Some 20,000 African migrants flooded the streets of central Tel Aviv over the last two days, chanting "Freedom!" and "We are refugees!" in their first major pushback against Israeli policy since they began illegally crossing into Israel from Egypt about eight years ago.
The unprecedented protests and a three-day labor strike by the migrants were prompted by new government measures intended to force the migrants, who came to Israel in hopes of political asylum, to relocate to a recently opened detention center near the Egyptian border and to restrict access to visa renewals needed for employment by limiting office reception hours.
"Once [the government] started using the detention center, the anti-infiltration Israeli polices became very real. All the talk was theoretical before," says Ben Hartman, a crime reporter for the Jerusalem Post, noting that the protests have snowballed. Editor's note: This sentence was edited to correctly reflect the party using the detention center.
"When they started arresting people, it went from uncertain to precarious. Maybe as a community they’ve formed a better self-awareness: They’ve gotten big, and I think it clicked that they can actually do stuff."
Today the migrants, mostly from Eritrea, Sudan, and South Sudan, gathered alongside runners and cyclists on the beach promenade outside the US Embassy and on Sunday they filled Rabin Square, historically the locus of pro-peace demonstrations.
While the migrants say they are fleeing oppressive governments and political violence at home and should be given refugee status, the Israeli government considers them illegal infiltrators who have come to the Jewish state to work.
"In the last week I haven’t worked and I’m not walking around outside," says Balibi Braweneh, a 23-year old at the Sunday demonstration, who says he fears he could be sent to a detention facility because he couldn’t get his visa renewed. "I’m afraid the police will arrest me."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government have touted the effort to stem the tide of illegal migrants – estimated at about 50,000, most of them living in Tel Aviv – as a necessity for national security and Israel’s future as a Jewish state.
After completing a fence along the Egyptian border to stop the tide of new entries, the government is now turning its attention to the Africans who have been living and working in Israeli cities for years and trying to encourage them to leave. Some 1,800 Africans – mostly South Sudanese -- left in 2013 under a program offering migrants $3,500 and a free one-way plane ticket, according to Israel’s Immigration Authority.
"The demonstrations we are seeing are an indication of the seriousness of our policy," said Interior Minister Gideon Saar in an interview with the Ynet News. "They want to come here, earn a living, and lay down roots here. We need to ask ourselves if the State of Israel can be a home to infiltrators from Africa, and what implications are?"
Back in September, the migrants' situation looked quite different. Israel’s supreme court ruled that a law mandating three-year jail terms for illegal migrants contradicted Israel’s legislation on human dignity.
But the parliament has since passed a new anti-infiltration law that some say is just as bad. In recent weeks, Israel’s immigration police force has started to issue orders for migrants to report to the Holot detention center in southern Israel, where they cannot work. Though it is not a prison, migrants must spend the night at the facility and be present for roll calls. Human rights advocates and the migrants say it’s a glorified prison.
In December the inauguration of the Holot facility, which is intended only for African migrants, triggered a protest march from southern Israel to Jerusalem. The march gained considerable media attention and laid the groundwork for the current protest wave.
Despite the government's claims that it is reviewing asylum requests, the Israel office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees said that only a small number who initiate the process are actually deemed eligible, and that many who approached authorities were told that an asylum request was unnecessary or irrelevant. (In contrast, 70 percent of the Eritreans in Europe are considered to be refugees.)
In a statement Sunday, UNHCR criticized the government’s visa procedures and use of the Holot facility and suggested that Israel could be violating an international convention on refugees to which it is a signatory.
"Placing asylum seekers in duress that may force asylum seekers to opt to return without having examined their asylum claim could amount to a violation," the statement said. "The current policy and practices create fear and chaos amongst asylum seekers, not taking into account their specific situation. 'Warehousing' refugees in Holot is not a solution in line with the 1951 Refugee Convention."
Just across the street from the promenade where the migrants demonstrated lies a seaside memorial to some 120,000 European Jews displaced by World War II who set sail for Israel. A little more than 66 year ago, it was they who were considered illegal infiltrators by the British authorities in pre-state Mandatory Palestine. Some died along the way; many others ended up in camps.
Speaking on the promenade, some of the migrants said they are hoping that Israelis will remember that chapter in their history and change their current policies.
"They have to stop the detentions," says Geshu Tesfasgabr, who works as a caregiver, and who came to Israel from Eritrea. ``We are asking for protection. We are refugees, but they have closed their eyes.’’