Thousands of Africans in Israel are on tender-hooks this week as authorities crackdown on what its Ministry of Interior calls illegal migrant workers. Still, more arrive daily. Although they come seeking a better life in the one Western democracy that’s reachable by land, many now face a one-way ticket home.
By Vanessa O’Brien, Tel Aviv
Guy Josif knows his days are numbered. The former Darfur resident, who changed his name from Abdel Hamid Jousif, has etched out a living in Tel Aviv since crossing Egypt into Israel in 2008. He holds a temporary resident permit, but no secure future.
“I’m scared but I’ve got no choice, so I just live today. Whatever I am able to do, I do, and that’s it. I’m scared.”
In 2003, when he was 16 years old, Josif escaped the gruesome massacres of Dafur. He was arrested three times while sheltering with United Nations personnel in Khartoum. Then he was given one week to leave Sudan or face a death sentence. His only choice, he says, was to risk the bullets of the Egyptian border, heading north.
“I heard the refugees from Darfur were living in Egypt, and they came to Israel,” he recalls. “And I thought: ‘OK, a holocaust happened, a genocide of the Jewish in Europe, and a genocide that happened now in Darfur. So I will go there, and at least I can share this story with Israelis.”
More than 200 South Sudanese, many families included, have been arrested for deportation this week. Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai says Sudanese and Eritreans are next.
According to Josif, South Sudanese want to go home, but with dignity.
He says: “I’m not here to stay, I have a limited time, but I want this limited time that I’m here to be respected, to respect my right, to recognize me as a refugee, and then I will go back to my country when the peace comes. But I don’t want to go like this.”
In Tel Aviv alone, African migrants make up 13 per cent of the population – more than the city’s Arab or religious Jewish communities – and that’s growing at a rate the state says is untenable for the small country. African asylum seekers in Israel, overall, comprise an estimated 35,000 Eritreans, 15,000 Sudanese, 3,000 Ivoirians, 4,000 South Sudanese and 3,000 other ethnicities.
The mass influx has seen a violent backlash from some Israeli communities and politicians in the last three months. African residences have been fire-bombed. Street protests demanding deportation have spiralled into violence. There have been personal attacks in South Tel Aviv where Josif lives.
It’s a powder-keg of densely crowded, low socio-economic communities where locals are now outnumbered by Africans, and where the word “asylum seeker” is being replaced by the word “infiltrator” in political rhetoric and on the street.
“Now everything has changed,” says Josif. “The people have started saying openly: ‘We don’t want you because you are black, or that stupid word that they are saying against us.’”
However, in a heated argument between Africans and locals on a South Tel Aviv street, one person can be heard suggesting Israelis are the victims in the situation. He says: “Here we have become the refugees. Everyone lives in fear and nobody can leave from their house. We have a government who is not treating us equally, and not giving us what we deserve.”
The local municipality has long turned a blind eye to the hundreds of Africans sleeping rough in Levinski Park and at overcrowded, rat-infested shelters, not to mention their hiked rents and illegal businesses in the area.
But the South Tel Aviv Israeli community has not. Sigal Rozan, founder of NGO Hotline for Migrant Workers, points to inaccurately reported figures in the media suggesting that 40 percent of crime in Tel Aviv was committed by Africans. It took two weeks to get a corrective statement by police, but the damage was done.
“The actual figures of the police – not mine – are that the crime rate among Africans in 2011 was 2.24 per cent, while the crime rate amongst Israelis was 4.99 per cent,” she says. “That means that the crime rate among Israelis is two times more than among Africans.”
Rozan sympathises with the plight of local residents, though says expulsion isn’t a solution. According to her: “Deporting them to Sudan and Eritrea where they are being tortured to death, in all kinds of basements and cells – of course Israel is not going to do that and therefore people will keep on coming. The only way to deal with them is to understand that they will keep on coming. To check their asylum requests.”
Meanwhile, deportations continue daily, and Josif is waiting to see when his number will be called.