African Refugees in Israel

By Amanda Botfeld

Plastic is rarely seen as an instrument of torture. For African refugees kidnapped in the Sinai, however, dripping molten plastic on one’s back is common practice. So is rape, electrocution, and being hung by the hair. “They hung me from the ceiling so my legs couldn’t reach the floor and they gave me electric shocks. One person died after they hung him from the ceiling for 24 hours. We watched him die,” said a 23 year-old Eritrean.

His story is not uncommon. As more and more African refugees flee conflict in Eritrea and Sudan, many find themselves kidnapped and held for ransom in the Sinai, the desert area between Israel and Egypt. Many do not survive. According to the Times of Israel, roughly 50% are killed; their organs are often harvested and sold on the black market.

Survivors can be found journeying to Israel.

A Crisis Begins

Ninety-percent of Israel’s African migrants come from two nations: Eritrea and Sudan. In Sudan, millions have been displaced by the Darfur genocide. In Eritrea, Sudan’s neighbor on the Horn of Africa, nearly a quarter of the country has fled a ruthless dictatorship. Both men and women are drafted into indefinite military service— human rights advocates have likened this to virtual slavery.

These refugees, however, did not always head to Israel. For years, the most common path of emigration was through the Sahara, on toward the North African country of Libya, and finally into Europe.

Europe has reacted sharply. In 2006, Libya and Italy jointly blocked this route, cracking down on the surge of refugees, especially those traveling by boat. In May of 2015, the Washington Post said the European Union is considering a more “muscular” policy, including deploying a military

Millions of people have fled Eritrea and Sudan. Refugees first traveled through the Sahara and then onto Europe, but after that route was blocked, many started traveling through the Sinai desert and onto Israel.

force in the Mediterranean. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that 30,000 people could drown by attempting the voyage in this year alone.

Due to Europe’s hardline stance, refugees have had to look elsewhere. For many, this meant heading east, and trying their luck with Israel. Initially, there was a large influx— over 10,000 African migrants entered Israel in 2012. Cracking- down on illegal immigration themselves, Israel built a 140- mile fence along its border with Egypt, bringing this trend to a screeching halt. In 2013, Israeli authorities counted the number of people crossing the border in single-digits.

When refugees were still heading to Israel, they often did so via human smugglers, paying for transit through the Sinai. Yet the smugglers quickly realized they could make more money by holding people for ransom. As a combined result of Israel’s anti-immigration barrier and the extortion tactics of smugglers in the Sinai, less and less people began taking the journey.

The smugglers decided to stop waiting. Many switched their industry entirely to kidnapping, even going to refugee camps and abducting people on-site. The strategy has been rather lucrative, amounting to an estimated revenue of 600 million dollars. Hamas, the internationally- recognized terrorist group and governing body of Gaza, has participated in the process as a middleman, turning a profit of up to 64 million dollars.

In order to expedite payment, kidnappers often keep the families on the phone during torture sessions.

“Whenever I called my relatives to ask them to pay, they burnt me with a hot iron rod so I would scream on the phone.” Another reported listening over the phone as his sister’s arm was amputated. Once ransoms are met, victims frequently end up in the hands of other smugglers, repeating the process over again, if they survive.

Those who reach Israel are not necessarily lucky. Once in Israel, many migrants end up in detention centers, or camps. Migrants are free to leave the camps but are not allowed to find work and must check-in each day; restrictions like these make entering Israeli society incredibly difficult. Many stay in the camps for months and even years.

In 2013, Michael Rozin, a lawmaker hailing from Israel’s left-wing Meretz party called the detention centers prisons and reasoned: “You have guards. You are not free [to] do what you want. These people are not criminals. Their crime is asking for a better life.”

The confining conditions have led to hunger strikes and demonstrations. During the following year, 2014, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that holding migrants for long periods of time is unconstitutional.

On the other hand, Israeli lawmakers—particularly on the right-wing—have pointed out that Israel treats the migrants more humanely than other European countries. Italy and France both set-up sea and air patrols to keep out African migrants. Israel is the only country that provides food, shelter,andmedicalcareforthe migrants—costing millions.

The Holot detention center, for example, cost 323 million shekels ($94 million) to build and an estimated 100 million(around$25million)to maintain. Israel spends 25,000 shekels per detainee over the course of a year, equal to 6,000 dollars.

“What would happen if 100 million shekels were invested in South Tel Aviv [a migrant-heavy area] to help local residents as well as refugees?” asks Reut Michaeli, executive director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers. “How much does a well-baby or public health clinic cost?” (For the record: converting a retail center into a public health unit in the U.S. costs about a $5.6 million.)

Life in Israel

Life in Israel is not problem-free, either. Most migrants do not speak the local language, Hebrew, and areusuallytrappedinpoverty. The majority of the 60,000 migrants live in South Tel Aviv, nicknamed “South Sudan”.

Menashe, an immigrant herself coming from India’s small Jewish community, has mixed feelings. “There have been foreigners for years in the area, and it never bothered me,” she says. “Turks, foreign workers, other Africans. What’s happening here is different. It wasn’t like this.”

Menashe is referring to the spike in violent crime. Ever since the immigration wave, crime has shot through the roof. In Menashe’s building alone, there have been two rapes in the stairwell, periods where gas and water have been illegally siphoned off, and a newfound pattern of drunks pounding on her door.

Given the rise in violent crime and general lawlessness, many previous South Tel Aviv residents have fled the area. Menashe is an exception. She is one of the three remaining Jewish residents in a building now home to nearly 100 African migrants. While there are no exact numbers, based on a Tilburg University in the Netherlands study, 87% of Sinai refugees are Christian, the remaining being Muslim.

Government Response

After bouts of public outrage and refugee protests, the Holot detention center is scheduled to be shut-down by the end of 2015. Israel is offering migrants a $3,500 stipend per person, also paying for a plane ticket to an unnamed African country, presumably Uganda or Rwanda.

“The model of paying a third country to accept unwanted refugees is a new idea,” reports the Washington Post. “Israeli media have speculated that Israel could offer technology, favorable contracts, arms or other assistance, including cash, to countries that would accept Africans on temporary visas.”

Not all countries have been so kind, however. Uganda has flat-out denied that they are in an arrangement with Israel. Certain migrants have reported that they were in fact sent to Uganda, provided with a hotel room for the first few nights, but then left to fend for themselves.

“The testimonies we’ve collected indicate that many asylum-seekers who were sent to Uganda discovered that despite what Israel had promised them, they have no legal status in Uganda, cannot rent an apartment, work, or file an asylum claim,” the U.K. International Business Times reported in late April.

Still, it’s hard to imagine a country that would assist illegal immigrants the way Israel has; European nations have certainly demonstrated more cruelty. The stipend strategy—essentially incentivizing deportations— is bizarre but arguably better than life in the detention centers, depending on who you ask. There is no consensus. Furthermore, even if Israel’s various attempts at refugee policy have been relatively humane, there is a world of difference between those and actual humanity.

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