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

By Nathan Jeffay

Published July 15, 2009, issue of July 24, 2009.
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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

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