Refugees and asylum seekers

When we talk about maror (bitter herbs) we remember the hardship as if we were there; we were slaves and refugees. In every generation there are people experiencing such hardships. Seventy years ago it was our parents and grandparents, 50 years ago it was the Vietnamese, 40 years ago the Cambodians. At the moment the people in Darfur, Sudan and Eritrea are in the midst of genocide and dictatorship, forcing them to flee to safer countries.

Meet Taj

Taj Haroun is a Darfurian refugee currently living in Israel. He is one of 60,000 African asylum seekers, mainly from Eritrea and Darfur, Sudan, that have entered Israel from the Sinai-Eilat border.

“I am in Israel as a guest because I can’t live at home due to the conflict.”

Taj came to Israel after hearing it was the only safe haven and democracy in the Middle East. He left Darfur in 2003 due to fears that the Arab Janjaweed militia would kidnap and enslave young men. His family fled their village and are living in an Internal Displacement Camp.

For three years Taj lived with his aunt in Khartoum, joining Darfuri students to raise international awareness about the situation in Darfur. He was arrested twice and brutally tortured before deciding to leave Khartoum to avoid further arrests.

In 2007 Taj fled to Cairo but due to the unstable situation in Egypt and fearing he would be deported back to Sudan, Taj decided to try for Israel. He was taken to the Israeli border by Bedouin smugglers and managed to make it across without getting shot, but was picked up by an Israeli army patrol.

When Taj reached south Tel Aviv he was assisted by other Darfurian refugees, before finding a low paying job. Taj became a leader in the Darfuri refugee community in Israel.

With assistance from a volunteer at the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, he managed to get into a program at Tel Aviv University and has since finished his Bachelors and Masters in Political Science and Communication. His story is very unusual for most refugees, who struggle to find any work beyond menial labour.

Although he is physically safe in Israel he continues to face many challenges, the greatest of which is his precarious status. The Israeli government has no clear policy path for asylum seekers to become recognised refugees. Currently they fall under the “Anti-Infiltration Law”, legislation from the 1950s that was originally created to keep Palestinian refugees from trying to return to Israel after the War of Independence.

“The status issue is the most difficult, and anything you can do to encourage the Israeli government to grant the refugees asylum status would be most helpful.”

Taj needs to renew his visa every 2 months and is constantly afraid of being unable to renew it or being summoned to the Holot detention centre in the Negev. While studying Taj was summoned to Holot three times and each time had to fight to continue his studies.

The Holot detention centre was built in 2013, according to the Interior Ministry, “as a deterrence to discourage more infiltrators.” It holds up to 2,000 male African asylum seekers who can be detained for up to 12 months. Detainees are allowed to wander the desert between check-ins, and they must also remain in Holot overnight. If they miss a check-in, they can be transferred to the nearby prison. While in theory a detainee at Holot could hold a day job, in practice it is a two-hour bus ride from the closest big city, Beersheva. Israel is the only democratic country which detains asylum seekers even after having spent time in the community.

The New Israel Fund, along with its grantees, including the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, have been leading the campaign through the courts to improve circumstances for asylum seekers, including limiting the time they can be forcibly detained. This resulted in the successful overturning of elements of the Anti-Infiltration Law by the High Court of Justice.

While asylum seekers wait for a permanent solution, temporary protection visas have been granted to the Sudanese and Eritreans which gives them some ability to work. The Interior Ministry considers many of the Africans to be “work migrants” rather than genuine asylum seekers.

Discussion Questions:

If you were forced to flee, where would you go? What two things would you take? Now partner with the person next to you and between you chose only ONE thing to take.
Does Israel have a moral responsibility, as a nation established in the aftermath of WWII, to assist non-Jewish people in need?
Is it possible for Israel to balance the need to assist fleeing asylum seekers, with the need to provide infrastructure and security for its own citizens, particularly in the already run-down neighbourhoods of southern Tel Aviv?
Both Australia and Israel make it very difficult for illegal asylum seekers to claim refuge. Do you think these policies are justified?

Fact box:

Most of the African asylum seekers in Israel are Muslims from the Darfur region of Sudan and Orthodox Christians from Eritrea.
Asylum seekers in Israel are offered a sum of US$3,500 to return to their country of origin, or a third country, usually Uganda or Rwanda. There is a high risk of imprisonment and death in those that have chosen to return to Africa.
The Israeli government has no clear policy regarding refugees. Currently they fall under the “Anti-Infiltration Law”, legislation from the 1950s that was originally created to keep Palestinian refugees from trying to return to Israel after the War of Independence.