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Refugees in Town: Safety but No Stability in the “Backyard of Tel Aviv”

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Refugees in Town: Safety but No Stability in the “Backyard of Tel Aviv”

Tel Aviv, Israel’s second-largest city, is situated on the Mediterranean coast. It is known as a youthful, international city with a thriving nightlife. Tel Aviv is also home to just under 40,000 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan, about half of Israel’s refugee population. The first Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers crossed the Egyptian border into Israel around 2005, and the largest waves of migration from Africa occurred between 2009–2012.

Usually, Eritreans and Sudanese who crossed the southern border were detained by the Israeli military, and they were given a bus ticket or were directed to Tel Aviv’s central bus station. This bus station is infamous, situated in the crime- and poverty-ridden neighborhood of Neve Sha’anan in the south of the city. The station covers a large area and contains entire floors that are abandoned. It is easy to get lost trying to exit the station or to find a destination.

When asylum seekers found their way out of the bus station, many walked the short distance to Levinsky Park. Israelis associate Levinsky Park with drug addicts, homeless people, and prostitutes; however, the park is used by migrants to connect to other co-nationals and find support. Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) use the areas surrounding the park to offer services such as housing and employment support to migrants. It is also the site of protests calling for rights for asylum seekers and justice in their home countries; it contains a library for the children of refugees; and it is surrounded by Eritrean and Sudanese coffee shops, restaurants, and stores. The park has become the epicenter of migrant activism.

A Note On Terminology

The legal definition of a refugee is not applied to most Sudanese and Eritreans living in Tel Aviv, yet many believe that there are thousands of genuine refugees who meet the definition laid out by the 1951 Refugee Convention and are waiting for a response to their request to be considered for refugee status. In this report, we refer to refugees using the term used by community allies, but the majority of Eritreans and Sudanese are characterized as asylum seekers. 

Integration is a complex term with a wide variety of interpretations. For the Israeli host society, refugee integration involves refugees knowing Hebrew, working in the Israeli labor market, and studying in the Israeli education system. There is no expectation that refugees will abandon the cultural practices of their home countries to become Israeli. Eritreans and Sudanese view integration in terms of legal status: having the same civil rights and access to social services as Israeli citizens. Eritreans and Sudanese seek to maintain their home country’s languages, traditions, and culture while participating in Israeli public life. They do not expect to be naturalized as Israeli citizens, yet they are willing to respect the Israeli culture and contribute to society.

The 1951 Refugee Convention defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.

BACKGROUND: Israeli Refugee Policy

Israel was founded as a homeland for the Jewish people under the principles of Zionism in 1948. The creation of Israel led to mass displacement within the country and across borders. Under the law of return, Jewish people are automatically eligible for Israeli citizenship upon arrival, and they are offered a range of incentives, including financial assistance, to immigrate. This is known as aliya, which means “ascension” in Hebrew. However, moving to Israel is restricted for non-Jews from all countries, and there is no clear immigration policy for them.

In early 2005, a few hundred African asylum seekers crossed illegally into Israel from Sinai. Initially, Israel did not know how to handle their irregular arrival, especially since Sudan is considered an enemy state. As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Israel upheld its protection obligations. However, the state had no clear refugee policy in place. Today, most asylum seekers originate from Eritrea and Sudan, and the current population is estimated to be around 37,000. The current Israeli government labels Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers as “infiltrators” who entered Israel seeking economic opportunities rather than protection from genocide and political persecution.

Israel’s asylum system is in the early stages of development. Until 2009, UNHCR, not the Israeli government, administered Refugee Status Determination (RSD). Now, the government handles this process, with a very low rate of refugee recognition: since 2009, only 12 individuals have been granted refugee status, less than 1% of those who made RSD claims. In comparison, in Europe in 2017, the refugee recognition rate was 92.5% for Eritrean asylum seekers and 60.7% for Sudanese asylum seekers.

Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel have been placed under temporary collective arrangements since 2009. This group protection prevents deportation. However, they are not granted any other rights.[9] Anyone from these two countries who crossed the Israeli border from Egypt was

automatically granted a three-month “conditional release” visa. This visa restricted most people who entered between 2009 and 2013 from applying for refugee status. With the exception of a few hundred Darfurians who were given residency on humanitarian grounds, governmental policies hindered integration and encouraged asylum seekers to leave the country.

In 2009, the government announced the first of a string of policies aimed at encouraging asylum seekers to leave Israel. The “Gedera-Hadera” policy restricted Eritreans and Sudanese from living within the central region of Israel (including Tel Aviv), leading to many imprisonments. In 2013 the Holot detention center was opened for single male asylum seekers holding conditional release visas, as a means to deter future migration across Israel’s southern border. The Israeli government also runs a voluntary return program, under which Eritreans and Sudanese are offered USD 3,500 to depart Israel to a “safe third country” (generally Uganda or Rwanda). 

Between 2013 and 2017, some 3,969 Eritreans and Sudanese left Israel under this program. In May 2017, the Israeli government introduced a new policy seeking to encourage asylum seekers to leave Israel. Under the Deposit Law, 20% of the salary of Eritreans and Sudanese is placed into a fund they can supposedly access when leaving Israel voluntarily. Furthermore, employers of asylum seekers must pay additional tax and also deduct 16% from their salaries and store it in a pension fund employees can only access when departing from Israel. In this way, the policy aims to make it less desirable for Israeli employers to hire Eritrean and Sudanese workers.

In October 2017, the government tried to deport single male Eritreans and Sudanese who had not applied for refugee status to a third country, widely known yet not formally declared to be Uganda or Rwanda. Asylum seekers meeting this criterion were offered the choice of deportation or indefinite detention, leading to widespread fear and uncertainty, until it was announced in April 2018 that the deportation plan had been canceled.

The Urban Impact

North and Central Tel Aviv are completely different from South Tel Aviv in terms of population, cleanliness, types of businesses, and level of development. The South Tel Aviv neighborhoods where asylum seekers reside, including HaTikva, Shapira, and Neve Sha’anan, are low-income areas with high crime rates. In these neighborhoods, historically populated by immigrant communities of low socioeconomic status, certain locals have accused Eritreans and Sudanese of theft, rape, and illegal drug usage, and generally display negative attitudes towards the presence of so-called “infiltrators.” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu toured south Tel Aviv in August 2017 and vowed to “give back” the neighborhoods to Israelis. He was accompanied by Culture Minister Miri Regev, who claimed that Israeli veterans in South Tel Aviv have become “refugees in their own country.

Mainstream political discourse and media in Israel present Israeli residents as innocent victims of an influx of criminals, i.e., asylum seekers. This has caused many locals to feel insecure in their own neighborhoods, and many Israelis are afraid of going to certain parts of South Tel Aviv, especially around the central bus station and Levinsky Park.

South Tel Aviv is far more dynamic and livelier than its reputation amongst Israelis would suggest. The refugee neighborhoods are hubs for cultural life, religious and community institutions, and creativity. Community centers provide cultural services and social activities to their ethnic clients and coordinate with other centers. Numerous volunteers, including community members, local Israelis, and visitors from abroad, support education programs such as language courses and help children with homework. Numerous Sudanese community centers, including the Fur Center, Wadi Hawar Center, Masalit Center, and the Hajar Tama Center, are headquartered in South Tel Aviv, with branches around Israel. The Eritrean Women’s Community Center assists women with the gender- and nationality-specific struggles they face. Asylum seekers have also established NGOs that cooperate with Israeli NGOs, offering a wide range of services, including legal support, workers’ rights advocacy and training, psychosocial support, medical care, education, childcare, empowerment workshops, and leadership training.

