With around 10,000 asylum seekers (as compared with many more in nearby Egypt and several million in Sudan), Israel is not a country immediately associated with African refugees.
Although Israel was founded by refugees, today the term is political dynamite for the country. Israeli leaders have long considered the Palestinian refugee issue one of the gravest challenges to the Jewish character of the state. Only last year Prime Minister Ehud Olmert described African refugee migration to Israel as a "tsunami that could grow".
But Israel is the closest developed country to Africa – especially war-torn Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan, the regions (along with the Ivory Coast and Congo) where most African refugees in Israel come from.
"The refugees get shocked and confused here," says Johanes Lemma Bayu, the workaholic manager of the African Refugee Development Centre and himself a refugee from Ethiopia. At present, African refugees do not receive any support from the Israeli Government and the United Nations in Israel is not equipped to provide humanitarian assistance.
"When they arrive here there is nothing. It’s a developed country and in the places they’ve come from – mostly through Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia – the UNHCR is at least giving assistance, even though these places are poor. They approach the UNHCR in Israel, they expect them to give them help, but it’s not their job here, it’s the country’s job. They don’t get anything, it’s really horrible."
The responsibility for assisting these people has instead fallen to Israeli civil society organisations like Assaf, an NGO created by veteran aid worker Yiftach Millo in 2006.
"As descendents of refugees who survived the Holocaust in Europe, we have a duty to help these people," says Millo.
In Tel Aviv I met refugees from Darfur and other parts of Sudan, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Every individual has his or her own unique experiences and every country its own trauma of war and persecution. But all those interviewed shared a common desire for a better, more secure life.
"I experienced a lot of torture, bad experiences in my country," recalls Gabriel, a young but weathered representative of Tel Aviv’s Eritrean community. "After my education they put me in the prison and sent me to the army. They did it to humiliate and degrade me. There was a protest from the university students and because of that they take revenge and put us all in prison and then send us to the army to harm us."
Yassin Musa, a Darfuri community leader in Tel Aviv, was trying to escape the widespread ethnic cleansing that is occurring in his west Sudanese homeland. "Some of my family was killed but others were displaced and I don’t know where they are… I moved from place to place inside Darfur, always going to another place and hoping to be safe. Then I came to Khartoum [Sudan’s capital] and it was so difficult because at that time the Government was really against any Darfuri entering Khartoum. They check who you are, where you’re going. You have to register in security office [but]I was escaping arrest from Darfur. So I decided to leave Khartoum. I then left to Egypt."
Many who sought refuge in Egypt have started to immigrate to Israel following a massacre in Cairo on 30 December 2005. African refugees, mostly from Sudan, attending a month long protest against their living conditions in Egypt were brutally suppressed by security police. The official death toll was 27, but it is likely many more died later in hospital or in prison, or were seriously injured.
"Egypt was very bad, sometimes I even think the Sudanese Government is better," Yassin told me. "Discrimination, abuse at work, everything. So difficult to walk down the street because people follow you in groups shouting ‘bunga bunga’ or ‘black’ and if you want to say something you have to be ready to fight big groups."
"Israel’s a democratic country – it respects our lives, is safe and we can get humanitarian recognition," explains Gabriel. "That’s why we came here. And the same in Sudan, we spent much horrible time in the desert, without enough food and water, and then we come to Egypt. I was in Egypt for three days, kept in a locked door by smugglers until the day you go to Israel. I’m lucky to be here, [it is]very dangerous."
The journey to Israel through Egypt is a perilous one. The border crossing between Egypt and Israel in the Sinai is itself impossible to breach. "You have to pass underground, a big subway. No one can pass through that." Entry is instead over the barbed-wire fences of the adjacent desert region patrolled by Egyptian and Israeli soldiers.
Crossing the border fence requires several hours of travel through the inhospitable Sinai Desert. Notoriously corrupt Egyptian border patrols are aware of the many people smuggling operations and are known to shoot refugees who do not bribe them.
Gabriel described the journey to me. "You must walk through the Sinai desert. It takes seven hours and then you come to a big fence. You need to jump the fence and the Egyptian soldiers start shooting."
"A lot of people die in the border … There are children who are separated from their mothers, seven or eight years old, who are nowhere in Israel. We were lucky in our group, maybe they make agreement with the police, they just let us go. But you know there are some people who are still in prison in Egypt."
"At least [in Israel]their lives are safe," Yohanes notes. "Once they cross the border, the IDF is receiving them. Even if the conditions are horrible, if they don’t eat two days or three days, they don’t feel that their lives are under threat here at all, killing or physical attacks."
Although far less persecuted in Israel, conditions for most in Tel Aviv are squalid. At the Refuge Centre on Har Ziyyon Avenue, for example, there are only around 100 beds for 300 people. Mattresses are scattered in every corner, even next to the stairwells.
Many are forced to live in public spaces adjacent to the building or in a neighbouring park. On a nearby street there is another refuge, a basement that used to be an air raid shelter. During my visit the door was being jimmied open because the lock was broken. Inside was a large, dirty room that hardly resembled a living space.
All of the people interviewed said they felt safe in Israel. "I am working in a clinic, I make good money," said one man who requested not to be named. "I have my own place to live. I’m not settled, I do not know what will happen in the future. Still, I don’t fear from anything."
But deep down he retains a burning desire to return to home. "Everybody loves his country. I want to be in my country. I want to contribute to my countrymen with the education I have. If the situation improves, if the country becomes democracy, I will return."
Yassin echoes these sentiments. "The place that you are born, that you grew up in, you have family, everything, you cannot forget. Even though it seems impossible unless the [current Sudanese]government go, I hope something in the future will change. Maybe I’ll get a chance to go."
Information on how to donate to Assaf is available from their website.
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