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Seeking refuge in Israel

Guardian: Documentary report on the deplorable conditions facing African refugees in Israel

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Story Transcript

VOICEOVER: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert called it a tsunami—a wave of African migrants are crossing into Israel, a country founded as a nation of refugees. It’s causing a crisis of conscience and identity.

ROMM LEWKOWICZ, HOTLINE FOR MIGRANT WORKERS (NGO): There are an estimated 6,000 refugees. Four thousand of them are currently living in Tel Aviv. Israel is in a limbo, ’cause on the one hand Israel is refusing to absorb the refugees; on the other hand it is forbidden to deport them back to Sudan or to Eritrea, nor to Egypt, due to the fact that they’re an enemy state.

YOHANNES LEMMA, DIRECTOR, AFRICAN REFUGEE DEVELOPMENT CENTRE: In our building there’s close to 340 people sleeps in total. And even sometimes people are sleeping in the corner here, on the stairs, and downstairs in the entrance. And people sleep outside, even. It’s full. It’s overcrowded. They are mostly from Eritrea, Ivory Coast, and a few from Ethiopia, and Sudanese.

RESIDENT: Ten people this center, ten people inside. Four in this, two in this, two in this.

VOICEOVER: At this moment, a friend entered the room who didn’t want to appear on camera for fear of reprisals if he were to be reported.

REFUGEE: Where we come from, Sudan, everyone’s paid up to $1,000. They smuggle people to Egypt. We pay another $850 to come to Israel. So finally we get in Israel border, we were shocked. We find nine body in the fence who’d been shot by Egyptian soldiers. And we have the female and a lot of children. We’re trying to get through the fence, then they start shooting us. A lot of [inaudible] they start fighting back. The Israel army, they heard the shot [inaudible] They thought there was Egyptians. They said, "No, it’s okay, it’s okay. Come on. We are Israeli. We are Israeli." They show us the flag. We thought we are safe, we are okay. [crosstalk] Tel Aviv. And there was 350 people in this building—women, children, men, all of them sleeping together, everybody confused.

LEMMA: Israel still just doesn’t have any kinds of policy to deal with the situation and doesn’t have any kinds of decision on the situation. It is [inaudible] organizations, like, it’s not clear, even, what the state is doing with refugees.

ZEEV FRIEDMAN, DIRECTOR OF WELFARE, TEL AVIV: We’re just trying to do our utmost when they’re here in Tel Aviv to treat them as human being. These shelters are not suitable. We can get a telephone call, 6 p.m., that a bus full with Africans coming to Tel Aviv. So we have to find them places.

LEWKOWICZ: But in fact there is no policy, so they’re being detained for many, many months. Then there’s no more place to put them in detention, so they’re being released to the streets. A few months afterwards, where there’s more place in the detention centers, those who got released to the street are being arrested and put back to prison. And then, at the end, we try to get their release to what we call an alternative custody, like families in kibbutzim.

VOICEOVER: Kibbutz Eilot is in the south of Israel and has been hosting refugees for almost two years.

YUVAL YELOVSKY, EDUCATION OFFICER, KIBBUTZ EILOT: What you see here in the place we’re in is a community of 200 Sudanese. We heard about their story in Sudan and Egypt. We accept them to the kibbutz to change their life in jail to the kibbutz.

MOHAMMAD: Welcome, welcome, welcome. Welcome. My name is Mohammad. I am from Darfur in West Sudan. All the family, they Darfur. I am [inaudible] two children.

INTERVIEWER: And what’s their name?

MOHAMMAD: Mohammad [inaudible].

INTERVIEWER: That’s your wife?

MOHAMMAD: The wife.

VOICEOVER: Israel has granted 500 Darfurians a temporary residency after a public outcry. But other Sudanese and African people don’t have any legal status and can be deported or arrested. Victoria invited us into her room at the kibbutz. She explained how she got separated from her 19-year-old daughter Rita and seven-year-old son Joseph. They came from south Sudan through Egypt, crossing the border in February. In the chaos, they got separated. But because of the lack of official process, Rita and Joseph were held in Ketziot Prison for more than a month. Their story is far from unique. There are currently around 100 minors being held in detention. The lucky ones are released to the custody of the kibbutz.

YELOVSKY: The kibbutz is taking care of their health problems, education; everything they need, we do that. We’re doing many things voluntarily, many, many things. And the kibbutz is putting much more than it gets.

VOICEOVER: But the kibbutz is getting something. They are paid to host a community by local hotels who employ the Sudanese.

YELOVSKY: Of course the money is an issue, because this is a business. You must say that. It’s humanitarian, but it’s part of the business.

VOICEOVER: The Sudanese and the kibbutz insist they didn’t come for economic reasons, and their uncertain legal status is their most pressing concern.

REFUGEE: Came here, Israel. Got to be free. I’m not a criminal. I am a somebody who come to be [inaudible] I cannot be keeping in the freezer. I’m not a criminal. I’m a refugee, so I need a life. We are not coming because of the room—we have room there. We are not coming to work in the hotel—we have hotel there. So let us be free, and then we work.

INTERVIEWER: Are you angry?

REFUGEE: I’m not—I’m not happy. I’m not happy. I don’t know what will happen from me.

FRIEDMAN: We know there are three million, two to three million Africans in Egypt. If they’re going to release plenty of work permits, you know, it’s spreading the word, and then to Israel there will come thousands, and many will come here. We understand what it is to be a refugee. We know in our collective memory, from our history, for more than 2,000 years. So we understand our commitment to treat them as human beings and to have compassion. But on the other hand, everything is measurable. The question is: what is we are waiting to the government policy?

VOICEOVER: With no national policy, the problems falls to NGOs and civil society.

VOLUNTEER: I’m just volunteering. I’m doing it because my heart is breaking to see those people without any help. And I’m looking for somebody of the government to do something.

STREETER: Israel cannot take them, cannot keep them.

INTERVIEWER: Why not?

STREETER: Because Israel is a poor country. It’s not made for all this people. [inaudible]

LEWKOWICZ: As the third-generation to Holocaust survivors, I find it absolutely insane that a country has such a short-term memory. Israel is afraid of absorbing too many refugees that will shake the Jewish majority, and I think that what’s frightens the government the most.

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Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.