The plight of African refugees in Israel

The phenomenon of African refugees looking for asylum in Israel is relatively new and has increased in the second half of the last decade

Yossi Mekelberg
Published: Updated:
Enable Read mode
100% Font Size

The march of hundreds of African asylum seekers and refugees earlier this month, mainly from Eretria and Sudan, from their detention centre in the Negev to the Israeli Knesset was surreal and heart wrenching in almost equal measures. Their protest against forced incarceration highlighted the plight of around 55,000 Africans, who currently live in Israel and came looking for a safe haven within the Jewish state. However, since their arrival to Israel they have encountered insensitivity to their situation, rejection and abhorrent racism. I do not wish to vilify or single out Israel on this issue, as the ill-treatment of innocent victims fleeing domestic and international conflict is far from being confined to one country, as we deplorably witness it worldwide. However, two wrongs do not make a right, and any such occurrence should be exposed to the public. Even more importantly for me, is that of all the countries, Israel, given the history of its people, should show more compassion towards those who face ethnic and religious persecution. Israel, due to her size and special circumstances cannot be expected to deal with a mass exodus of millions of asylum seekers from around the world. Nevertheless, instead of her usual policy of rejecting immigrants who are not Jewish, she could have led the way, if only symbolically, in welcoming and absorbing those who escape horrendous political crimes.

A volatile region

The recent outbreak of violence in South Sudan, which claimed the lives of dozens of people last week, was just a reminder of how volatile the region is and the likelihood of the resumption of ethnic war there. In places such as Darfur, where inter-ethnic conflict over land and other resources lead, in recent months, to the killing of many and the displacement of thousands of people whose houses were burned down, becoming a refugee is not a choice but a tragic reality. Self-evidently, the long term solution for the anguish of the refugees lies in bringing an end to the circumstances which led these men, women and children to find refuge far away from their homes. For some of these refugees, Israel was an attractive destination because it is a democracy and has a prosperous economy. It seemed to promise both employment and freedom from want and intimidation.
Sadly this is not the way the state and the people of Israel saw it. One of the country’s declared objectives is to preserve its Jewish character through maintaining a Jewish majority population. This was determined by Israel since her inception in 1948. The Israeli “Law of Return” explicitly and exclusively favours those with a connection to the Jewish faith, through ancestry or marriage. Those with such a connection are granted citizenship and full rights almost instantly, while anyone else would struggle receive even limited permission to live or work in the country. To be sure, the country’s ethos since her independence has been one of actively encouraging Jewish communities around the world to immigrate to Israel and take part in the development of the Jewish state. In five years during the 1990s, Israel absorbed more than one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union because it was aligned with her Zionist-Jewish ethos. The Israeli society and economy were mobilised, to a greater or lesser success, to ensure their integration in society. The African refugees, whose predicament was by no means lesser than those who emigrated from the former Soviet Union, fell victim in their search for refuge for not being Jewish and for being black.


Relatively new phenomenon

The phenomenon of African refugees looking for asylum in Israel is relatively new and has increased in the second half of the last decade. Most of them gained access into the country through the Sinai Peninsula with the help of Bedouin smugglers. Israelis customarily associate infiltration across their borders with security risk and terrorism, and such unsubstantiated allegations were made against the African migrants. Moreover, as most of them “settled” in the poorer areas of the main cities, tensions with the local residents intensified. They were blamed for increased crime, inappropriate behaviour, changing the social fabric of these neighbourhoods and of course being a demographic threat. While criminal activity or anti-social behaviour should not be condoned, as in other places in the world, only a small number of the migrants are engaged in unlawful behaviour while the entire community is blamed and sometimes punished. Besides, the authorities’ negligence in dealing with this traumatised population, living in an unfamiliar environment contributed to these frictions.

The Israeli government adopted a dual approach of prevention and intimidation to exclude African refugees from the country

Yossi Mekelberg

The Israeli government adopted a dual approach of prevention and intimidation to exclude African refugees from the country. In order to prevent further arrival of refugees, Israel has built a 240 kilometres fence along its border with Egypt, which practically, with some exceptions, stopped refugees from reaching Israel via this route. Worse, the state has embarked on a concerted campaign of intimidating and bribing the asylum seekers to return to their home countries, with sheer disregard for the fate awaiting them on their return. For instance, under Sudanese law anyone who has visited Israel faces long prison terms, and Eritreans would face severe punishment for avoiding military service. Back in September, nine Israeli Supreme Court judges unanimously struck down a government decision, which allowed for the jailing of African migrants for three years without trial, whose only crime was illegally entering the country. The government’s response of tabling amendments to the Prevention of Infiltration Law made a mockery of the Supreme Court’s decision. These amendments would allow for the indefinite confinement of thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants in the remote desert “open detention centre” of Holot.

Rights versus morals

Every state has the right to protect its borders and determine its immigration policies, and Israel is no exception to the rule. Nevertheless, any country with regard for international law and moral fabric cannot turn its back on people whose life, freedom and well-being are in danger; this too hold true for Israel. Less than a century ago, my parents’ and grandparents’ generation faced one of the most atrocious genocides in history, and those of them who attempted to flee to save their lives and the lives of their families found that the world turned their back on them. Tragically many countries in the world refused them entry and therefore many of them perished.

Those individuals who gave refuge to Jews are still honoured by the state of Israel as The Righteous among Nations. Every person who escapes persecution because of their religion, ethnicity, political opinion or gender, deserves protection. Less than sixty thousand people escaping tyranny are not a source of danger to the State of Israel, however, treating them in a humane and caring way is only fitting for people who experienced themselves extreme suffering at the hands of others. Unfortunately, instead of demonstrating humanity and regard for international law, a very ugly side of Israeli society was exposed by the way it treats the African refugees in their desperate time of need.


Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending