The 36,000 asylum seekers currently living in Israel are overwhelmingly (92 per cent) from Eritrea and South Sudan. Their reasons for leaving their homes and their countries to seek asylum include ethnic and political persecution, forced labour, civil war and genocide. Between 5,000 and 7,000 of them are survivors of the torture camps in Sinai who carry the scars of captivity and torture.
To date, Israel has given refugee status to less than 1 per cent of asylum seekers. Out of more than 14,000 applications, Israel has accepted only ten asylum cases from Eritrea – and just one from Sudan over the past decade,. By comparison, the EU offered 87 per cent of Eritreans asylum in the last year. Although the Israeli government argues that it carefully processes requests for asylum, critics maintain that the claims are not considered properly.
Due to the uncertainty about their status and their rights, asylum-seekers in Israel face severe economic, physical and emotional distress. Dread of what the future may bring, and constant fear of arrest or deportation, as well as the rigid restrictions imposed on refugees, undermine the possibility for rehabilitation and recovery from past traumas.
Meet 21 year-old Alam Godin:
“We fled from the war in South Sudan… to Khartoum,” he says. “We were there two years. Then my Uncle said, ‘If they find you, they’ll kill your family.’
My Uncle arranged paper work for us to get a boat to Egypt, there was political unrest in the country and [when] the Sudanese came… the government sprayed us all with boiling water.”
So Alam and his family made the difficult decision to try and cross into Israel.
“We got through a hole in the [Israeli] border from Egypt. When the police force found us we were taken to a police base, I went with one brother. My mother and baby brother went to a women’s prison.”
Alam applied for asylum in Israel when he reached the Sinai in 2008 as an 11-year-old boy. Now living in South Tel Aviv, Alam was among one of the first groups of asylum seekers, together with his mother, brother Alan, and baby brother, Jock.
As a minor in Israel, Alam was relatively protected from the harsh realities facing adult asylum seekers . Children who are seeking asylum have the right to free education up until the age of 18, and Alam completed his schooling in South Tel Aviv’s Bialik Rogozin school, which boasts a 90% graduation rate despite serving the some of Israel’s poorest residents.
Once Alam turned 18, however, all that changed
Alam wants to become a nurse. Although there is no law preventing him from continuing his studies, as someone with no status in Israel it would be illegal for him to practise – the Israeli government will not issue him a certificate of qualification. Any certified trade that needs government accreditation falls into this category – and that includes almost every trade. Even something as simple as learning to drive is impossible: Alam cannot hold a driving license in Israel with a temporary residency visa. For now, he is flipping burgers in a fast food joint despite the fact that all he wants is “to give back, and care for people.”
In order to work – even in a menial job -, stay legally in Israel, and avoid incarceration in Israel’s detention centres, Alam (like every adult asylum seeker) must renew his visa every two months. Officially, this still doesn’t allow him to work. The language on the temporary 2(a)5 residency visa explicitly states that “this temporary permit does not constitute a work permit”. However the State has promised the Supreme Court that it will not enforce this prohibition and will not fine employers. In practice, this policy paves the way to abuse of asylum seekers’ employment rights. Employers may ‘forget’ to cover their health insurance, for example, and there is little that their employees can do.
In addition to these draconian regulations, visas can only be renewed in two places in Israel: Bnei Brak and Eilat. This ensures that queues for renewal are notoriously long, and people must spend precious time and money reaching the government offices.
Meet Bana Emanuel:
She’s a 17 year old refugee from Eritrea. Bana’s story of escape and survival is not unusual among the Eritrean community in Israel, but for a young woman she has already had to witness and endure much. “My mother’s decision to leave Eritrea changed my life.”
“It was hard to leave Uncles and Grandparent in Eritrea… In Sudan we were held in straw huts for two weeks. But from Sudan we managed to cross to Egypt.”
Bana came to Israel at the age of eight following a gruelling journey from Eritrea by way of the Sinai and torture camps.“They put petrol in the water to stop us from drinking too much”
“When I was thirsty I drank the water but it kept making me throw up. People were so dehydrated they were drinking their own urine.”