Community centers are very busy on the weekends, with celebrations for birthdays and weddings, social activities such as concerts, and commemorations for loved ones in memorials and funerals. These events take place on streets surrounding Levinsky Park, which are also the site of celebrations and community meetings. Community meetings have a variety of purposes. For example, between 2012–2013, many Eritreans were held hostage and tortured for ransom by smugglers in Sinai, so Eritreans in Israel gathered in Levinsky Park to collect money to free these victims. There are Eritrean churches serving the Orthodox Christian community, and on weekends Eritreans attend services wearing traditional clothes. A gospel singer from one of these churches described how the church acts as a community center at which people raise funds to help those in need. The churches also perform baptisms, weddings, and funerals similar to the way community members did in their home country. Neve Sha’anan Street, located between the central bus station and Levinsky Park, is home to many refugee-run restaurants that serve traditional Eritrean and Sudanese dishes. Such restaurants mostly serve their own communities, and it is rare that menus are available in Hebrew or English.

An Eritrean asylum-seeking artist, Afwerki Team, has responded artistically to the 2017 Deposit Law that takes 20% of asylum-seekers salaries and places it in a fund that they can supposedly access upon leaving Israel. In his painting, Team depicts an African street cleaner. The number plate of the car is 01/05/2017, the date on which the law was introduced. The painting shows that, on one hand, asylum seekers are integrated into the Tel Aviv labor market, but on the other hand, they are living in an environment encouraging them to leave the country.

el Aviv is a relatively secular and international city; however, public transportation and most services close on the Sabbath and holidays. The theme includes an image of a religious Jewish man in the

painting, a commentary about the non-Jewish minority whose culture and traditions vary from the majority of the residents of the city.

The City’s Response to Refugees

There are municipal regulations that prevent landlords from sub-dividing apartments; however, there is little enforcement, so many landlords rent out small, sub-divided apartments to asylum seekers, for cash only. Sometimes the landlords are caught and fined, yet the practice continues. The overcrowded southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv are neglected by authorities and less regulated than similar neighborhoods in other Israeli towns. In towns with small populations of asylum seekers, like Herzliya, it is easier for local authorities to keep track of rental patterns and practices.

The municipal activity does not always reflect national policy and attitudes. Tel Aviv municipality has a special division called Mesila, which helps migrant workers and asylum seekers access healthcare services and education for children under 18, as well as welfare services for families and single mothers in poverty, survivors of domestic violence, and substance abusers. The difference between the municipal and national levels became clear during the 2018 municipal election. The “We are the City” party that favors rights for asylum seekers and improving conditions in South Tel Aviv won four seats on the Tel Aviv Council, while the parties against asylum seekers did not win any seats. Despite years of the national government portraying asylum seekers as dangerous criminals, the citizens of Tel Aviv can bring local political change.

The Future of Integration in Tel Aviv

In 2013, the government built a border fence stopping the flow of asylum seekers into Israel from Sinai. Asylum seekers already in Israel lack status and are vulnerable to hostile policies aimed at preventing integration and encouraging departure out of the country. The consensus amongst asylum seekers is that they will never receive refugee status, and they are looking for opportunities to receive protection in other countries, including private refugee sponsorships in Canada and resettlement in the United States and the EU. Some asylum seekers agree to go to Rwanda and Uganda, despite the risks, as they do not see much of a future in Israel.

Most asylum seekers who stay will likely remain in South Tel Aviv since their lack of status prevents them from renting apartments in other parts of the city and country. There is some movement out of South Tel Aviv, as some are being welcomed to live on kibbutzim, and others are being helped by Israeli citizens to rent in other neighborhoods of the city.

Despite the many obstacles to integration imposed by the government, the collaboration with Israeli activists will help them achieve de facto economic, cultural, and social integration, even if legal

integration remains impossible. The numerous simple acts of support and welcoming show how compassionate Tel Aviv’s residents can be, and this opens doors for dialogue and collaboration. For example, the international food festival in Tel Aviv featured traditional cuisine from Sudan and Eritrea, engaging asylum seekers and Israelis in conversation through food.

The most important lesson is that even in the face of anti-refugee national governments the power of activism and mobilization not only helps refugees integrate into towns but can also change the political landscape of municipalities.

By Sanjida Jannat

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