Richard Sudan reflects on the anti-immigration sentiment faced by Sudanese and Eritrean migrants and refugees in southern Tel Aviv
What’s the price of freedom in Israel? $3,500 dollars according to the country’s government, which is the amount of money being offered to thousands of people of African descent, in exchange for their ‘voluntarily’ leaving Israel by the end of March. If they refuse the ‘offer’, they will face the prospect of permanent imprisonment, in Israel.
The move, which is being fought by human rights groups, will affect approximately 38,000 migrants living in the country, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, the majority living in southern Tel Aviv. Most of these people have fled conflict and persecution in their home countries seeking refuge in Israel’s comparative wealth and stability. So far, thousands have received letters from the Israeli government, giving them the ultimatum; pack up and leave, or prepare for prison.
Activists who want the refugees gone have hung up posters in the capital’s neighbourhoods calling on ‘Africans’ to leave. Children are harassed in public parks, whilst some believe that the murder of Sudanese asylum seeker Babikir-Adham, in 2016, was partly racially motivated. In 2014, a one-year-old Eritrean baby, Kako Yamena, was stabbed in the head by 59-year-old Israeli Mordechai Michael Zaretsky. While baby Kako survived, Zaretsky claimed to police that ‘God sent him to kill a black baby’, and was subsequently classed as mentally unstable. As a result, the state did not recognise the attack as either racially, religiously or politically motivated.
Anti-black sentiment has been building and is being used as a political football by the Israeli government. Politicians recently announced a drive to recruit civilians to work short-term as immigration enforcers as part of the new purge. Racism perpetuated by both the state and civilians is in full swing. ‘Africans’, which is the blanket term used to refer to the migrants, are blamed for the crime rate and are painted as outsider ‘infiltrators’.
The European Union, has accepted more than 90% of the asylum claims it has received, for refugee status from applicants from Eritrea, and more than 50% from Sudan. Israel, by contrast, has so far granted a total of 11 applications, from tens of thousands of asylum seekers. There remains a backlog of many thousands of claims, almost as if those claims are being deliberately sidelined, leaving thousands of people vulnerable and unable to seek work and a livelihood.
In 2014 Israel completed the construction of a wall thousands of miles long, fortifying its border along the Sinai peninsula, blocking routes of travel from Egypt. For a state like Israel, which routinely claims the word democracy, and which was initially populated by Jewish refugees who themselves fled persecution, Israel’s new deportation policy which came into being in January, is outrageous.
Many are calling Israel’s attack on Eritrean and Sudanese immigrants racist, arguing that the government’s claim of wanting to protect its ‘Jewish character’ is really code for purging Israel of those with darker skin. It’s no secret that the Israeli government views these groups as a demographic threat. Some reports have reported Israeli activists handing out condoms in a bid to suggest that African children shouldn’t be born in Israel. 40,000 people of African descent, compared to an Israeli population of 8 million, do not, in any way shape or form represent a threat to Jewish identity.
The push to rid southern Tel Aviv of refugees, the ‘othering’ and dehumanisation of them, has all the hallmarks of any other form of hard-line reactionary nationalism; divert from the systemic issues which led the migration to Tel Aviv and instead blame the stateless migrants for their own plight. The issue of war and conflict is ignored. And perhaps the reason is partly that Israel has sold plenty of weapons to South Sudan, and elsewhere in Africa, fuelling those very same wars which have driven many people out of their homes.
A recent ruling by an Israeli refugee court has found that fleeing from service in the Eritrean army, for Eritreans, should now qualify an individual for refugee status. This may have provided some Eritreans time while their situation is reassessed. But people of African descent in Israel, even those who have been there for a decade or more, are in a perilous situation, and face an uncertain future.
Israel isn’t the only player in the region which has undertaken a mass campaign against immigrant communities. Saudi Arabia has and continues, to kick out thousands of African migrants from within its borders. Jordan is also reported to have deported refugees from Sudan and Eritrea, allegedly breaching human rights laws. But as Israel is routinely accused of acting as an apartheid state, and is fittingly compared with the racist South African regime for subjugating Palestinian residents, the county’s systematic campaign against certain racial groups simply further highlights the very obvious reality that its political ideology is racist.
Protests within Israel by refugees, men, women and children, are ongoing and growing. Their voices must be heard.
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