Ethnocracy: Israel's African Refugees

Directors | Lia Tarachansky and Jesse Freeston

Country | Israel / Palestine

Year | 2015, Languages | Spanish, English, Arabic, Hebrew

Subtitles | English, Duration | 53 min 

Production | Naretiv Productions for TeleSUR 

Una pelicula de Naretiv Productions para teleSUR

(Enero 2015, 54 mins)
Co-director, co-camarógrafo y co-editor

Lia Tarachansky con Jesse Freeston

“The crisis of Africa is a crisis of all of humanity” says Sergio Yahni in this film. Many have seen the difficulty, often fatal, that many Africans have had seeking to leave the continent by boat. For those unable or unwilling to take that risk, the only piece of land that connects Africa to Asia and Europe is the territory today known as Israel-Palestine. While few planned to stay in Israel, thousands found themselves in a massive, open-air prison in the Negev Desert. Originally broadcast in Spanish across Latin America on teleSUR, we now offer it free in English.

“La crisis de África es la crisis de la humanidad entera” dice Sergio Yahni. Hoy en día, el único pedazo de tierra firme que conecta el continente de África al resto del mundo es el territorio en disputa conocido como Israel-Palestina. Una cerca levantada en 2014 cerró, por primera vez en la historia de nuestra especie, esta ruta terrestre. Y ahora ¿qué pasa a los refugiados africanos que aún se encuentran en el territorio disputado bajo control israelí?

African refugees in the Negev Desert

African refugees in the Negev Desert

The Story

 

Five years before the revolutions of the Arab Spring, on the last day of 2005, thousands of Egyptian police officers stormed a protest encampment in downtown Cairo. The tent city the police invaded was erected three months earlier by African refugees, and stood outside the offices of the UNHCR. The Egyptian forces opened fire killing at least 20 and injuring dozens.

 

The Tent City was the refugees’ protest against oppressive conditions they’ve faced in Egypt, and the UN agency’s neglect to defend them against exploitation, racism, and frequent violence. Shortly after, many asylum seekers realized they couldn’t return south to their war-torn homeland, and began heading north, towards Israel. For those who chose the only alternative route, through Libya to Europe, that path would shortly close too as civil war was soon to break out.

 

This is how the film’s main protagonists, Solomon, Mulugeta, and Domoz along with thousands of others found themselves in Israel. For refugees from Sudan, setting foot in Israel is an offence punishable with ten-year imprisonment were they ever to return home. For the Eritrean refugees, the very act of leaving their country, one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships, is too a grave offence. It was therefore clear that their flight to freedom was to be a one-way road that many won’t survive. 

 

Between Cairo and Israel lies the vast peninsula of the Sinai desert, home to the infamous Bedouin mafia. When the African refugees began tracking this route, a multi-billion dollar human trafficking industry was born. To make it across to the other side many would be forced to part with all their belongings. Hundreds would be abducted and tortured, forced to beg their families back home to send bribes to set them free to continue their journey. Those who survive would then tread the open desert, often facing Egyptian Forces’ fire, as they would attempt to run the border to safety. 

 

As they would set out on this perilous journey, however, most asylum seekers would not know that Israel is an Ethnocracy because it defines itself as the Jewish nation and therefore has no immigration process for non-Jews. It therefore does not recognize refugees’ asylum claims. Despite being a signatory to international conventions, Israel refuses to legislate laws that will allow asylum seekers to gain status as doing so would require to recognize the millions of Palestinian refugees it itself exiled since 1948. 

 

Still, many describe their entry to Israel as akin to “being born again”. In the early years of their arrival they were picked up at the border by the Israeli army, given food and emergency health care at interim processing camps. After a few weeks they would then be bussed to major cities and given a de facto right to work. Taking up the most labor-intensive jobs in construction, cleaning, restaurants, and hotels, the refugees would power Israel’s booming service and tourism industries.

