Illegals in Limbo, Now Cast Out of Israel’s Center

By Nathan Jeffay

Published July 15, 2009, issue of July 24, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

They are the inhabitants of Israel who live in limbo. Since 2005, an estimated 12,500 people have arrived in Israel, seeking asylum from Sudan and Eritrea.

‘We’re Here’: Illegal immigrants from Eritrea protest Israel’s refusal to grant them refugee status at a demonstration outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv last December.
‘We’re Here’: Illegal immigrants from Eritrea protest Israel’s refusal to grant them refugee status at a demonstration outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv last December.

One group, the Sudanese, are suffering because their native country is Israel’s enemy; the Eritreans, because their country is Israel’s friend. Israel refuses to give residency to people from enemy states, and therefore will not consider Sudanese for refugee status. The only exception was in 2008 when Israel gave temporary residency to 450 arrivals from the war-torn Sudanese region of Darfur as a one-time humanitarian gesture, though without granting them official refugee status.

Israel also refuses to offend Eritrea, with which it has trade ties, by deeming its citizens in need of a haven from persecution, meaning that their status is also not up for consideration. Israel’s only concession here has been to grant temporary work permits to 2,000 people in 2008 in a one-time decision, while again assiduously avoiding granting them offical status as refugees.

“These two groups are in limbo because the government does not consider their requests,” said Sigal Rozen, public activities coordinator for the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an advocacy and support organization. Yet, based on reports of horrific human rights conditions in their native countries, few deny that many, if not most of them, have fled their homes out of a legitimate fear of persecution for religious, ethnic or political reasons.

The limbo surrounding the status of most Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers has translated, until now, into a laissez-faire approach on the ground. Israel has taken almost no action except for imposing a stint of administrative detention on them when they arrive, as most do, through illegally crossing in from Egypt. In the absence of a deportation policy, almost all are eventually released into an uncertain life in Israel.

A Plea For Rights: In Tel Aviv, members of Labor Party youth movement protested in December on behalf of Eritrean residents.
A Plea For Rights: In Tel Aviv, members of Labor Party youth movement protested in December on behalf of Eritrean residents.

But now, the government is getting tough, keeping them, along with anybody else who lives in Israel illegally, from the city of Tel Aviv. Plans are being pushed to give prison time to Israelis who help illegal entrants.

At the start of July, a newly created Interior Ministry task force began enforcing a previously ignored official directive. It tells authorities to carry on what they have been doing for years — namely, to turn a blind eye to the fact that people are residing and working illegally, but on one condition: that they are not in the center of the country.

This directive was introduced in February 2008, before which asylum seekers could move about freely. It came into being after the Tel Aviv municipality complained that while it was doing its best to provide services to all residents, it was having difficulty coping with the concentration of almost all the asylum seekers in its area.

Since July 1, the task force, known as Oz (Hebrew for “strength”), has sent its inspectors to conduct regular raids in Tel Aviv, detaining around 400 people breaking this restriction. Oz does possess the power to jail illegal immigrants administratively without formal judicial charge but, for the most part, has subsequently released them outside the center of the country.

Following the directive, authorities have accepted their residence north of Hadrea or south of Gedera (with the exception of Eilat) and turned a blind eye to their employment in these areasDespite being illegal, they are protected by employment law and entitled to social security as long as they register with tax and National Insurance authorities, which they are able to do.

But asylum seekers and groups that advocate on their behalf say that enforcing the so-called Hadera-Gedera restriction amounts to condemning them to poverty and isolation.

“People come to Tel Aviv because they know someone and will be able to eat and then find a job,” Oscar Olivier, an asylum seeker from Congo, told the Forward. “Taking them to Haifa or Jerusalem, where they know nobody and don’t know the language, will mean they have no choice but to steal.”

Avital Banai, refugee program coordinator at the nongovernmental organization Brit Olam, said: “It is far more difficult to find work outside the center of the country. As well as that, the services and support networks they need are concentrated here in the center, and here it’s possible to rent somewhere to live without papers and collateral; this is far rarer in the north or south.”

In addition to the hotline for migrant workers, the services concentrated in Israel’s central region include medical care. There, Physicians for Human Rights offers the only health care available for those not paying National Insurance, which includes many of the immigrants.

In early July, Oz arrested an asylum seeker from Sudan on his way to receive medical treatment at the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel open clinic in Jaffa. “I know that I am forbidden to be in Tel Aviv, and I live in Or Akiva [just north of Hadera],” said the asylum seeker to a Ministry of Justice review tribunal, “but I had an appointment with Physicians for Human Rights.”

Following the incident, Physicians for Human Rights released a statement condemning the Hadera-Gedera restriction as a “draconian” hurdle to obtaining medical treatment for refugees and asylum seekers.

The Ministry of Interior rejects such claims. Interior officials say they are doing what they can to accommodate asylum seekers, but argue that the only way Israel can cope with the large numbers is if they spread out.

The ministry also claims that the directive is its way of making the best out of a challenging situation. “It’s not instead of them being legal, but rather instead of them being in jail,” ministry spokeswoman Sabine Hadad told the Forward.

Whatever hardships enforcement of the Hadera-Gedera restriction causes for asylum seekers, the situation is freer than it will be if the Knesset passes the new Prevention of Infiltration Law, which is due to go to the chamber’s Interior Committee at the end of July. The proposed legislation passed a first reading in May 2008, and on June 3 it passed a further Knesset vote — a re-endorsement needed for all legislation after a general election. The vote was 59-1.

The law, which is being promoted by Defense Minister and Labor leader Ehud Barak and supported by the coalition, would increase the maximum sentence for illegal residence in Israel to seven years from five for “enemy nationals,” a category that includes the Sudanese.

No less important, the law would make Israelis assisting such illegal residents in virtually any way subject to a similar sentence. This has provoked a major outcry among Israeli human rights groups.

“At Yad Vashem, we give honor to people who helped Jews escape the Nazis, yet we are apparently willing to punish people escaping genocide,” Rozen said. “I can’t think of anything more absurd.” In Banai’s view, “It’s as if we, as Jews, have learned nothing from history.”

The Forward contacted Barak’s office several times for comment, but received no response.

Lawmakers who have voiced support for the law have cited mostly economic grounds. “Israel is acting in a few directions to halt the massive infiltration of job seekers,” Tzipi Hotovely of Likud told Haaretz. “The state is morally obligated to take care of war refugees, but at the same time, it must stop migrant workers, and that is the intent of the bill.”

Another section of the proposed law would protect, by statute, the controversial military practice known as “Hot Return,” currently only an army directive.

“Hot Return” is a practice by which army officers return illegal entrants crossing in from the Sinai back to Egypt immediately upon their entry. It is currently in force along about a quarter of the Israel-Egypt border, over which virtually all illegal entrants enter Israel.

Critics say that returning infiltrators to Egypt is akin to condemning them to death. “We know that Egypt has been returning hundreds of Eritreans to their country, putting their lives at risk, making ‘Hot Return’ a completely unacceptable practice,” said Anat Ben-Dor, who heads the pro bono Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University. She claims that it contravenes the non-refoulement principle of international law, which prohibits sending asylum seekers back to their countries if they could face persecution there.

Bar-Ilan University international law expert Avi Bell disagreed, saying that despite his moral objections to the policy, given that asylum seekers subject to “Hot Return” have not left the border, it is “legally gray but probably legal.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.