Yohannes Lemma Bayu arrived here on a tourist visa in 1997, fleeing his government in Ethiopia. It took him five years, a three-week hunger strike, and an order from Israel's Supreme Court to win political asylum.
"When I came here I considered Israel a developed democratic country that respected international law. It wasn't what I expected. There's no system for dealing with refugees," says Mr. Bayu, who responded by helping to found the nonprofit African Refugees Development Center (ARDC) in Tel Aviv. "After my experience, I realized there needs to be an organization to help others. We're focused on empowering refugees to take control [of their lives]."
As director of the center today, Bayu offers asylum seekers practical help as Israel struggles to cope with what Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently called a "tsunami" of African migrants. What began two years ago as a slow trickle of refugees sneaking over the border from Darfur and southern Sudan has become a steady stream of illegal migrants – some 5,000 to 6,000 have overwhelmed Israel's prisons.
About half have been released, but save for several hundred Darfurian refugees to whom the government has granted residency, the Africans get no assistance or work permits from the government because they are considered illegal migrant workers.
ARDC is one of the humanitarian and human rights NGOs that have stepped into the vacuum, but they criticize the government for ignoring the migrants' living conditions and human rights.
"The government hasn't found a proper solution neither for the state nor for the refugees. As a result people are suffering a lot," says Bayu. "There is a lack of policy, a lack of programs, and a lack of good decisions."
A government official who requested anonymity says Israel has declined requests by the Eritrean government to repatriate its nationals, fearing they could be punished back home. The solution, the official says, would be to find a third country to accept them.
Indeed, the presence of thousands of Africans who say their lives are at risk back home raises moral and emotional dilemmas in a country built up by Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and Arab countries.
Darfurians, facing what the US has labeled as genocide, enjoy special treatment, as do tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews airlifted into Israel and welcomed as new citizens. But other migrants face Israeli fears that they will find low-paying jobs that lower Israelis' pay or opportunities for employment. There's also a concern that, along with hundreds of thousands of foreign workers already living in the country, the migrants will change Israel's Jewish character.
"This is a relatively new problem for Israel to deal with," he says. "It's very difficult for an untrained Israeli to make the distinction between a bona fide refugee and an economic migrant. We've got to work to make that distinction. People from Darfur have a special status, deservedly so, but not every illegal economic immigrant from Africa can hitch a ride on that status."
Meanwhile, the migrants already in Israel struggle to negotiate daily life. In ARDC's cramped Tel Aviv shelters, they pepper Bayu, known here as Johnny, with questions on getting kids into schools, recovering salaries from rogue employers, and avoiding another round of police raids.
Bayu opened up the first shelter about nine months ago to avert homelessness. Within a week the number of residents tripled from 30 to 100. With some help from the Tel Aviv municipality and human rights groups, Bayu rented out more spaces, with as many as 1,000 tenants.
The main shelter is located in a former prostitute den next to Tel Aviv's dilapidated central bus station. The living conditions are cramped, dark, and grimy, with some 300 people spread over three floors (not including mattresses on stairway landings). Some sleep in the hallways, while small rooms house six bunk beds. Cardboard boxes with donated clothes lie strewn about.
ARDC's project coordinator, Alice Nägele, is helping Bayu scout out a better place. She says Israel lacks laws governing the status of asylum seekers and a procedure for absorbing them while their requests are handled.
After the Israel branch of Physicians for Human Rights closed down a migrant workers clinic saying it couldn't handle the demand last week, a parliamentary committee on migrants called on the government to allocate $12 million for healthcare for the asylum seekers.
Giving the migrants working permits, Bayu says, would allow them to take care of themselves rather than rely on public assistance. In addition to helping refugees navigate Israeli society, he also wants them to become an active part of it. The shelter bulletin boards contain information about medical care, current-events discussions, and Hebrew classes, and Bayu wants the refugees to volunteer with the elderly during the upcoming Jewish holidays.
"We can contribute to the country," he says. "If the government does its part, we'll do ours."