Saturday night opened a historic week for the struggle of African asylum seekers in Israel. Following last week’s Freedom March where hundreds of asylum seekers defied Israel’s imprisonment policy and walked out of the open-air prison the government built for them this year, this week, their movement announced a three-day workers’ strike that included simultaneous demonstrations outside nine embassies, and the largest protest of refugees in Israel’s history. The Real News’ Lia Tarachansky spoke to Filimon Razaneh, an Eritrean asylum seeker, Yonatan Gher, the Director of Amnesty International – Israel, and Siom Domoz, a daycare owner and a central figure in the Eritrean refugee freedom movement in Israel.
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LIA TARACHANSKY, PRODUCER: Saturday night opened a historic week for the struggle of African asylum seekers in Israel. Following last week’s Freedom March, where hundreds of asylum seekers defied Israel’s imprisonment policy and walked out of the open-air prison the government built for them this year, this week their movement announced a three-day workers’ strike.
UNIDENTIFIED: Today, this is a [incompr.] day. When we are together, then we will be ables at least to get our rights. No more prison.
CROWD: No more prison!
TARACHANSKY: Because African asylum seekers are not legally allowed to work by Israeli regulations, they are often exploited by their employers. Today, nearly all restaurants, hotels, and construction sites depend on the refugees’ cheap, unprotected labour.
So the refugees decided to fight back and organize. Thousands gathered in Tel Aviv from various cities in Israel.
FILIMON RAZANEH, ASYLUM SEEKER FROM ERITREA: ‘Cause why we are stopping three days from work is that we just want to show to the Israeli people and the Israeli government that we are not only a burden, but also productive in the economy of the country.
TARACHANSKY: Siom Domoz owns a daycare in south Tel Aviv. He is an Eritrean asylum seeker and one of the central figures to organize the refugees.
SIOM DOMOZ, DAYCARE OWNER, ACTIVIST, AND ASYLUM SEEKER: Something have to be done. People cannot just live in limbo. We’re just sick and tired. You know. We are just to that point when it’s like, okay, you know, you want to deport me? Do it. You know. You want to put me in camp? Well, do it. Don’t just do it and don’t do it, you know? Something have to be done. And that’s where the people are–know something have to be done.
TARACHANSKY: What did you think of the meeting?
DOMOZ: I was surprised. I was surprised, ’cause I was expecting 500 people. That’s what I was expecting.
TARACHANSKY: And how many were there?
DOMOZ: Probably about 2,000, I would say, if not more. I would say 2,000. And I was saying, like, I was expecting 500 people because this is a meeting that was going to talk about–sorry–about what’s going to happen tomorrow. Tomorrow I’m expecting, you know, [incompr.] 5,000, 7,000 peoples.
TARACHANSKY: But to the astonishment of many, not five but twenty-five thousand refugees showed up at Rabin Square the next morning–nearly half of the refugees in the country.
UNIDENTIFIED WITH CROWD: We didn’t come here for work. We want our rights. Refugee rights. We are refugees. We are not infiltrators.
TARACHANSKY: Together they made up the biggest demonstration of asylum-seekers in Israel’s history.
CROWD: No more prison!
TARACHANSKY: Yonathan Gher is the director of Amnesty International – Israel.
YONATHAN GHER, DIRECTOR, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL – ISRAEL: Well, until now, refugees had temporary visas that were given for periods that were initially a year, then six months, and they’re gradually being reduced. Now most of the visas, if they are issued at all, they’re issued for a month at a time, and at the end of which each individual is required to go to ministry and ask that that visa be extended. And that is a very convenient way for the ministry to start putting people in jail. So either an individual is unable to get a new visa, and then, if stopped by immigration on the street they are without visa, and therefore being taken to the detention center–or when it expires they go to the ministry, and if they are able to get in line at all, then they’re given a visa for one more month, and [incompr.] at the end of which they’re required to report to the detention center. And our feeling is that they will continue doing this until the detention center is full.
TARACHANSKY: So why not round up all of the refugees and put them in the prison?
GHER: Well, they’re–right now they are indeed rounding up as many refugees as they can and putting them in prison. They’re not calling it prison. They’re conveniently calling it open detention center. It’s in the middle of the desert. It requires people to check in three times a day. So it is in effect a jail. They’re just not calling it that. They feel that they’ve found this nice workaround.
TARACHANSKY: The following day, refugees once again gathered in Levinsky Park and organized nine simultaneous demonstrations at embassies throughout Tel Aviv.
TARACHANSKY: If Israel decided to deport the Eritreans, what would happen?
DOMOZ: Well, if we are lucky, they can deport us all together at once. The Eritrean government will deal with 40,000 Eritreans who are going to come from here. You know? So that could be some kind of change there. But if they send out, like, 50 by 50, 100 by 100, of course those people definitely would be killed. If not killed, they will be all in big underground prisons.
TARACHANSKY: Since the doors are now closed, no more asylum-seekers can actually come into the country. What do you recommend that the government do with the 60,000 or so people that are here?
GHER: We want the rights that are dictated by both the refugee treaty, as well as other human rights treaties, to be applied to the community of 60,000 people who live here. That means the right to adequate housing, adequate work, nutrition, health services, social services. These people need to be taken care of.
Right now, the situation is that whenever someone came across the Egyptian border, they were given a one-way ticket to south Tel Aviv, which is a very poor neighborhood, and created a concentration of refugees living in that area, which then creates a lot of tension with the residents of that area. We are seeing no proactive work on the side of the government to create adequate solutions for people to live, to work, or in any other way access food and the other means that they need.
DOMOZ: Check it out. See who is a refugee, give him his or her rights, and see who you think–but according to the international law, you know–and see who is a migrant worker, give him a work permit or deport him. That’s–.
TARACHANSKY: Why do you think Israel is not doing that?
DOMOZ: Because when you give–I would say that when you give someone a right, when you recognize someone as a refugee, that person have to go through the process. And their rights comes like–you know, it’s a jumping point to some other status, I would say.
TARACHANSKY: In the second part of this story, Siom Domoz speaks about the conditions under the Eritrean dictatorship that set hundreds of thousands to seek asylum abroad, including in Israel.
For The Real News, I’m Lia Tarachansky in Tel Aviv.
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