In a Refugee Nation

Givon Detention Center; photo by Laura Berger

by Laura Berger

Abdi, a shepherd by trade, was 19 when he finally reached Israel’s border in February 2009. To get to Israel, he had paid a trafficker $1,800 to drive him, hidden in a secret compartment with other refugees under piles of refuse, from his homeland, Somalia, across Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. But as soon as he arrived to safety, he was arrested and placed in the Ketziot Detention Center in the Negev desert.

I met Abdi in the Givon Detention Center, where he and over 100 other refugees and migrant workers were being kept “prior to deportation,” which often adds up to years of waiting. We sat across a picnic table and he told me his story. It was nearly 90 degrees and there was no air conditioning in the detention center. The sun streamed down through wire netting that took the place of a ceiling, in order to give the prisoners “outdoor time.” Abdi said the cells where the prisoners sleep, sometimes 16 to a room, are even hotter.

This is not an unusual welcome for refugees that arrive in Israel from the border with Egypt. The current wave of refugees from Africa started in early 2006, after a protest by thousands of Sudanese refugees in Cairo against their living conditions and the UNHCR’s suspension of their Refugee Status Determination Process. These refugees, after camping out in front of the UNHCR office for three months, were forcibly removed by Egyptian authorities in a violent incident that left 28 refugees dead, including several children. Ever since, thousands have crossed the Sinai desert despite the danger of being shot by Egyptian soldiers or being trafficked by the people they pay to help them arrive safely.

In Israel, they face xenophobia and hostility from government officials who fear that treating the refugees well may cause more to follow. While many refugees are fleeing war, government oppression, or other life-threatening dangers, Eli Yishai, the Minister of the Interior, calls them “infiltrators” and attacks human rights organizations that try to help them. Yaakov Katz, the Chairman of the Knesset Committee on Foreign Workers, has published articles stating that African refugees are a threat to the Jewish state, with statements like, “The leaders of Sudan and Eritrea, in collaboration with the Egyptians, are conquering the State of Israel.” In fact, the Israeli government has already begun construction on a barrier along the Egyptian border to prevent future refugees from crossing.

Abdi, shy and thin, only knows that for some reason the Israeli government has decided that he is a threat. “If I go back to Somalia, I have no protection and I will probably be killed. Many tribal and political groups attack each other, and I don’t know why they targeted me. But twice already I was beaten by the Shababi Fighters, the most dangerous group, and they left me for dead in 2008.”

Soon after he recovered, he left the country, without a passport or any travel documents, hoping to reach Israel, where he heard it was safe. Instead, Israel’s Ministry of the Interior tried to get him to sign a form agreeing to be returned to Somalia.

Israel, a nation of refugees, was one of the leading countries in drafting the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, influenced by the Holocaust. According to one of Israel’s leading Holocaust scholars, Yehuda Bauer, “It is a scandal for this government to adopt a policy of refoulment [driving them back], which is exactly what the Swiss government did during World War II to mostly Jewish refugees.” The Hotline for Migrant Workers, an organization that helps African refugees as well as trafficked women and migrant workers in Israel, has stated that by detaining or returning refugees, Israel is violating this international convention.

The convention gives guidance in the case that refugees enter unlawfully into the country of refuge – in this case, Israel cannot impose penalties on refugees simply on account of their illegal entry or presence, as long as they present themselves to authorities and show good cause for their presence. Detention is only to be used when necessary, and only until they gain status. But in Israel, fewer than 1% of refugees have been given any regular status, the majority being detained or given “conditional release” visas, which allow them to remain in the country without being detained, but with no other formal rights.

Things are only getting worse for refugees. In November, the Israeli government announced that employing asylum seekers would be considered illegal. In December, the Knesset announced a plan to build an even larger detention center for “African infiltrators” near the border between Israel and Egypt. For Abdi and other refugees like him, these signs are leading to a choice to return to dangerous situations in their home countries rather than spend another year or more in prison in Israel.

“I’m just waiting to be deported,” he said. “I have applied to every organization, and no one can help me. I know it’s dangerous back in Somalia, but I’ve had enough here.”

Abdi’s name was changed at his request.

Laura Berger is a current second-year student at Fordham Law, hoping to practice immigration law after graduating in 2012. She spent last summer interning at the Hotline for Migrant Workers in Tel Aviv.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Social Action Now issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.