmmaker Dina Zvi-Riklis: “We still don’t know if we did the right thing by supporting their decision to leave. They are starting everything anew there. They don’t have a community in Toronto like here, but they have a future."

R. and her 12-year-old daughter moved to Toronto

Filmmaker Dina Zvi-Riklis is well aware of the phenomenon. Since 2013, she and her husband, director Eran Riklis, have been sponsoring R. and M. – a young single mother who came to Israel from Eritrea and her daughter, who is now 12 years old. The connection with R. was forged thanks to Elifelet, a nongovernment organization that works with the children of foreign nationals in south Tel Aviv. Over the years, the relationship blossomed, and the mother and daughter became part of the family. However, although Dina and Eran wanted to see M. – an intelligent, energetic, and social young girl – grow up, integrate into Israeli society and succeed here, they both knew that there was little chance of that happening.

Last year, after a long delay caused by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, R. and her daughter moved to Toronto, Canada. They had a challenging time there, to begin with, says Zvi-Riklis, but it now seems that they have settled into their new surroundings.

Why did you feel that R. and M. had no future in Israel?

“Because they don’t actually exist here. Apart from the work visa that R. was forced to get extended every three months, the two of them did not have any documentation or status. Nothing at all. Besides the birth certificate that M. has from Ichilov Hospital, she isn’t registered anywhere. I remember when we went to Eilat with her and we were frightened that the authorities would ask us who she was and what our relationship with her was.”

According to an estimate from the Interior Ministry’s Population and Migration Authority, submitted in response to a request by Shomrim for an investigation published in June, there are currently around 30,000 minors living in Israel who are defined as having no official status. “When these children reach the age of 18, they don’t have anything to do, so they do not have a future,” says Zvi-Riklis. “Even if they leave, they can never return here. The state has sentenced them to a future of treading water without social mobility. But the second generation is more ambitious; these children have greater expectations and want more for themselves.

So, you’re happy?

“We still don’t know if we did the right thing by supporting their decision to leave. They are starting everything anew there. They don’t have a community in Toronto like here, but they have a future. They both already have identity cards. A year from now, they’ll get temporary citizenship, and within three years, they will be Canadian citizens. Then we will be able to meet up with them anywhere in the world – apart from Israel because they are banned from entering this country for ten years.”

Why Canada, of all places?

“Canada agreed to take in Eritreans because they need help with the workforce, not because of their generosity. R., for her part, just wanted a different life. Everything was on track until the coronavirus pandemic happened, which put everything on hold for two years. When the situation returned to normal, the Canadians said that everything had to happen within two months, otherwise, they would be bumped to the bottom of the list. So, that’s what happened.”

What’s happening with other asylum seekers that you know?

“What’s happening is that, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Canadians have been giving preference to Ukrainians over other nationals. I also cannot testify to how successful Eritrean integration is there. We visited them a few months ago and what’s amazing is that while M. speaks fluent English with a Canadian accent, she talks Hebrew with her mother because she never learned Tigrinya. Both of them love Israel very deeply. They would have been happy to stay if there was any chance of their future here. If Israel were smart, it would have given the Eritreans a five-year visa and allowed them to become integrated here. Just think, you can’t even get yourself a bus pass without having an official status and identity here.”

African Asylum Seekers in Tel Aviv. Photo for Illustration: Reuters
Orly Levinson-Sela, ASSAF: "hose who left were the strongest members of the communities here. The upshot of this is that the leaders of the community are leaving whenever there is a chance to do so, while the more vulnerable members of the community remain here and the fabric of their community is being undermined repeatedly.”

‘We are not thought of as people here’

Behra Teama is a 40-year-old teacher who came to Israel from Eritrea 15 years ago. He says that life for members of his community in Israel has been unsufferable for years. “We are not thought of as people here,” he tells Shomrim. “The reality of our lives is that we moved from a prison in Eritrea – I personally spent six years in a prison underground – to an open prison in Israel. We do not have any official status in this country, so people are trying to leave and go to any other country they can. People are leaving for Canada because they need workers there. Israel also needs workers, but here they are not willing to give us a future. People do not know what tomorrow will bring and they can’t continue living this way. I have three daughters – the oldest one is in 11th grade – and I don’t know what will happen to her once she graduates high school.

“The youngsters, our children, want to study and grow and feel at ease, but they are living in the air. The Israeli establishment does not recognize them. They do not get anything from the state. They don’t even have a name; they are just numbers. Once children finish 12th grade, they are immediately on a downward spiral and what awaits them? Alcohol and drugs. My generation paid a very heavy price, but our children are paying even more dearly.”

