African migrant in Israel: “I’m a refugee, and they want to lock me up”

An African migrant being arrested on December 31. Photo courtesy of Ygal Shtaim.
 
For the second day in a row, tens of thousands of African migrants have protested in Tel Aviv to demand the government process their asylum requests rather than detain them without trial at controversial detention centres.
 
As part of a new crackdown on migrants, more than one hundred have been arrested over the past few weeks, while many others have been summoned to report to a detention facility.
 
About 60,000 African migrants, mainly from Sudan and Eritrea, have crossed into Israel since 2006; the tide has since slowed to a trickle after a wall was built along the Egyptian border. Most of the African migrants currently living in Israel are asylum-seekers with temporary visas which need to be renewed every few months. These visas allow them to live in the country but not work there, though many work illegally doing menial jobs. Asylum status is rarely granted.
 
Three weeks ago, the Israeli parliament passed a new law that allows migrants without visas to be detained indefinitely. According to the authorities, 115 migrants have been arrested without visas in the past three weeks. Meanwhile, many migrants who have tried to renew their visas have been given summons to report to Holot, a new “open” detention facility in the Negev desert, which critics claim is akin to a prison since it is closed at night and detainees must be present for roll call three times a day.
 
An African migrant being arrested on December 31. Photo courtesy of Ygal Shtaim.
Contributors

"When I first came to Israel seven years ago, I was welcomed"

Idris (not his real name), 30, is from Eritrea. He has lived in Tel Aviv for seven years.
 
A few days ago I was stopped by the police in the street. I had a visa that was valid until February, but I had left it at home, and they took me straight to the immigration office. There, they gave me a new visa, but this one was only for one month. They also gave me a summons to go to Holot by January 26. I told them I have a wife and two babies – one is two years old, the other 8 months – but they didn’t care. [Editor’s Note: On December 29, the Interior Ministry stated that “at this point, infiltrators (a term used by the authorities to describe migrants who entered the country illegally) who have families (in Israel) are not summoned to the open center.” This appears to have changed, since several other fathers say they have been summoned.]
 
As part of the first wave of Eritrean immigrants to Israel seven years ago, I was one of the lucky 2,000 migrants to get a work permit; after that, they stopped giving them out. I have been working this whole time, most recently in a kitchen at a café. When I fled my country due to political persecution, I was welcomed here; as a refugee, I never imagined the Israeli authorities would one day want to lock me up.
 
I can’t go back to Eritrea, so I have no choice but to go to Holot. Many of my friends are in the same situation. My wife has a visa, and rumour has it they won’t be stopping women. But what will happen to her and the kids without me?

“I tried to renew my visa, but they kept telling me to come back the next day, and so on”

Bata (not his real name), 28, is from Eritrea. FRANCE 24 reached him by phone at the Givon detention facility.
 
I was arrested in the street on December 24. My visa was expired, so they sent me to prison. But I had been trying to renew my visa for weeks, since before it expired.
 
I had never had any problems doing this before. But suddenly it became very complicated. The people working at the visa offices kept telling me there were too many people waiting for appointments, and to come back the next day. On many days the offices were closed. I even tried going to another city, but I had the same problem. They kept telling me to come back later.
 
On December 24, the police took me to Givon prison. They keep asking me if I will sign papers to agree to go back to Eritrea. But I can’t go back there. So I don’t know how long they will keep me here.
 
I have a wife and a 2-year-old daughter back in Tel Aviv. I worked in a kitchen at a restaurant; my wife took care of my daughter. I paid for the house and for my wife and daughter’s needs. I don’t know what will happen to them.
Until recently, migrants could renew their visas at any of dozens of offices around the country. But all offices except four, in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheba and Eilat, have closed over the past few months. A spokeswoman for the immigration authority told the Jerusalem Post that this was done “in order to make the process more efficient and provide better service”. Many migrants, however, are reporting extremely long lines at these offices.
 
The UN refugee agency released a statement Monday lambasting Israel’s new policy on African migrants, calling on the government to consider alternatives to “warehousing” migrants indefinitely.
 
African migrants being taken into detention. Photo courtesy of Ygal Shtaim.
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