Blessing Akachukneu was already looking for a new place to live when her south Tel Aviv apartment, which doubles as a day-care centre, was firebombed in April. Her Israeli neighbours, she explained, had complained to the landlord about the noise from the day-care centre and she had been asked to leave. Otherwise, she had not had any problems in Shapira neighbourhood.
So Akachukneu was shocked when Molotov cocktails were thrown at her flat. Four other apartments – all home to African asylum-seekers – were targeted in the attack. Haim Mula, a 20-year-old Israeli man Shapira residents call “quiet” and “religious”, was arrested in connection with the incident. Police believe the attacks were racially motivated; Mula had been detained recently for throwing eggs at a Sudanese refugee.
A week later, two Molotov cocktails were thrown at the south Tel Aviv apartment of Nigerian workers.
But this was not the first time the African community was singled out for violence. In January 2011, a burning tyre was thrown into the Ashdod apartment of five Sudanese refugees. Two of the men were hospitalized. On the same night, three teenagers – Israeli-born daughters of African migrants – were beaten up by a group of Jewish youth. One of the attackers was armed with a knife; another allegedly shouted racial slurs at the girls.
“I’m afraid that something like this will happen again,” Akachukneu told IRIN.
The incidents point to escalating tensions between Jewish Israelis and the country’s roughly 45,000 African asylum-seekers. Human rights groups say 85 percent of these men, women, and children are refugees from Eritrea and Sudan.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called African asylum-seekers “infiltrators” who are a “concrete threat to the Jewish and democratic character of the country”. Speaking to IRIN, Ministry of Interior spokeswoman Sabine Hadad said most of the country’s “infiltrators” are work migrants who do not meet the definition of a refugee.
The country’s laws define an “infiltrator” as anyone who enters Israel other than through an official border crossing, but according to Amnesty International, the term “infiltrators” is inappropriate because it carries connotations of threats and criminality, and fuels xenophobia and discrimination against asylum-seekers and migrants.
Human rights groups also point out that the government does not process requests for asylum. But in what seems to be a nod to the dangerous circumstances they face in their home countries, Israel is not currently deporting Eritrean or Sudanese citizens.
While they are allowed to stay, Israel does not give these asylum-seekers work visas. Most take odd jobs. In historically poor south Tel Aviv, they can find relatively cheap housing. They tend to live in cramped conditions, sometimes as many as eight to a room. Those that cannot find enough work to pay rent, end up sleeping in parks.
Locals say crime has risen as the African community has grown. They also say the increased demand for housing has driven prices up in the area. Some accuse the asylum-seekers of stealing much-needed jobs.
Protests against “Infiltrators”
In the past two years, Jewish Israelis have held a number of protests against the presence of Africans in south Tel Aviv and have called on the state to deport the “infiltrators”. While the demonstrations have a decidedly xenophobic feel, the protesters accurately point out that the government is doing nothing about the social problems that come with the Africans’ unemployment and homelessness – a concern shared by human rights groups.
But while recent incidents suggest more violence could be on the horizon, south Tel Aviv’s refugees say they are most concerned with making a living.
Tekne Micaele, 38, fled Eritrea after doing 10 years’ national service without pay. Like most of the asylum-seekers in Israel, he walked here, crossing the southern border with Egypt on foot. The journey is hazardous with many of the asylum-seekers often held by gangs until their relatives pay a ransom.
For the past year and a half, Micaele has lived in a south Tel Aviv park. He gets food from an Israeli grassroots organization which offers refugees a meal a day. While no one has threatened him physically or verbally, Micaele’s biggest problem is the fact that he does not have a work visa.
In early 2010, Israeli authorities announced they would crack down on employers who hired undocumented workers, hitting them with steep fines. The state also conducted a media blitz warning of the consequences of hiring illegal labourers. Two years later, it seems that the campaign has had some effect – Micaele and other asylum-seekers report that potential employers usually ask to see a visa and are reluctant to hire them without one.
Micaele sums up his situation: “No work, no house, nothing.”
Another asylum-seeker, Mimi Hylameshesh, 28, has a job cleaning houses, but struggles to make ends meet. On a good month, she makes just over 2,000 NIS (US$523). Rent costs her 1,500 NIS and she pays 600 NIS to send her three-and-a-half-year old daughter to an unlicensed day-care centre.
Hylameshesh and her husband escaped national service and fled Eritrea four years ago. Her husband went on to Libya and then to Europe. Arriving in Israel alone with an eight-month-old daughter, Hylameshesh, spent a year in prison, where she was held without charge, before coming to south Tel Aviv.
Under a new law passed in January, anyone who enters Israel illegally – including Sudanese and Eritreans – can be detained for up to three years, even if there is no intention of deporting them. In some cases, this time period can be extended, even indefinitely. Amnesty International criticized the law arguing that automatic and prolonged detention violates international law and standards.
Hylameshesh’s husband currently lives in Switzerland but does not send Hylameshesh money. “It is hard for me,” she says, adding that there is always enough food for her child, but not always enough for her.