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But these people are not refugees, at least not formally. Currently, there is no official way to know the status of Shakur or any of the estimated 50,000 to 60,000 Africans in Israel. According to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Israel is signatory, a person who comes from a country where he or she faces persecution is entitled to request asylum from the country to which he or she has escaped. The host country is subsequently obligated to investigate, on an individual basis, whether the person is indeed entitled to refugee status, according to specific UN-mandated criteria, which confers residency rights and numerous other benefits.
During such procedures an interim situation is created, which leads either to formal recognition of refugee status or rejection and possible deportation. But not in Israel. Despite knowing that the population of Africans residing in the country is made up of different people from different countries with different political situations – many local politicians simply refer to the asylum seekers as “infiltrators,” and threaten to deport them.
“These are not refugees, but people who are breaking the law and whom we will deal with to the fullest extent of the law,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced at a cabinet meeting about a month ago. Subsequently, Daniel Solomon, legal adviser to Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority, told reporters that “Israel has never considered itself open to immigration on a broad scale [other than in allowing special arrangements for Jewish immigrants]. We see most of this group as illegal economic migrants.”
According to UN regulations, most of the Africans here cannot be forcibly deported back to their native countries or to a third country, and lack collective protection – meaning that the asylum seekers can live here, but cannot work legally and are not entitled to health care or other benefits.
This unique limbo status will apparently continue until they can be repatriated to their homelands. For Darfuris and Sudanese – estimated to constitute less than one-quarter of the total number of African asylum seekers in Israel – this situation could continue indefinitely. And their plight is further complicated by the fact that Israel and Sudan consider each other to be enemy states, and individuals like Shakur could be charged with treason if they returned.
In 2012, the Knesset passed an amendment to its Prevention of Infiltration Law that allowed authorities to imprison the “infiltrators” for repeated periods of up to three years. When the High Court of Justice struck that legislation down, Israel established Holot, a so-called open detention center, run by the Israel Prison Service, in the middle of the Negev. Although detainees are allowed to leave for a few hours a day, they have nowhere to go – the city of Be’er Sheva is over an hour away and bus service is sporadic – and they must report for roll call three times a day.
“As a survivor of my people’s genocide,” says Shakur, “I understand why Jews want their own country. And I must appreciate the Israelis, because they have saved my life. I feel bad that I am disturbing the Jewish people. But it is not right to send me to prison. I did not come here to stay. I have nowhere else to go. My mother and father went hungry so that I could go to school and be educated and help my people. Even if I wanted to live here, I would be betraying them if I stayed.
He points to his precious books – a guide for teaching oneself algebra; an intermediate physics textbook; a collection of the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore; Nelson Mandela’s, “Conversations with Myself”; a Koran; and Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel.”
“I want to become an engineer so that I can go back and help my country,” Shakur explains. “That is why I am studying at every opportunity.”