Thousands of African migrants in Israel began marching from Levinsky park in south Tel Aviv to the embassies of the United States and other countries Monday morning, continuing the protest that began Sunday.
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They are demanding foreign governments exert pressure on Israel to recognize them as refugees, stop arresting them and free those imprisoned.
Some of the embassies they are marching to include France, Britain and Canada. They are also marching to the United Nations Refugee Agency, waving Eritrean flags and holding signs saying "No More Prison" and "Freedom."
The migrants, many of whom are menial laborers in Israel, began a three-day strike Sunday to protest Israeli government policy. 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.
Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar, in an interview with Ynet, said he is not impressed with all the crying and complaining by propietors. "With all due respect to the restaurant and café owners in crisis, or those lacking their cleaning staff, this will not determine Israel's national policy. On the contrary, let's think about those Israelis who have lost their jobs."
Sa'ar added, "Garages in Jaffa used to employ Arab workers, not African infiltrators, and Eilat hotels used to employ recently released soldiers. It may be hard to adapt, it's possible you can employ people for substandard conditions. I recommend everyone try and maintain labor rights by employing people humanely, instead of preaching to the state."
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.
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.
Day two of the protest and strike follows criticism from the UN Refugee Agency (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) on Israel’s policy on African migrants, in particular new amendments to the country's anti-infiltration law.
Following Sunday's mass protest of tens of thousands of migrants and their supporters in Tel Aviv, the UNHCR representative in Israel published a rare press release, calling on Israel to consider alternatives to its current “warehousing” of migrants.
The release was titled “Israel’s new laws and policies do not live up to the Spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention.”
UNHCR has previously criticized the amendments to the anti-infiltration law, and even brought its position before the High Court of Justice, but, until now, has refrained from making public statements. In the press release published Sunday, the agency said that in principle it supports establishing a residence facility for asylum seekers, but not in its current incarnation at Holot.
“I am particularly disquieted about the purpose of the so-called 'open' residence facility in Holot which, in its current form and despite its designation as 'open,' would appear to operate as a detention center from where there is no release," UNHCR representative Walpurga Englbrecht said. "This means in effect indefinite detention.
One Eritrean named Davit who protested on Sunday said, “We will continue this struggle until the state of Israel hears our voice and understands that we’re people and refugees. 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.
Tens of thousands of Africans have trekked through neighboring countries to reach Israel in recent years. Many migrants fled oppression at home, hoping for a better life in Israel, yet their influx sparked tensions with locals who blame them for rising crime and a change of the Jewish identity in some neighborhoods.