The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), believes that some 3,000 African refugees live in Israel, including over 2,000 from Sudan. However, the state has not yet formulated a clear policy on their status or rights. A recent government decision said the country would absorb, on a one-time basis, 498 refugees from Darfur.
“There are roughly 3,000 refugees who entered Israel in the past two and half years. About 500 are Darfurians,” said Sharon Harel from the UNHCR in Tel Aviv.
Israel said that since most asylum seekers first went to other lands before reaching the Jewish state, they are in essence "shopping for asylum," and should return to those countries. The refugees claim they were not safe in the other states, such as Egypt.
"The State of Israel will absorb a limited number of asylum-seekers who entered Israel illegally via the Egyptian border," and would "work towards returning [the rest] to Egypt or their countries of origin… provided that their lives are not in danger," a cabinet statement on 23 September said.
Many recent arrivals are having difficulty finding decent accommodation or sufficient food: Some 250 African refugees who crossed illegally into Israel in the past few weeks are living without much food, in rundown shelters in Tel Aviv.
One such shelter visited by IRIN is home to over 100 asylum-seekers. The toilets were blocked, there was a terrible stench and conditions were unhygienic. One makeshift shower served all the beleaguered residents.
Without jobs and completely dependent on limited aid from volunteers, the threat of hunger is not far off. Some days all they can get are leftovers, Shlomit Bernstein, a volunteer aid worker, told IRIN.
Abdelrahman Hamid, an asylum-seeker from Darfur who lives in the shelter, said he did not know how he would feed himself as he had no money.
Apart from the Sudanese, many of the other asylum-seekers are from Eritrea or Côte d'Ivoire, and unlike the Sudanese they have no papers at all, which makes them fearful of going onto the streets in case immigration police stop them.
"I thought about working illegally so I could move out of the shelter but I'm afraid the immigration police will arrest me. So I stay here and hope for the best," said Ben, a young Eritrean awaiting an interview with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to get papers.
Photo: Tamar Dressler/IRIN
|Some African asylum-seekers in Israel lack proper accomodation|
Furthermore, a recent opinion poll conducted by the Keivoon Institute showed that nearly half of the Israeli public supports the government's decision to expel most of the refugees.
Observers say this is a major change, as the public was initially sympathetic to the plight of the Africans. Now most accept the government's position that "they are not refugees, they are economic migrants." Many also said they were concerned that the asylum-seekers are Muslims.
Adam, a young Sudanese man who has stayed in the shelter for over a month, said he had managed to find a job, but was still having problems. "I am still trying to find a flat with some other refugees, but many landlords will not rent to Sudanese," he told IRIN.
The waiting game
“We receive over 30 [new] requests at our door daily. Getting an interview may take months,” UNHCR’s Harel admitted. “We grant Sudanese refugees temporary papers allowing them to work and [which] protect them from arrest, but the [asylum seekers from other countries] must wait for an interview.”
While waiting for the results of their review the asylum-seekers are not allowed to work and rely heavily on volunteers and non-governmental aid groups with limited funds. With winter approaching, many of the shelter's residents are worried about how they will get adequate food and clothing.
The asylum-seekers in the Tel Aviv shelter were arrested on arrival in Israel after crossing the dangerous border with Egypt but were subsequently released due to lack of space in the Ktsiyot detention centre for African illegal migrants, established by the government in July. The centre now holds hundreds of African asylum seekers.