Saturday, August 29, 2015

In Limbo in Israel

As Europeans argue over whether to call new arrivals migrants or refugees, Israel’s government calls the Africans “infiltrators”, a word loaded with negative connotations.

“We are a country of refugees,” says Anat Ovadia, a spokesperson for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, one of the non-governmental organisations that petitioned for the detainees’ release. “It is very shameful that Israel forgets its history.”

Israel has about 45,000 asylum-seekers, 34,000 of them from Eritrea and 9,000 from Sudan. Most entered via Egypt’s Sinai desert up to 2013, when Israel completed a formidable steel fence at the frontier. The Africans live in Israel in legal limbo. They have visas that allow them to stay but that bar them from working. The visas must be updated at least every three months. Holot is an “open” facility in Israel’s southern Negev desert, where detainees are required to report for regular roll-calls to prevent them from working in Israel, where many Africans have menial jobs.

Israel has granted only a tiny number of asylum requests, and offers cash incentives for Africans to leave.  Refugee experts say that Israel’s policies toward migrants reflect both political pressures to do something and demographic anxieties in its rightwing governing elite about maintaining a strong Jewish majority in the country.

“This week’s events reflect once again the lack of a policy of the Israeli government when it concerns non-Jewish immigration to Israel,” says Jean-Marc Liling, an Israeli lawyer specialising in refugee law. “There is a complete incapacity to deal with the fact that Israel has become a country of immigration and not only a country of Aliyah [Jewish immigration].”

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