African refugees and asylum-seekers* in Israel

The community of asylum-seekers in Israel is comprised primarily of political refugees from Sudan and Eritrea who arrived via the Sinai desert. Following their expulsion from Egypt, Israel became the final destination for these refugees, because all the surrounding countries have political ties to the very regimes they were fleeing. Among the asylum-seekers, there are numerous victims of slave and torture camps held for ransom by Beduins in the Sinai desert (Egypt) who captured them during their escape. Israel has become a 'bottleneck' for these people who cannot go forwards or backwards. More than 10,000 asylum-seekers have applied for refugee status, but few have received any response.

According to the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority, there are some 30,000 asylum-seekers in Israel today. Of these, 73% are Eritrean; 19% are North-Sudanese; 7% are from other African countries; and 1% is from elsewhere. Approximately 14,000 of the refugees live in Tel-Aviv. There are about 4,500 infants and small children cared for in the refugee community's so-called "babysitting" daycare centers, run primarily by West-African women.

According to the UN's 1951 Refugee Convention, specific criteria are laid out delineating who may or may not be granted refugee status. Once an individual has crossed a border seeking asylum --in this case, in Israel-- that country becomes known as a 'receiving country.' Each receiving country must consider the requests for asylum and determine who is granted refugee status based on the criteria set forth in the Convention. An asylum- seeker who does not meet the criteria, will be immediately returned to his or her country of origin.

Beginning in 2009, the Israeli government changed the status of 'asylum-seekers' to that of 'infiltrators.' The State no longer considers requests for asylum submitted by the refugees who are, therefore, not entitled to any rights deriving from the Refugee Convention. Thousands of men in the community are sent to the Holot detention center in the desert, or to the Saharonim prison nearby.

The largest wave of refugees arrived in Israel between 2006 and 2007, following their expulsion from Egypt. In 2012, Israel completed the wall along its Southern border and no longer grants entry to asylum-seekers.

Most of the refugee community lives in the Southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv. Conditions are extremely harsh: there is a constant threat of incarceration or deportation; they are persecuted and have no legal recourse; the authorities only grant a very limited quota of work permits, therefore, most workers are illegal; members of the community live in dire financial straits; and there are severe shortages in medical services. In addition, the African refugee community is systematically, unjustly maligned on two counts: they are accused of being carriers of infectious diseases, although the Israeli Ministry of Health recognizes them as a "Healthy Community"; and public opinion alleges that they are guilty of high levels of crime, despite the fact that data from the Israel Police indicate that the crime rate for the community is extremely low.

Refugee children

We estimate that there are approximately 6,000 children currently living in the refugee   community in Israel. About 3,000 attend the unlicensed daycare centers, run by West African women in the community, also referred to as "babysitters." These women are not trained professional care-givers and they do not even speak the same language as some of the parents of these children.

Every year, there are about 1,000 babies born in the foreign community in Israel (at least 1 out of every 8 births in the city of Tel Aviv); 75% of them are born to asylum-seekers. Each baby born in the African refugee community in Israel is simply listed in the population registry as a "live birth." This means that the children are not given an ID number, there is no specific record of their birth, and it is all but impossible to do any kind of medical follow-up. These children have no status in Israel; only a third of them get any medical insurance and none get dental insurance. When they reach the age of three, they are, however, permitted to enter the Israeli school system under the Mandatory Education Law that applies to all children living in Israel.

 

* Throughout this site we have referred to the community of Africans who have fled Sudan and Eritrea and arrived in Israel seeking sanctuary, as 'refugees.' This, too, is how they refer to themselves. However, in legal terms, the vast majority are 'asylum-seekers' as will be explained. We have, however, continued to use the term 'refugee' elsewhere on this site to describe the community.