A timely experience

So today was my first day working with the African refugee community in Israel. This is something I've been wanting to do since I arrived, and I'm glad it's finally happening. 

The issue of African refugees in Israel is a very interesting one, and it's one that gets remarkably little attention abroad given how important and present it is within Israel. Basically, in the mid-2000s, people from Eritrea and Sudan began traveling over land from their home countries into Israel. Members of both groups largely came seeking refuge from horrific persecution. Eritrea has been described as the "North Korea of Africa"; it's a closed society where most adults are forced into "national service" in the form of years-long periods of forced labor on behalf of the regime under penalty of incarceration or execution. The situation in Sudan is more well-known in America-many sources have described the treatment of black Sudanese by the Arab-controlled government as a genocide.

The land journey is arduous. The first step is paying a smuggler the equivalent of thousands of US dollars, an absolute fortune for residents of two of the poorest countries on Earth, to leave Eritrea or Sudan over land. If you're caught leaving Eritrea, you can be executed. Migrants who are able to leave are led through Egypt into the Sinai. Once in the Sinai, migrants run the risk of being kidnapped and held for ransom by members of local tribes. In order to coerce the ransom out of the family members and friends of migrants, the kidnappers often torture the migrants and send recordings to their families. (This American Life did an episode on this issue a few years ago.) Those who successfully navigate the Sinai have to cross the highly militarized Egypt-Israel border, where border guards are known to shoot at migrants. Despite these risks, nearly 60,000 migrants arrived in Israel between the mid-2000s and 2013, when Israel completed an expanded border wall.

The flow of migrants from Eritrea and Sudan hasn't stopped; instead, these people are now traveling overland to Libya and attempting to cross to Europe by boat. These are the African migrants that you hear about when their boat sinks in the Mediterranean.

Once in Israel, the situation of the migrants is not good. The Israeli government has responded to the migrants by construing them as illegal immigrants in search of work, rather than as refugees fleeing persecution. Under international law, the migrants can't be deported because they have a well-founded fear of persecution, so the government has given migrants temporary protected status. However, the migrants' visas do not allow them to work, attend school, or access the national health system. The prohibition on work is not being enforced for the time being, but this prohibition puts migrants in a very precarious position, because the requirement can be enforced again at any time. The prohibition also forces migrants into the informal labor sector, where abuse is rampant. Until 2013, migrants were not allowed to apply for refugee status in Israel. Since 2013, Israel has accepted claims for refugee status, but it has only granted 3 applications, out of 44,000 applications.

In an attempt to make the migrants leave, Israel has also opened an "open detention camp" called Holot. Under current law, migrants who entered before 2011 can be detained at any time and sent to the prison-like facility. They can be detained there for up to a year. Migrants may leave during the day, but they must return at night. Since the facility is in the middle of the desert, this opportunity is meaningless. The only alternative to Holot is the "voluntary departure" system. Under this program, migrants are paid $3,500 to return to their home countries or to other African countries, usually Rwanda or Uganda. Since this is allegedly voluntary, it complies with international law. Israel does nothing other than purchase a plane ticket and give money to these migrants; they don't get legal status in Rwanda or Uganda, so they once again risk deportation.

Right-wing politicians have demonized the migrants.  They've been described as a demographic threat to Israel's Jewish character, and been accused of spreading crime and disease. Migrants have been subjected to hate crimes: there have been instances in which migrants have been beaten by mobs, and the homes, businesses, schools, and places of worship that serve the migrant community have been firebombed. Recently, a migrant seen in proximity to a stabbing attack in Beer Sheva was shot and beaten to death by a mob, even though he was completely innocent.

So how do I fit into this? Yesterday, I went to a training on how to help migrants apply for refugee status in Canada. The application process can basically be thought of as the college or grad school application from hell (You can read the forms yourself; I assume that the US's forms are similar). If you're reading this, you've probably had the experience of completing one of those. You probably remember the experience of filling in all of the little boxes and triple-checking them, out of fear that an error would prevent you from achieving your goal. You probably remember attempting to distill the narrative of your life into a few short essays, agonizing over every word. You probably remember the process of acquiring and distributing transcripts, standardized test reports, and recommendation letters, spending hours dealing with various bureaucrats while trying to ensure that these documents get to where they need to be. Now imagine doing all of this, but more; more little boxes with demographic information, more essays, more supporting documentation. Of course, you're doing all this after surviving some horrific persecution and dealing with the unaddressed physical and psychological trauma that it produced. You're doing it while living under unpleasant circumstances in a refugee camp or without legal status in a third country. You're doing it in a language that's not your own. Pretty unpleasant-seeming, right? And, of course, the kicker: the goal of the application process isn't to end up at a college in your preferred city (or with your preferred level of prestige). You're literally applying for your life.

It's interesting that my inaugural first-hand experience with the refugee process came in a news cycle where the refugee process is the dominant political issue in the United States. Lots of people have written good things about how the rhetoric around Syrian refugees from the right is horrendous, and I don't need to rehash them here. I'd just like to ask those who demonize refugees and spread false information about the refugee process to think for a minute. Do a little research, maybe try to compare the refugee process to experiences you've had in your own life, as I've tried to do with the college application process here. That'll make things better for everyone involved.

For more on the situation of refugees in Israel, check out these links: