Wednesday, July 23, 2008

African Refugees in Israel

Imagine this reality: You are from the Darfur region in Sudan. You ran away from the Janjaweed, the men on horseback who pillaged your village. You witnessed your parents get shot, their bodies thrown into a fire. You hid with your infant brother under a bush for a few nights. You smelt the odor of your family’s flesh roasting. Your heart pounded because you were probably next. You escaped, you made it to Khartoum. Because of your ethnicity, you were still persecuted there. You crossed the border into Egypt. You worked hard to pay for bread for eight years, wondering what the next move should be. More of your friends from Darfur were killed or disappeared into Egyptian prisons. You heard about Israel, a place where salaries are high and fear is relatively low. You decided to go. You hitched to El Arish, the last town in the Sinai desert before the Israeli border. You met a Bedouin who uses stars to navigate the same once allegedly navigated by a guy named Moses. You paid Muhammad 200 dollars to take you to the border fence. That price did not include a safety guarantee. He got you to the border fence where you saw the Promised Land with your own eyes. A tear drop swelled and fell, coagulating the orange sand. You felt a sharp pain in your neck and back. You were shot dead by Egyptian border police. Just another dead, nameless Darfurian.

This is the true story told to me by Sadek Saleh Ibrahim from Darfur, except for the last part. Ibrahim, 23, managed to overcome the final stage in a life that to this point has resembled a deadly Nintendo style video-game. He has faced foes who tried to kill him with every conceivable weapon. He has passed from one stage/country to the next wondering when the game will end, finally reaching the last deadly stage at the Sinai border fence in March of 2008. The Israeli border with the Egyptian Sinai is long, stretching nearly 250 miles. Since Israel and Egypt signed their peace treaty in 1982, the border consists of a couple barbed wire fences which can be overcome with a simple wire cutter. The place is notorious for hashish smuggling, and only recently has become a hotspot for human smuggling. Egyptian border guards here have been known to shoot or bludgeon African asylum seekers to death. This journalist has confirmed the deaths of 12 African asylum seekers who have been killed within sight of Israel. This number in reality is probably much higher the deeper you go into the desert. So why are the Egyptians trying to emulate the Janjaweed by murdering people like dogs at their border? Who gave the orders to shoot and kill these innocent people on their way out of their country? Something smells rotten here. Could the Israeli government be pressuring the Egyptians to be the bad cop so that Israel’s already rotten public image doesn’t deteriorate further? With 3 million Palestinians claiming refugee status, God knows that the last thing Israel needs is another refugee crisis.

The Darfurian I interviewed, Ibrahim, now lives in a cramped apartment in a rundown neighborhood near Tel Aviv’s main bus station. Known as the hardest working chef at a local hummus restaurant, he seems to wear a perpetual smile. He is also Muslim, and the irony is not lost on him that he was once targeted by Muslims and now resides safely in the Jewish state. “Muslims tried to kill me in Darfur and Egypt but it had nothing to do with religion. Now I'm safe in Israel with the Jewish [people], but I worry still about my brothers from Darfur.” As he unfolded his prayer mat in the direction of Mecca, he tells me that it was Allah, not a Bedouin, who guided him safely through the desert.

Ten thousand African asylum seekers who now reside in Israel. Most are actually from the war torn region of Eritrea, where boys as young as twelve are forcibly conscripted into the army. The next largest delegations are from Darfur and South Sudan, followed by Nigerian, Ivory Coast, Kenya, and Ethiopia. The Israeli government is yet to proffer a comprehensive refugee policy, possibly because this immigration wave is such a new phenomenon. The numbers went from a handful each year since the millennium to the sudden arrival of 5500 Africans in 2007. All have made the same treacherous journey through the Sinai desert. The government’s underlying fear is that if the refugees are absorbed into the Israeli work force, it would open the floodgates to Africa. MK Ran Cohen, who has been assigned the task of figuring out what to do with these refugees, told me that despite the risk of ”treating them too well” Israel has “ a special obligation to help these refugees since we too [Jews] were once victims of genocide.” Still, no government policy has been set forth, leaving the refugee problem to NGO’s and International agencies.

The tiny UNHCR office in Tel Aviv, which shares office space with a travel agency, often has lines out the door of up to 100 people inquiring about their refugee status. The tough decisions fall onto the lap of Steven Wolfson, director of the UN High Commission for Refugees in Tel Aviv, whose organization is in charge of deciding whether a poor, hungry, desperate migrant from Africa should also be labeled a “refugee,” according to the internationally accepted definition of that word. For example, those Africans who fled to escape poverty by tapping into Israel’s burgeoning economy do not count as refugees. His organization’s recommendations are then passed onto the Israeli government, which invariably does nothing. Out of the 10,000 asylum seekers here, more than half have been given refugee status by the UNHCR, but the government has only given temporary residence permits to an arbitrary group of 500 Darfurians who entered the country before January of 2008. Still, the lukewarm approach suffices, according to Mr. Wolfson, who said that Israel conforms to the International Refugee Convention of 1951 “ simply by not sending the refugees back to their countries where they would be imperiled.”

It seems like Israel’s policy is to have no policy. Meanwhile, it is safe to assume that, as things get more desperate in Africa, more and more people will risk their lives to enter countries that are perceived to be wealthier and safer. The spillover of African genocide, war, famine, and disease will only increase in this age of information, in which more and more Africans will learn that there is a place called “The West” where things are better. With an estimated 10 million African refugees and an exponentially larger number of African poor wandering the globe right not, we can expect the African spillover to continue to affect Israel, the only country within walking distance to Africa.

Check out the Falafel TV production that recently aired on CNN World Report: