Friday, May 15, 2015

Plane ticket or prison?

Israel has begun to toughen its stance toward refugees, telling unwanted Africans here they must leave now or face an indefinite stay in prison. Israeli authorities are sending letters to the first of 45,000 Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, informing them they have 30 days to accept Israel’s offer of $3,500 in cash and a one-way ticket home or to an unnamed third country in Africa, or face incarceration at Saharonim prison. Israeli leaders promote their tough approach — building a fence along its border, denying work permits for illegal migrants, and forcing them into a detention center in the desert as a deterrent.

Three Eritreans who left Israel were killed by Islamic State militants in Libya. Friends and relatives said they had traveled there in a bid to reach Europe. Tesfay Kidane dressed in an orange jumpsuit was beheaded on a beach in Libya by Muslim extremists. A friend said Kidane felt despondent being cooped at the Holot facility, so he accepted the Israelis’ offer to be flown to a third country — likely Uganda or Rwanda — and from there made his way to Libya, where he was kidnapped by the Islamic State. Interviews with Eritreans and Sudanese at Holot suggest that many are still dreaming of reaching Europe through the chaos of Libya — despite knowing that more than 1,800 Africans have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea this year and others have been taken captive by the Islamic State. “Being beheaded by ISIS or sinking on a boat is scary,” said Mutasim Ali, 28, who arrived in Israel in 2009 from the Darfur region in Sudan and has spent the past year detained in the detention center. “But you can’t really stay here, wasting your life, doing nothing.”

African migrants a few years ago were highly visible in bustling cities, working in kitchens and doing menial labor. There are still neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv filled with Africans. Many Israelis complained they were being “invaded.”

Israel is a nation built by Jewish refugees, and those with Jewish ancestry are encouraged, even courted, to move here and provided wide-ranging assistance. A million Russian speakers came in the 1990s, and Jews from Ethiopia continue to arrive each month and they too are protesting at discrimination against them. Fearful that a wave of impoverished Africans, mostly Muslims from Sudan and Christians from Eritrea, would overwhelm the Jewish nature of the state, Israel has spent more than $350 million to build a 140-mile fence along its entire border with Egypt. Undocumented migrants to Israel are called “infiltrators” by the Israeli government. Israeli leaders say their policies are fair. “You can see the righteousness of our government’s policy to build a fence on the border with Egypt, which blocks the migrant workers before they enter Israel,” wrote Israeli transportation minister Israel Katz.

Israel in the past six years has only offered asylum for four Eritreans and no Sudanese have been offered sanctuary. 

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