Thousands of African asylum seekers are protesting in Israel after years of living on the margins of Israeli society. The protesters flooded the streets of central Tel Aviv, marching to the United States Embassy while delegations fanned out to the British, Canadian, French and Italian Embassies and the offices of the United Nations refugee agency. In Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, tens of thousands demonstrated, chanting “Freedom.” There was also an associated strike, leaving many restaurants and hotels without dishwashers and cleaners.
The asylum seekers are protesting their treatment by the Israeli authorities and demanding that they be recognized as refugees. The throngs are appealing for international attention and help on the matter. In a statement, activists leading the campaign for asylum said, “We believe this strike will demonstrate our importance to the Israeli economy and create a pressure that will cause them to change their policies.”
Since 2005, nearly 60,000 migrants have crossed into Israel stealthily over the border with Egypt. The concentrations of African migrants have caused friction with the local population in the run-down neighborhoods of south Tel Aviv. Most of the migrants are Sudanese or Eritreans who cannot be sent back to their home countries as Israel affords them protection from deportation in line with international conventions. However, Israeli officials insist that most of the Africans came as economic migrants looking for work and have worked slowly to process applications, leaving many of the migrants in limbo where they cannot legally work and risk being detained by authorities.
Parliament’s approval last month of an amendment to the country’s Prevention of Infiltration Law sparked the protests. The amendment allows authorities to detain migrants who enter the country illegally for up to a year without trial. It also permits the government to hold those already illegally in Israel in a new “open” detention facility in the Negev Desert indefinitely. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Israel released a statement criticizing the new amendment as not fitting the spirit of a 1951 refugee convention.