Photo of a protest against racism targeting Israel’s immigrant population. Demonstrators hold up signs, which read "Yesterday refugees, today racists” and “shame!”
Anger over Israel’s growing population of illegal African immigrants has flared in recent weeks, prompting the government to respond by taking a hardline stance on immigration. Yet as many in Israel express their frustrations both on the streets and in the political arena, our Observer on the ground says life as an immigrant sometimes feels more like being held prisoner.
The issue made headlines on December 5 after the country’s right-leaning daily newspaper, “Maariv” reported that Ron Huldai had used his political sway as the mayor of Tel Aviv, Israel’s second largest city, to ask Prime Minsiter Benjamin Netanyahu to call a national congress on illegal immigration from Africa to Israel.
With an estimated 40,000–50,000 illegal immigrants of African origins in Israel, many of whom come from Sudan or Eritrea, Tel Aviv has struggled to cope with those who have chosen to settle within or around the city limits.
Less than a week after Huldai’s appeal to Netanyahu, members of Tel Aviv’s conservative and far-right factions staged an anti-immigration protest on Sunday, December 11, chanting slogans such as “Tel Aviv for Jewish people! Sudanese in Sudan!” Prominent Israeli politicians Baruch Marzel and Michael Ben Ari both made appearances at the demonstration.
The same day, Netanyahu announced that his cabinet had approved plans to funnel more than 126 million euros (more than $160 million) to continue construction on an Egyptian border fence, as well as to expand the capacity of detention centres and crackdown on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
At a protest on Sunday, several demonstrators shouted ‘Tel Aviv for Jewish people! Sudanese in Sudan!” as a few prominent politicians take to the microphone. Just a few metres away, a number of immigrants attending a counter protest yelled in opposition “No to prison, yes to freedom!” Video posted by Bluepilgrimage.

"I came to Israel as a refugee, but now I am a prisoner"

Deli Billy (not his real name) illegally immigrated to Israel from Ivory Coast. He currently resides in Eilat.
I first arrived in Israel in 2007. I came by way of the Sinai Peninsula, a piece of Egypt that borders Israel. The crossing was very dangerous because the Egyptian border guards began shooting at us. Some of the other immigrants I was travelling with were killed.
Since my arrival, I’ve been arrested by the Israeli police. I spent a month in prison, where I was locked up until some people who worked for the UN came to see me. They were able to secure my release, and gave me a ‘protection’, or an official document that grants you the right to live legally in Israel, but not the right to work or access social security. It is renewable every three months.
I worked illegally as a restaurant dish washer. I was arrested two times in 2008, and was made to serve two short sentences in jail – two weeks the first time and three weeks after the second arrest. In February 2010, I went to the UN offices to renew my papers but they sent me to Israel’s interior ministry. They were able to give me a visa, but it is only valid for one month. Every four weeks I have to travel to Tel Aviv to renew it.
It’s been a few months since the last time I had work. It isn’t a sustainable situation. I live with six other people in a three-room apartment. All of us are illegal immigrants. Even though some of us have the legal right to live here, we have no resources and the state does little to help us. I haven’t seen my family since I first arrived in Israel in 2007, but if I leave Israeli territory, I won’t be allowed back in the country. I came as a refugee, but now I am a prisoner”.

"The fact that many of this new wave of migrants are not Jewish goes a little ways toward explaining why they’ve been rejected by society "

Giovanni is a computer security consultant. He lives in Kiryat Bialik, a city in Israel’s northern Haifa District
There is a lot of agriculture in Kiryat Bialik. Farm owners often hire African immigrants because it’s cheap labour – a day’s work is about two euros. Obviously, it isn’t legal employment.
In Tel Aviv, illegal immigrants gather in public squares. In the morning, trucks from various farms head into the city, and the driver selects a handful of men before taking them off to work. Those who haven’t been chosen wait for the next truck to arrive.
Interacting with the immigrant population is difficult. First off, there’s a language barrier, but there’s also a fear factor. Considering their legal status, I imagine they prefer to stay amongst themselves. They live in deplorable conditions, often squatting in old buildings or garages where there’s no electricity or running water. In Tel Aviv, the basement of an old bus depot is notorious as serving as a home to a number of illegal immigrants from Africa.
The fact that many of this new wave of migrants are not Jewish goes a little ways toward explaining why they’ve been rejected by society, and also why the process of applying for a legal status is so difficult. If we’re talking about the question of racism, well that’s a phenomenon that goes beyond illegal immigration and affects even the country’s legal Ethiopian Jewish community”.

“Israel isn’t France. We don’t have the financial means to deal with this growing wave of migrants”

David Illouz is a computer scientist who lives in Tel Aviv.
We are all affected by this phenomenon. Every morning, I commute across the south of Tel Aviv and I see groups of Sudanese waiting on the streets for a prospective employer to pick them up for a little day labour. In the evening, when I head back home, I see the same people, but instead of waiting for work, they’re drinking, fighting among themselves or taking drugs. The problem continues to grow. There are more and more of them on the streets, and the police don’t do anything because there’s a lack of political direction.
An Israeli knows how to accept all kinds of people – it’s the national sport here. With that said, Israel can’t welcome every unhappy African. There’s not enough financial support or social programmes. For example, even though I have five children, I only receive a financial support to the tune of 980 shekels (196 euros) per month. You’re no longer eligible to receive unemployment benefits if you’re without a job for more than three months, and pensions are miniscule. Israel isn’t France. We don’t have the financial means to deal with this growing wave of immigrants. I think that certain measures are needed to put an end to this immigration problem. Our democracy will find a solution that’s fair for everyone”.

“Immigration is not the problem – the problem is government policy”

Roi Maor is a human rights activist in Israel.
It is very difficult to become a legal refugee in Israel. Since the state’s creation in 1948, only a few hundred people out of thousands of applicants have been granted refugee status.
I understand that it can be distressing for Israelis, but it’s wrong to say that the misery in the suburbs of cities like Tel Aviv or Eilat is caused by illegal immigration. These areas were impoverished before the influx of recent immigrants. Because many of these people lack the financial means or resources to find a more comfortable living situation, it makes sense that they seek housing in cheaper, ‘popular’ neighbourhoods when they first arrive in this country.
The debate is a hot issue now because the authorities don’t know how to react in the face of popular discontent. Local authorities feel as though the state has done little to guarantee even the bare minimum of infrastructural support or assistance to deal with immigration, and that the national government has dumped the problem on their shoulders. This means that the huge issue of immigration is being dealt with on a very local level – sometimes even in schools.
The immigrants are not the problem – the problem is government policy. If the state had put into place a more efficient social system, one that even gives immigrants the legal right to work, we wouldn’t have to think about sending them back to where they came from”.
Baruch Mazel delivers a speech at Sunday's protest.
Immigrants in a park in a suburb just south of Tel Aviv. Photos courtesy of the blog Shearim.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Sarra Grira.