Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Guest Post: African Migrants to Israel Face Refoulement, Discrimination- by Theodore Baird

I used to be a refugee. In Cairo I had a refugee card. Now I am confused. Am I a refugee or am I with the Israeli government? I just want to know what I am. I need a good visa, a paper to work or to do something good. I don’t get help in Israel, but if I am a refugee, shouldn’t I get help?

Furst-Nichols, Rebecca & Jacobsen, Karen (2011) “African Migration to Israel: Debt, Employment and Remittances,” Tufts University and Feinstein International Center, January 2011: Page 15.

On Wednesday January 2nd 2013 a ceremony was held commemorating the completion of the main section of the border fence between Israel and Egypt. The total length of the border fence is 230 km and reaches a height of 7 meters in parts. The cost of the fence is 1.4 billion shekels, or around 372 million US dollars. It is made of 44,000 tons of building material. It took two and a half years to build. The fence has barbed wire, a dirt road and patrol path, cameras, and radar. The final piece of the border fence is due to be completed in May 2013, and is located near the Taba crossing in a mountainous region near Eilat. The terrain is difficult and is a complex engineering project. Netanyahu reiterated that he is committed to returning Sudanese and Eritrean migrants regardless of international law on non-refoulement. Israel does not have diplomatic relations with either Sudan or Eritrea. Sudan is technically an enemy state of Israel.

Earlier, in July 2012, Netanyahu declared the main goal of the fence and Israel’s policy towards asylum-seekers: “The goal is to turn the tables, and take all necessary actions to have the number of illegal immigrants that leave Israel be larger than the number entering Israel.” Netanyahu was politely reminded by UNHCR in Geneva that returning Eritrean migrants would threaten their lives, and that no country has returned Eritrean refugees from their territory.

Echoing the fears over foreign ‘infiltrators’ in the south, Netanyahu declared that an identical border fence would be built along the Syrian border in the Golan Heights. Fears over jihadists armed with chemical weapons or pro-Palestinian fighters crossing into Israel from Syria, not asylum-seekers, instigated the plans to construct the fence. Armed with the success of preventing African asylum-seekers from entering Israel in the south through the lawless Sinai, the new border is intended to prevent the entrance of foreign fighters coming from Syria or exodus resulting from the collapse of the Assad regime. If Israel completes the fence project along the Golan Heights, it will be completely fenced in. The Golan-Syria border fence would span about 70 km, with a height of five meters, and fortified with trenches, barbed wire and a patrol road, similar to the Sinai-Negev border in the south.

In 2005, Sudanese refugees in Egypt protested against their poor treatment by Mubarak’s regime. The protest was ended violently by the government and the environment in Egypt for Sudanese refugees became increasingly hostile. In response, Sudanese refugees migrated to Israel from Egypt. Since 2005, the number of African refugees entering Israel has increased to more than 60,000, with 17,000 people crossing in 2011. The southern border fence is deemed a success, with 36 asylum-seekers crossing in December 2012, compared with 2153 entering the previous year. Netanyahu is campaigning for national election on January 22nd. Netanyahu reiterated his commitment to return those asylum-seekers who have entered Israel already: “Just as we stopped completely the infiltration into Israeli cities, we will succeed in the next mission - the repatriation of tens of thousands of infiltrators already in Israel to their home countries.”

Photo by: Oren Ziv/
On October 14th, 2012, Sudanese refugees protested against the building of prisons to detain African refugees, shouting ‘We are refugees, not infiltrators!’ and ‘We need rights right now’. According to the recent Anti-Infiltration Law from January 2012, anyone crossing from Sinai is deemed an ‘infiltrator’ by the Israeli state and is treated as a threat. The original law is the 1954 Prevention of Infiltration Law, which was amended in January 2012, to define all irregular border-crossers as ‘infiltrators,’ subject to detention and deportation, with limited or no access to the asylum procedure. Asylum-seekers may be detained for three years or more without charge or access to legal representation. Punishing asylum-seekers for unlawful entry is illegal under international refugee law.

Amendments to the Anti-Infiltration Law include new legislative initiatives as well as a bill from 2006. The amendments which passed on 10 January 2012 include: preventing the sending of remittances, taxing employers of asylum-seekers, monthly deposits for each asylum-seeker employed to ensure they have funds to leave Israel, expanding police authority over legally resident asylum-seekers, preventing the appeal of a deportation order, and barring asylum-seekers from filing lawsuits in Israeli courts. These amendments are designed to increase the difficulty in employing asylum-seekers and to make incorporation into Israeli society difficult in order to pressure asylum-seekers to leave Israel.

Israel does not recognize refugees, and only rarely processes refugee claims. The public as well is skeptical of African migrants. In a poll from 2012, a majority (52%) of Jewish Israelis regarded Africans as a ‘cancer’ on society. Only 19% of Arab-Israelis considered African migrants to be harmful to society. Most of the Jewish Israelis responded that they did not live near refugees or lived only near a few.

In preparation for enforcing the new law, a new detention center is being built which can house up to 30,000 people, and hundreds have been deported back to South Sudan. After South Sudan announced independence, hundreds of Sudanese migrants were returned there from Israel in 2011. After an Israeli court judged that 1500 South Sudanese were safe to return home, they were rounded up. Numerous difficulties involved in returning migrants have been cited by human rights organizations.

Sinai is extremely dangerous to transit, with multiple evidence pointing to hostage-taking, abuse, and torture of refugees for money by unscrupulous traffickers. Refugees have been criminalized in Israel, in direct contravention of international refugee and Israeli domestic law, and are also vulnerable to torture and trafficking in Sinai. Survivors of torture and abuse are being detained in Israel since the implementation of the new laws in June 2012. Dozens of Eritrean and Sudanese migrants have been prevented from entering Israel or from asking for asylum, and have been illegally refouled back to Egypt, into the lawless Sinai. In July, 40 Eritreans were detained just inside the border and then forcibly returned to Egyptian authorities. Others waited at the fence itself and provided with some water and food by NGOs, and some waited inside drainage pipes in the area to escape the difficult weather. Those crossing Sinai face serious abuse at the hands of traffickers holding them for ransom.

For more information see:
Physicians for Human Rights – Israel

Hotline for Migrant Workers

African Refugee Development Center (ARDC)

Theodore Baird is a PhD fellow at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) and Roskilde University (RUC). His thesis investigates refugee smuggling from Sudan and Somalia to the Middle East. More information about his project can be found on the DIIS website at:

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