Tens of thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese citizens residing in Israel are skipping work again on Monday to protest against the Israeli government’s refugee policies. The protests are to be held in front of the UN Refugee Agency and a number of embassies in Tel Aviv.
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Protest organizers are calling for the law authorizing their detention in the new Holot facility to be overturned, as well as for Israel to stop rounding up migrants and to release all those jailed under the new law. Israel, they maintain, is obliged to honor the UN Refugee Convention and give reasonable consideration to all asylum requests.
Tens of thousands of African migrants went on strike on Sunday, disrupting the normal operation of many businesses, primarily restaurants, cafes, hotels, and cleaning services. Instead of going to work, over 20,000 African migrants protested in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, chanting “Yes to freedom, no to jail” and “we’re refugees, not criminals.” The protest lasted for about four hours and dispersed without incident. Hundreds of migrants also protested in front of government offices in Eilat.
“We will continue this struggle until the state of Israel hears our voice and understands that we’re people and refugees,” said one of the protest leaders, an Eritrean citizen named Davit. An Eritrean flag waved next to him, as he spoke on the small podium. “We are here today to continue the freedom march that our brothers began. We are continuing the march because they’re back in jail. They came to Israel as refugees, to seek asylum, but instead of checking their requests, Israel tells them that they, and we, are criminals.”
He also spoke about the Holot detention facility, next to Ketziot prison, which was authorized by a recent amendment to the anti-infiltration law. “Why are the authorities calling Holot an ‘open prison,’ if its in the desert, far from any city and run by the prison services?" he asked. "Refugees are calling us from the prisons, crying that they have no freedom. In recent weeks, many refugees have been chased through the streets by Israeli authorities. We’re afraid to leave our homes.”
He added that the refugees “did not come here to work or to live here our whole lives. As soon as the difficult situation in our countries changes, we will go back to our countries.”
Three weeks ago, the government transferred 483 African migrants who had been imprisoned in Saharonim prison to Holot. Many of them participated in the recent protest march from Holot, and were returned to Saharonim for violating the terms of their residency. Last week, the Population and Immigration Authority began instructing other migrants from Eritrea and Sudan to report to the Holot facility in 30 days, or face imprisonment.
Holot residents are forbidden from working and must report for roll call three times a day, in the morning, afternoon and evening.
“The government is giving us two options – return home, or be in the open facility. That’s unacceptable – neither going home nor the open facility,” said Muatsam, a Sudanese citizen and also a protest leader. Addressing the government from the podium, he said, “Now we are asking for one thing – to close the facilities, release all of the people being held there and stop the police from arresting people. Look into our asylum requests truthfully, and recognize us as refugees.”
“We need to stand up for our rights," he told the protesters. "We won’t be weak; we will live up to this. We’re not alone, the whole world is with us.”
Dozens of business in Tel Aviv have declared their support for the striking workers. Some even closed their doors on Sunday, or only operated for part of the day, to show solidarity.
Chef Eyal Shani stated that he encouraged the Eritrean workers at his restaurant to go and join the protest. “They’re refugees, and they're being persecuted. Israel, in some form or another, allowed them to enter its territory. From that moment on, Israel is obligated to protect them and provide them with humane conditions, a minimum of human dignity. Today, they are people that build the land with us. I have 70 Eritrean workers. I encouraged them to go out and join the strike. I got all my friends to come in and do their jobs. It’s a great moment for us all to see what they do for us.”
Many restaurants and cafes felt the loss of the Eritrean and Sudanese workers on strike. “Our strike is not an act against the employers but a form of protest,” said the statement released by human rights activists involved in the protest. “We are aware of the risk of striking, that we are liable to lose our jobs and our incomes. This step is meant to clarify to Israelis society: We fled here because of the danger to our lives in our countries of origin. We are seeking political asylum. Like every person, we also want to earn an income so we can live in dignity – but work is not the reason we came to Israel.”
Many Israelis came out to support the protests as. “I came to show them that we’re not just a country that hates them; there are also people that love them,” said actor Uri Gottlieb. “Some of the people, like me, like business owners, are very successful because of them. All in all, they came here seeking asylum, and they’re being treated like criminals. People that have experienced terrible things to get here, and they’re mostly good, kind people, and we treat them like some kind of disease, like we have to treat them differently. I’m trying to be the voice of reason, that speaks from the heart.”
“I’m protesting by the Supreme Court,” said Yael Dayan, former Knesset Member and Tel Aviv City Council member. “The amendment to the law will not pass the Supreme Court. It calls for imprisonment without trial. These people are charged with no crimes, they’ve done nothing illegal. They’re refugees, asylum seekers, not infiltrators, not migrant workers,” Dayan told Haaretz. “The key word here is freedom. We need to give them work permits. They’re not working at the expense of others. The ability to work is freedom – its livelihood, the ability to find a place to live, to care for children.”
According to figures from the Immigration and Population Authority, there are roughly 53,000 African migrants currently residing in Israel, 49,000 of whom are from Eritrea or Sudan. Due to the situations in their countries, Israel grants them protection and does not expel them. At the same time, the government has only processed a few hundred asylum requests from Eritreans and Sudanese, and none have been accepted. The residence permits of the refugees specify that they are not allowed to work, but the Israeli government has committed not to enforce the prohibition, in order to allow them to make a living.