Thousands in Tel Aviv Protest Plan for Refugee Detention Facility

Israelis march through Tel Aviv for refugees' rights; refugees also march carrying signs reading 'Torture and persecution in Eritrea, detention facility in Israel.'

Thousands of Israelis marched through the streets of Tel Aviv on Friday morning in protest against a government plan to construct a massive detention facility for foreigners infiltrating into Israel via the country's southern border with Egypt.

While protesting through Tel Aviv's Rothchild Avenue, the activists said that the government has reached a new low in its "aggressive and racist" treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.

Refugee rally
Nir Keidar

The director of Amnesty International in Israel, Itay Epstein, said that the demonstrators call on the government to refrain from building the holding facility. Epstein added that the government must "examine the refugees' requests in a fair and transparent manner and grant them all their rights as refugees."

The protesters also warned that Israel's detention facility "will be no less dangerous than Sudan."

Many refugees from Sudan and Eritrea also participated in the rally, carrying signs with slogans such as "We asked for refuge, we got prison" and "Torture and persecution in Eritrea, detention facility in Israel."

Mubarak Salaa, a refugee from Darfur, told the crowd the horrifying story of his life in the village.

"We are tired of being told that we are terrorists and that we brought diseases to Israel. People say that we just came to work, and take Israel's money and go back home. That's not true," Salaa said. "I ask to be allowed to live here until there is peace in my country."

Another refugee, from Eritrea, said that the refugees need protection. "There is a big problem for refugees – our situation is getting worse instead of getting better," she said.

"We are asylum seekers. We didn't come here to work – we aren't criminals. We come from a prison and we don't need another one. The government must understand that we are refugees," she emphasized.

In addition to refugees, dozens of elementary school students also took part in the rally, from the democratic school Kehila in Tel Aviv. One of the teachers said that a few third graders initiated the move, when they heard the story of the refugees from an Eritrean refugee who works at the school as a janitor.

On Wednesday, several hundred people, mostly residents of south Tel Aviv, held a demonstration against the presence of foreign workers and refugees in their neighborhoods.

The demonstration, held outside the entrance to the market in the working class Hatikva neighborhood, was held under the banner "No more fear in the neighborhoods, send the infiltrators back home."

MK Dov Hanin (Hadash), speaking at Friday's protest, said that in this issue there are perpetrators and there are victims. "The first victims are the refugees, who are escaping persecution in Eritrea and in Sudan. The second victims are the residents of southern Tel Aviv neighborhood, where there is already discrimination and distress and now refugees as well," he said.

"The people responsible for this are the people on the far-right who try to incite hate and turn the residents of south Tel Aviv against the refugees. The Jews were refugees themselves – how quickly we forgot our history," Hanin said.

Singer Alma Zohar, who participated in the protest march, called the holding facility the government plans to construct a "concentration camp."

"This isn't a refugee camp because a refugee camp is intended for humanitarian purposes. Israel isn't even constructing a holding facility. What it's constructing is a ghetto – a concentration camp. The only kind of people to be imprisoned there are people of African origin," said Zohar.