Teama says that he has been trying desperately to find a way to leave Israel, even though he feels like an Israeli after so many years here. “I’m not optimistic and cannot see the state giving us rights. We’re going from election to election and nothing here is happening. I didn’t want to go to another country because I’d been an Israeli for 15 years. I speak the language and I love the culture and the people, but the state does not take me into account. My request for asylum has been before the courts for the past seven years and nothing is happening with it. No one is dealing with my case.

“I’m not optimistic because I don’t believe that Israel will ever agree to give us official status, but I still haven’t found anyone from my family or any of my friends who have moved to a new country and who could help us there.” Destination countries often demand that new immigrants have sponsors who can testify for them so that they do not become a burden on the local welfare services.

Behra Teama. Photo: Bea Bar Kallos
Teacher Behra Teama: "Once children finish 12th grade, they are immediately on a downward spiral and what awaits them? Alcohol and drugs. My generation paid a very heavy price, but our children are paying even more dearly.”

Horowitz promised health insurance. So what?

The statistics from the Population and Immigration Administration make a mockery of claims by Paz and right-wing politicians that the presence of asylum seekers from Africa threatens the Jewish character of the State of Israel. On a national level, the figures show that the issue is a relatively marginal, localized one.

According to the Administration’s figures, as of September 2022, there were 25,050 adult asylum seekers in Israel (19,490 from Eritrea and 3,462 from Sudan) who are defined as infiltrators – that is, who crossed into Israel illegally via the Egyptian border.

In addition, as of January 2022, 8,252 children were living in Israel – 8,003 from Eritrea and 249 from Sudan. Of these children, 6,477 whose parents are from Eritrea were born in Israel (2014 to 2016 were the years that saw the highest number of births in that group, with an average of 938 a year). Since then, there has been a steady decline in the birthrate among the Eritrean community and last year, there were just 402 births.

“My impression is that generally, the mood among the Eritrean and Sudanese nationals living in Israel is one of desperation,” says Orly Levinson-Sela, from the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF). “It is true that, at the moment, there is no threat of expulsion, but people still carry many traumas from that time. Last week, for example, there was a report that Ayelet Shaked tweeted an opinion which stated that Sudanese nationals from Darfur can safely return to Khartoum.”

Orly Levinson-Sela. Private Photo

“The director of our youth center told me right away that everyone there was terribly nervous, even though she explained to them that it wouldn’t happen overnight. Every such incident, whether it happens in the end or not, is a reminder for them that their lives here are transient and this takes a heavy toll on their day-to-day functioning and their mental health. Over the past two years, we have seen a rise in the number of calls about physical, mental and welfare concerns, and, in a situation where there is no support from the government, it is extremely hard.”

Levinson-Sela says that while the number of Eritrean nationals leaving Israel each month is not large, their departure profoundly impacts the remaining community members here. “During the two years of the coronavirus pandemic,” she says, “Canada and the European countries that accept refugees closed their borders. When restrictions were lifted, we started to see a wave of departures. We’re not talking about huge numbers, but I can tell you that those who left were the strongest members of the communities here. Those are the people who submitted requests and went through the whole process. The people in more vulnerable circumstances have far less strength to go through the processes needed to migrate to another country. The upshot of this is that the leaders of the community are leaving whenever there is a chance to do so, while the more vulnerable members of the community remain here and the fabric of their community is being undermined repeatedly.”

Four years ago, Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers faced the threat of expulsion. Now, that’s no longer on the agenda. Does this make life any easier for them?

“It’s hard to explain to people from the outside what life is like when you’re living in limbo. That is the reality for these communities here. The immigration system here doesn’t work: asylum requests are not responded to, the Eritrean and Sudanese nations who live here are not recognized as refugees and the gap between the rate at which Western countries recognize them as refugees and the rate at which Israel does, is massive. In Europe, more than 80 percent of them are recognized as refugees. In Israel, fewer than 20 people have been granted refugee status – that’s less than half of 1 percent.

“When Nitzan Horowitz took over at the Health Ministry two and a half years ago, he said he would introduce general healthcare insurance for African refugees. That still hasn’t happened and Horowitz is running out of time. These children have limited health insurance and the coronavirus pandemic greatly impinged on parents’ ability to pay for that coverage, so many of the kids are now in danger of not being able to receive any healthcare at all. They rarely get anything from the National Insurance Institute and the welfare services are extremely restricted, focusing mainly on homelessness, people with disability and women experiencing violence and abuse.”

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
To read the full story click here.