“My Uncle died on the way and said don’t forget me… It was clear he’d lost hope, I lost hope too and covered myself in sand to bury myself and people said to my mother, “leave her here as she’s not going to make it”… but eventually I made it to Israel, alive!”
As a male adult in this community, Alam and his peers must pay a new ‘deposit’ tax of an additional 20 per cent of his salary over and above regular taxation.
The deposit law was introduced in May 2017 and holds money in ‘deposit’ funds, which are only released when the person seeking asylum leaves the country.
This law has caused serious economic and psychological damage. ASSAF, an NGO that works to support refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, has reported a 35 per cent increase in financial distress since the law went into effect, as well as a dramatic rise in the number of asylum seekers seeking assistance paying for food and nappies. There have also been reports of hunger, flats becoming overcrowded as people struggle to pay rent, and families worrying about being thrown out to the street. ASSAF has already reported a 209 per cent increase in people contacting them with mental health issues.*
Threats Of Deportation
With Alam and Bana you’re in the presence of Israelis: their formative years were spent in Israel. They speak Hebrew fluently (as well as good English) and know the country and culture intimately. Alam has finished Israeli high school, represented Israel in regional basketball matches, and is generally positive about his Israel experience . But all of this does nothing for his legal status, which is the same as when he first fled Egypt at the age of 11.
Alam was a candidate in the last round of threatened deportations since he fit each of the government’s criteria: single, male, over 21. His father had already been forced out of Israel in 2012 when the government deemed it safe enough for him to return to South Sudan. (He is now in Rwanda.) ‘I have never seen my mother so distressed. She didn’t stop crying. She said: if you have to leave, we’re all leaving. There is no way I am breaking this family apart again.’
Bana is also concerned, not just about her own fate, but of her family members too. “I was really worried that my brother could be deported” she says. “I know people die when they go back.”
Thanks to tireless campaigning by many organisations – and the efforts of asylum seekers themselves who spoke up publically about their plight – the government’s 2018 deportation plan was halted. But there is no promise that another similar plan will not be presented, and no promises that Alam’s status or quality of life will improve in the immediate future.
Young And Not Free
Alam and Bana grew up together in south Tel Aviv. Though both speak Hebrew fluently, they can’t become Israeli
Alam and Bana grew up together in South Tel Aviv. Both chose to share their stories publically to raise awareness about their community. Alam was interviewed by The Washington Post earlier this year when the deportation plan made international headlines. Bana spoke to private gatherings. She was also the face of the anti-deportation campaign.
Watching Alam and Bana you get a sense of both their extraordinariness and their ordinariness. Alam is a young man with concrete hopes for his future facing down uncertainty and desperation. When she graduates, Bana would like to become a lawyer: “I want to get at least two degrees.”
Alam can’t serve in the Israeli army, which further limits his integration into Israeli society and bars him from a rite of passage in this country. Initially ambivalent about this reality, he has become resigned to it. In another interview earlier this year he said “There’s nothing you can give to a country that doesn’t want you here.” His earning potential is severely limited and ultimately, his future in the place he now calls home is still unknown. And yet he continues to hope that things will change for the better.
‘I understood [in the campaign against deportation] that there are many, many people here who do want to help me and support me, people who do want me to stay. I want people to understand that we are just like everyone else and that we have nowhere else to go.’
Bana is likewise optimistic, “I feel Israeli like everyone else. The good things that have happened in my life have happened here.”
“My hopes for the future are that I finish school, get two degrees, and feel like I belong here. I believe I can belong here – and that people want me to belong here.”
But Israel has only recognised some 200 asylum seeker claims since it signed the refugee convention over 60 years ago – fewer than one per cent of claims, compared to an average of 10-50 per cent in other developed countries.
*In June 2018, as a result of a petition by ASSAF, Israeli law exempted ‘humanitarian cases’ from the deposit law, dropping the rate to 6% for women, minors and men over 60. However, it ignored the main providers of most families: men under 60.
Photo credits: laif / eyevine