It wouldn’t be long, however, that the asylum seekers found they were not welcome in Israel either. Their first encounter with hostility would be in the very neighborhoods where they were bused by the government from the processing camps. Here, in the country’s most impoverished communities they would be left without basic shelter or services, leaving many homeless. The center of their anguish became Levinsky Park, just outside the Central Bus Station where they would first step foot in Tel Aviv. After days or weeks of sleeping in the park, many would find precarious work and housing, often sharing one bedroom among many. 

 

Exploitative landlords would then take advantage of their powerlessness often extorting rents many times the apartments’ worth. As the prices increased, the neighborhood’s veteran residents would quickly turn on the refugees, blaming them for the government’s lack of policy. 

 

Shapira, Neve Sheanan, and HaTikva are Tel Aviv’s poorest neighborhoods. Originally built for the Jewish immigrants from the Arab world, they remain the most impoverished communities in the country, with the highest percentage of unemployment, drug abuse, and prostitution. 

 

These communities’ frustration, coupled with racism against the Africans quickly devolved into violence, and many refugees began feeling unsafe in their own homes. Those, like Domoz, who managed to open small businesses saw them attacked, their makeshift kindergartens firebombed, and enraged rioters pillage through their streets indiscriminately attacking anyone with dark skin. Extremist politicians would soon jump on the bandwagon, promising to deport the refugees, and “make their lives miserable”. 

 

Politicians from the Right and Left too joined in the anti-refugee momentum, with the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself unrolling a five-point plan to rid the country of the asylum seekers. The first phase saw the creation of the Oz Police Unit whose job would be to patrol these neighborhoods and intimidated the refugees. An impenetrable barbed wire fence was then constructed along the Egyptian border, running the entire 240 km route of the Africa-Asia continental divide. 

 

Not reviewing the refugees’ asylum claims, the government instead issues “group protection,” promising not to deport refugees from certain countries. Many countries’ group protection was then removed, including for refugees from Liberia, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo beginning a series of mass deportations. For the remaining asylum seekers, nearly all from Eritrea and Sudan, the government constructed an “open prison.” It would become the largest jail for refugees in the industrial world. 

 

It was then the refugees’ patience ran out. One night, after the announcement the government will now begin mass imprisonment, thousands simply walked out of their jobs, and ran through the streets chanting “No More Prisons! We Want Freedom! No More Prisons! We Want Freedom!” 

 

They then decided to organize. 

Announcing a three-day strike, refugees marched to eight European embassies and the headquarters of the UN demanding either basic rights or relocation. For weeks their protests marched through Tel Aviv, culminating in a mass rally in front of the City Hall where nearly half the asylum seekers in the country assembled. For hours refugees spoke to the crowds, telling the story of their flight for safety and freedom, and chanting “We Are Refugees! We Are Human Beings!” 

 

The refugees’ cries however fell on deaf ears. The government responded by revoking their right to work and announcing their visas will now need renewing on a monthly basis. To ensure most land in the “open-prison”, the Ministry of Interior shortened its working hours to four a week, making it nearly impossible for most to renew their visas on time. 

 

This is how thousands found themselves indefinitely imprisoned in Hulot, an open-air prison camp located in the middle of the Negev desert. It is surrounded by military firing zones and other prisons, so while the refugees are allowed to enter and leave for hours at a time, they have nowhere to go. 

 

It was from here that they witnessed Israel’s last assault on Gaza, only twenty kilometers away. Here, they frequently dodged incoming rockets from the Strip, unable to escape to bomb shelters, like their guards. It was made clear their only option out would be to waive their asylum claim and voluntarily deport. 

Because of the dictatorship in Eritrea and raging war in Sudan, without their agreement to leave “voluntarily,” the Israeli government wouldn’t be able to deport the remaining refugees. It has therefore signed agreements with Uganda and Rwanda. In exchange for arms, civil construction, and other services, the two African nations agreed to take the Sudanese and Eritrean refugees. Despite the option, most would still choose endless imprisonment.

 

In March 2015, the Israeli government announced that after careful legal consultation, it will now deport the remaining refugees to Uganda and Rwanda against their will.