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For African migrants, Israel is no picnic

An activist hangs a sign calling for an end to asylum-seeker deportations at Israel's Holot Detention Center on February 17, 2018
Ethan Freedman/i24NEWS
Ataklti Micheal Nati, an Eritrean migrant, tells i24NEWS he fled to Israel in search of freedom and rights

Down the road from an abandoned gas station, an Israeli flag is partially obscured by a welded wire mesh fence and barbed wire. Outside the fence, several straw mats and colorful blankets line the ground, upon which sits a table with a variety of pasta and rice dishes, hummus, bourekas, fruit, pita and spreads. For some of the residents of the Holot Detention Center in Israel’s south, this is the best meal they’ve had in months.

Most of Holot’s inhabitants are African asylum-seekers from Eritrea, a country under the repressive dictatorship of Isaias Afwerki, or from Sudan, a country embroiled in a civil war. Many escaped those countries and braved the dangerous East African smuggling routes looking for passageway to Israel, many suffering abuse, torture, and blackmail along the way.

One such person is Ataklti Micheal Nati, a 27-year-old Eritrean migrant, who left Eritrea 10 years ago. He is not alone. 5,000 Eritreans leave the country every month, according to the International Refugee Rights Initiative.

Nati was a 10th grade student, when the police came and took him away from his home in 2008. They accused him of trying to leave the country. Nati denied the accusation, saying that he was only trying to fulfill his studies to become an engineer. This was the moment, ironically, he knew he would have to leave.

Nati was taken to jail, where, in turn, he was transferred to the Eritrean army. “If you get moved into the army, you’re never going to leave,” Nati tells i24NEWS. “My father has been there since before I was born, and he’s there until today, serving in the army.”

“For my mother, it was very hard to raise the kids by herself. My father was in the army, and then I was in the army. After 10 months, I decided to run away from the army, and go back home and help my mother,” Nati says.

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The army then sent a letter to Nati’s mother, stating that if he did not return to the army, they would jail her. “After some time, I decided I would run away from my country.”

Undertaking this journey was not a decision made lightly. The route to Israel from Eritrea—through Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt—is notorious for its high levels of human trafficking and physical violence. Israel has also made this trek more difficult by clamping down on asylum seekers in 2010, tightening security along its border with the Sinai Peninsula.

Still, Nati left to Ethiopia, a country that went to war with Eritrea less than a decade previously resulting in a rocky, antagonistic relationship between the two countries.

“After I ran away, they said to my mother, ‘Your son fled to Ethiopia, and you have to pay the fine of 50,000 shekels [$14,113 USD].’ She didn’t have any money except for 3,000 nakfas [$199 USD], which she gave to them after I was safely in Ethiopia,” Nati says.

“When I was in Ethiopia, it was dangerous there. They had the secretary [general] from Eritrea inside the country, still controlling his people. When it was time to move again, we moved to Sudan.”

The risk of capture was still ever-present. “After I went through Sudan, I got to Egypt. They both have an agreement with Eritrea to send the people back,” Nati says. “And those that get sent back end up in an underground jail.”

“Afterwards, I decided to come to Israel. I paid $3,000 to get inside the country. I heard that Israel was a democracy, and I would get a chance to be a refugee, and get rights.”

In November, 2010, Nati crossed the border from the Sinai into Israel. There, an Israeli soldier took Nati to Saharonim Prison, a detention center for African asylum seekers in the Negev desert, where he stayed for two months.

“After I got released from jail, they gave me a bus ticket to South Tel Aviv. When I got there, I already knew some people from back home, but I was very lucky because many people who get there do not know anyone and end up in the park,” he said, referring to the notorious Levinsky Park, a squalid squatting ground for many African asylum seekers which has become emblematic of south Tel Aviv’s poverty and reputation as a refugee hub.

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Nati worked odd jobs at a hospital, at restaurants, at a hotel in ritzy Herzliya, before he was sent to the detention center at Holot. “Living here is very difficult. If we talk about the food, it’s a waste of time. Everyday, we get dry rice,” Nati says. “Every once in a while, someone brings us food. They feed us just enough to keep us from getting sick.”

“I have a dream that the government will fall back in my country and I can go to my country, to see my parents and begin to complete my dream to become an engineer,” Nati said. “I have a dream not only to build for myself, but to build for the people of my country.”

- ‘Infiltrators’ or ‘asylum seekers’? -

Facilities like the Holot Detention Center have been controversial in Israel.

In December 2017, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, voted to close down Holot by March 2018. The facility existed on murky legal grounds, housing people not been found guilty of any crime, one that did not distinguish between economic migrants and asylum seekers.

The Israeli court system has recently raised certain concerns regarding the status of African migrants, particularly those that escaped the Eritrean Army. Earlier this week, an appeals court announced that Eritreans who deserted military service and traversed to Israel could be considered asylum seekers.

Gilad Erdan, the Israeli Public Security Minister, commented on Twitter that Holot had become a “hotel for infiltrators at the public’s expense.” The facility costs 240 million shekels [$68 million USD] a year to operate.

The battle between the two branches is one of narrative: are the African migrants ‘infiltrators’ or ‘asylum seekers’?

Roughly 60,000 people have been processed after illegally entering the country, according to the Israeli government. About 37,000 African migrants remain in Israel, uncertain of what their future holds.

As part of an effort to reduce the number of African migrants, Israel has given them an ultimatum: leave now, and the Israeli government will give you $3,500 and one-way ticket to Africa, or face jail time.

The Israeli public seems to agree with the deportation of the African migrants. Nearly two-thirds of Israelis support the measure, according to the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University’s Peace Index poll. The breakdown is largely along partisan lines, with support highest among right-wing voters [78%], as opposed to centrists [35%] or left-wing voters [25%].

To more nationalist elements of the Israeli electorate, African migrants pose an existential threat to the demographics of Israel’s Jewish identity.

In 2010, the leader of the right-wing National Union party Ya’akov Katz forecasted, "There is no doubt that Tel Aviv residents will rush to Judea and Samaria when their city becomes African,” referring to the biblical term for the West Bank.

Ethan Freedman/i24NEWS

However, a vocal cohort has launched a “stop the deportation” campaign, placing flags with that slogan all over Tel Aviv. Outside Holot, two of their members, Inbar Cohen and Adi Berkovits, spoke about the discriminatory elements of the deportation measure.

“The fact that they’re black, they treat them different than other immigrants, like from the Philippines,” Berkovits, a 26-year-old student, tells i24NEWS.

Cohen mentions that the problem with the plan is that it scratches at the surface. “I think the color of the person scare you because of prejudice,” Cohen, a 33-year-old from Haifa, says. “We are here to show that those people are people just like you and me.”

The Holot facility holds about 1,200 people, and, on Saturday, hosted a picnic, potentially one of the facility’s last. Groups of people came soaked from rain in Tel Aviv, looking to provide support in whatever way they could. People brought food and created a potluck-type setting. Others brought instruments. Some were kicking around soccer balls.

Before leaving on the bus back to Tel Aviv, a large circle of people enclosed the blankets, the remaining people singing along with two guitars, a recorder and a sumsumia, a hand-held, harp-like instrument, harmonizing Jewish hymns and Bob Marley. After the music stopped, one of the migrants took the mic and praised the crowd for the love and joy they brought to the residents of Holot.

“Please explain to your government that we are brothers,” he said.

Ethan Freedman is an i24NEWS news editor


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