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The absurdity of asylum in Israel

Last update - Saturday, February 1, 2014, 02:25 By Ronit Lentin

Last December some 200 African asylum seekers started a march from the open detention centre Holot in the south of the country towards the Knesset, the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem. “We are not afraid to march, sun, rain or snow,” said Masala, a young Eritrean taking part in the demonstration. “We’ll march to Jerusalem to ask the government for our rights. We can no longer stay in this prison.”

After two days of marching in rough weather conditions, supported by Israeli human rights groups, they were all arrested and returned to the Saharonim jail, where the conditions are harsher.
Altogether some 53,000 asylum seekers, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, live in Israel. Most have reached the country through Egypt after a harrowing journey from areas where massacres, murders, civil wars and political persecution are daily occurrences.
In Israel, however, they are not called asylum seekers, but rather ‘infiltrators’ – a term harking back to the 1950s when Palestinian refugees, expelled from Israel during and after the 1948 war, attempted to return but were prevented from doing so.
While a signatory to the Geneva Convention, Israel has adamantly refused to regard the applications of these asylum seekers as legitimate. Indeed, the government has passed a law against ‘infiltration’. Although the bill was overturned by the High Court, a law proposing to jail any African asylum seekers for one year without trial, and detain asylum seekers in general for an unlimited period, was approved by the cabinet last November.
None of the applications by these asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan was heard in Israel – which does not deport them, because they risk death if returned to their home countries. Throughout the world 84 per cent of all Eritrean and 64 per cent of all Sudanese asylum applications are granted, yet Israel defines them a illegal ‘infiltrators’ or ‘labour migrants,' refusing to entertain their applications.
Upon arrival, many have been put on buses to the south of Tel Aviv, which houses many asylum seekers. South Tel Aviv, already hosting disadvantaged populations, thus bears the brunt, and there have been many violent clashes between local Israelis and asylum seekers, said to consist of many criminals, though the truth, according to Ha’aretz, is that many of them are highly educated and motivated.
If the government diverts the resources used to jail them to providing them with help with accommodation, employment, health and education, the paper argues, the pressure on Tel Aviv’s disadvantaged neighbourhoods would be alleviated.
Ostracised, racialised and prevented from taking up employment, Israel’s asylum seekers are either housed in detention centres in the south  – which runs the risk of becoming an overcrowded, poorly resourced open air jail – or in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, scrabbling for any nixers they can get.
Israel has been criticised internationally for its refugee policy, yet it seems that the main issue is its Jewish identity and Jewish majority that it’s fighting to preserve. At the same time as rejecting asylum seekers and preventing them from accessing employment, Israel imports labour migrants to fill labour shortages in a variety of sectors, from construction to agriculture to personal care.
For me, as daughter of a family whose members were persecuted and racialised during the Holocaust, it is hard to accept Israel’s refusal to recognise the right of persecuted people knocking at its doors. Notwithstanding its occupation of Palestine, Israel’s strong economy and population are well able to offer refuge to any asylum seekers that cross the border.

Ronit Lentin is associate professor of Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. Her column appears fortnightly in Metro Éireann

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