An Ivorian immigrant recounts his return from Israel: “I left Tel Aviv before I was forced out"

African immigrants often sleep rough in Levinksky Park, Tel Aviv. Photo courtesy of the African Refugee Development Centre).
 
First it was illegal South Sudanese immigrants, now it’s illegal Ivorian immigrants who are facing the threat of deportation from Israel. As part of the government’s plan to eventually repatriate all illegal African immigrants, the Minister of the Interior announced on June 28 that Ivorians living unlawfully in Israel had just over two weeks to leave the country. Our Observer, an Ivorian immigrant, told us about his return from Tel Aviv to Abidjan.
 
Police began arresting Ivorians still in Israel on July 17, the day after the government’s deadline for departure for the 2,000 nationals from Ivory Coast it claims had been living in Israel illegally. (This figure is contested by organisations which work with immigrants as well the Ivorian embassy; they estimate that the number is actually between 500 and 800.) On the night of July 17, a group of around 20 Ivorians was arrested in Tel Aviv. Yael Aberdam, who works as a project manger for the African Refugee Development Centre, an aid organisation based in Tel Aviv, said that Ivorians were being “hunted down” by the police: “Last week, there were identity checks being carried out on every street corner. Lots of people have told us that they have been forced to go into hiding.”
 
In 2004, the United Nations declared that Ivory Coast was a “crisis state” and Israel offered to welcome refugees. They began to trickle into the country. Then, in 2010, a wave of Ivorians fled Ivory Coast to escape the violence that broke out following the disputed election between incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo and the apparent winner of the election, Alassane Ouattara. But when Ouattara was officially invested as president, Israel decided to end group protection for Ivory Coast citizens. The authorities felt that peace had returned to Ivory Coast and it was therefore safe enough for people to go home.
 
Having group protection meant that Ivorian immigrants who were waiting to have their asylum claims examined were granted a temporary residency permit, known as a “visa 2A5”. This residency permit had to be renewed every three months, and the holder of the permit was not allowed receive welfare benefits or to work, although many employers ignored this ban. But in February, the authorities stopped renewing these visas.
 
Photo courtesy of the African Refugee Development Centre.
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"The Israelis aren’t racist. They just don’t like black people"

Kéassa (not his real name) returned to Abidjan with his wife and two children on July 12, four days before the ultimatum. He chose not to accept the money being offered by the Israeli government to Ivorians who agreed to leave by July 16 ($500 per adult and $100 per child).
 
Initially, when I heard people talking about the government’s decision to deport us, I thought it was a just a rumour. But when I lost my job – undoubtedly because of people’s increasing hostility towards Ivorians – I realised that life was going to get much more difficult for us in Israel. I told my wife that I wanted to leave before the ultimatum because I didn’t want to suffer the shame of being arrested and kicked out.
 
I came to Tel Aviv alone five years ago because I wanted to earn enough money to support my family. After two years I was hired as a handyman by a real estate company, and my wife and children came to join me [editor’s note: until May, when Israel’s Minister of the Interior Eli Yishai threatened to fine local authorities who hired illegal immigrants, the authorities had long turned a blind eye to clandestine employment]. For three years we had a much better life than we would have had in Abidjan. We didn’t have many Israeli friends, just a few colleagues and a neighbour. But my job was going well and my wife often got jobs cleaning houses.
 
"My son told me that he was getting dirty looks"
 
During the last few months, my son told me that he was getting more and more dirty looks in the street and at school. I was never physically assaulted but I did feel that people in the street and at work were looking at me more aggressively [Editor’s note: there have been several public demonstrations against immigrants recently and a number of politicians have made comments that some organisations denounced as “incitement to racial hatred”]. When the South Sudanese were forced to leave, I started to worry about my family’s safety. I asked my Israeli neighbour what he thought I should do and he told me not to worry. But at the beginning of July he changed his mind and advised me to book a flight.
 
I have friends who decided to stay but I haven’t heard from them since I left. Most of them are worried that if they come back to Abidjan people will think they are pro-Gbagbo [Editor’s note: after the post-election crisis, supporters of Laurent Gbagbo received threats and some were forced to leave the country]. They would rather go to Cameroon, Benin, or Togo than come back to Ivory Coast.
 
I don’t think Israelis are racist ; they just don’t like black people. They saw too many African immigrants arrive in their country in these past few years. [The government estimates that 62,000 African immigrants entered the country illegally since 2006.]
 
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Peggy Bruguière.

Comments

How you can help African Asylum Seekers in Israel

There are several organizations led by Israelis which are helping the African refugees. Their mission is compassionate and real, and comes from a love of Israel and wanting to make it a better place. You can help by finding out more about the situation at these websites, and supporting them by donating money and "liking" them on facebook:

http://www.ardc-israel.org/

http://www.assaf.org.il/en/

join "Right Now" here in America, and sign the petition:

http://www.facebook.com/rightnowafricansinisrael

The "demographic threat"-- that Israel will be overrun and cease being "Jewish"-- is a facile term and a term which has been distorted and turned into a shield against moral responsibility throughout Israel's history. Israel has been given an opportunity to help some of the most disenfranchised people in the world. If they have fair immigration policies and deal with the influx in an engaged, responsible way (rather than having ignored it for years) the country will be able to truly help the ones who have already made harrowing journeys, while putting humane measures in place to deter more from coming in.

This is not the time to add to the rhetoric of fear on the right or an excuse to bash Israel on the left (for those of us with extreme post-colonial guilt of our own). This is the time to support what is really helping people. I know personally African refugees (having worked with them in Israel) who have been treated humanely, who have have gotten assistance from the overworked mostly volunteers at above ngos to navigate through the maze and find some dignity and hope (many times beyond the essentials of clothes and food). For example, there are organizations that provide night courses for refugees, and many of them hold dreams about going to college one day.

What is going on is special and real and deserves coverage. The Israelis who are working inside the community are not naive and can easily hide behind protectionism; they have also lost relatives in the Holocaust, in terrorist attacks, have served in the army, and have young friends who have been killed. But they are making a choice to reach out. For example this week there is a march in support of the refugees organized by Holocaust survivors and their children.

These are the "new Israelis." Confident enough in their country to be generous to the "other", and sharing the special warmth and compassion that is part of being Israel (with no hint of the patronizing "the white man's burden" simply because it hasn't been part of its history). Every effort should be made to know about and support this movement.

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