The downpour started at 6 A.M. on Tuesday last week, and when it rains, that’s the worst. The dozens of men and women who congregated at the corner of Salameh and Abarbanel streets in south Tel Aviv huddled even closer together, despite the feeling of total alienation, not to say hostility, between them.
In the pounding rain, the pieces of cardboard on which they stood mixed with the dirt to become a muddy mess under their feet. But after a whole night of waiting outside, no one was about to give up his place in line. Maybe this morning they’d finally be able to enter the offices of the Interior Ministry unit that deals with asylum seekers and submit their applications. But two hours of nerve-racking and bone-drenching waiting still loomed.
Omar, who’s from Sudan, had arrived by bus from Eilat four days earlier, with a friend. They don’t know a soul in Tel Aviv. They spent the days wandering the streets, and the nights waiting in the line. On the previous mornings, they hadn’t managed to enter the offices before they shut for the day. Tonight they’d succeeded in being first in line. Overcome by weariness and despair, they’re still hoping that this will be their lucky day. One of the Israeli volunteers who arrive here every morning – women who bring thermoses of tea and cookies – offered Omar tea, but he lacked the strength even to grasp the disposable cup.
In the past two years, the sight of dozens or even hundreds of people, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan, waiting on the sidewalk on Salameh Street has become a particularly gloomy feature of the gentrifying Florentin neighborhood. Local residents are all too familiar with what some have labeled an “environmental hazard,” as are the clubbers and bar-hoppers who encounter the asylum seekers when emerging from their late-night revels. The migrants stand there in densely packed lines every night, except on weekends, when the bureau is closed.
Until this week, the unit that handles asylum requests, located in the Salameh branch of the Population and Immigration Authority, was the only place in the country one could submit the necessary forms. And then, this past Monday, without any prior notification, it was over. A note pinned to the bureau’s front door, in Hebrew only, informed Eritrean and Sudanese nationals that as of January 30, they would have to present themselves at the offices of the Population and Immigration Authority in the city of Bnei Brak, just east of Tel Aviv, if they wanted to submit asylum requests.
Until 2013, Israel did not allow Eritrean and Sudanese individuals to submit asylum requests. They enjoyed a form of collective protection, however, at the request of the United Nations, having come from dangerous countries to which Israel agreed they would not be sent back. Beginning in 2013, the authorities claim, the requests began to be examined. However, refugee-rights organizations, including Assaf: the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, and the Hotline for Migrant Workers, say this is purely for the sake of appearances and that the checks are conducted inefficiently and not in good faith.
According to data the state provided to the High Court of Justice, of 15,613 asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan who had submitted requests as of the end of 2017, only 11 had received an affirmative reply. The organizations that assist the asylum seekers and refugees say that there are 8,588 Eritrean and Sudanese people who have applied for asylum but have not received a reply of any sort. The remainder were turned down. But there are many more who have not succeeded in even submitting their asylum requests. They are the ones who came daily in recent months to Salameh Street, clutching their documents in transparent plastic envelopes, hoping that by submitting a request they would be protected from Israel’s recently announced decision to deport them to a third country. Now they are required to travel to the Bnei Brak office, where they fear those without visas will be arrested.
How does the very submission of a request prevent expulsion? In 2017, the High Court ruled that anyone who has not submitted an asylum request, or whose application has been rejected, is a potential candidate for deportation. Then, at the end of 2017, the Population Authority announced an official procedure under which only those who had submitted a request for asylum by January 1, 2018, would be immune from expulsion until a decision was made in their case. Nevertheless, the line continued to form after that date.
At present, both the asylum seekers and the aid organizations are hoping that the decision about the arbitrary cutoff date will be revoked, so that requests made in early 2018 will also be taken into account, given the enormous obstacles the state places in the way of those who simply want to make the request.
At 7:30 Tuesday, January 23, the door of the building on Salameh St. opened and the guards began to admit people. A first group made it in, went through the security check and kept waiting, but at least they were inside, out of the cold and wet. Omar and his friend made it in. After allowing between 10 and 15 applicants to enter, the guards were ordered to stop letting in people from the line, and instead to admit women and children who were waiting outside in the rain.
At a quarter to eight, the director of the asylum request department, Haim Ephraim, and his deputy emerged from their offices, and watched as the guards distributed printed sheets to some of those crammed in line outside. Everyone who received a letter was, in effect, told to go home – and invited to return on Sunday, January 28, at 6:30 A.M. The document stated that it “only accords priority in the line for the purpose of submitting a request for asylum,” but added, “This form does not oblige the unit for handling asylum requests to receive your request for asylum on the specified date.”
The invitations were not personalized, so the officials would have no way of knowing whether those who showed up with the letter on the stipulated day were the same people who received it. Speculation began to the effect that asylum seekers might try to traffic in the letters. “It could be worth a few hundred dollars,” said one of the lawyers who was waiting outside. In any event, both those who had received an invitation and those who hadn’t were now supposed to leave. Though it was only 8 A.M., no more applicants would be admitted today.
But after waiting in line for several days, in some cases, those who hadn’t made it inside were reluctant to depart. They still hoped for a miracle.
The invitations could be a double-edged sword, says immigration attorney Carmel Pomerantz, who represents refugees in various forums. “It seems like good news, but because the invitations were not handed out to everyone in the line, the concern is that the Interior Ministry will use this to allege that people who lack the letter but who tried to submit an asylum request, did not actually try. The fact is that, for every invitation that was distributed, five people didn’t get one, or showed up on days when invitations weren’t handed out. So go prove afterward that they were there.”
Awad, from Tel Aviv, and Johannes, from Ashdod, didn’t get invitations, even though they’d waited in the line since 3 A.M. The guards handed out the invitations at the beginning and at the end of the line – those in the middle lost out.
Awad, who’s been in Israel for five-and-a-half years, is a barista in a coffee shop. Johannes, who’s 41 and works in a garage in Ashdod, has four children in Eritrea and has a daughter by his new partner in Israel. From 1994 until 2011, he served in an elite unit of the Eritrean army. His military service was supposed to have lasted two years, and his repeated requests for a discharge so he could provide for his family were denied, even after the conclusion of the war with Ethiopia, in 2000.
“I saw people shot when they tried to escape, but I realized I had no other option,” he relates. “I escaped to Sudan, but staying there was dangerous.. Then I heard about the possibility of getting to Israel.” I can’t go back to Africa, Johannes says. Having fled from an elite unit almost guarantees that he will be killed if he tries returning to his homeland.
Johannes’ partner and son, who had been allowed into the building on Salameh Street to escape the heavy rain, came out and joined him. They too hadn’t succeeded in getting to the clerk to submit their asylum request.
‘Cut to ribbons’
Oz Dekel, an attorney from Ashkelon who represents asylum seekers and regularly makes the rounds of the Salameh Street line, asked Johannes and his friends why they’re trying to get in. “They have a visa until May,” he explains to us, “and in the end they’ll get the same thing again – a temporary residence permit. But they explained to me that if they don’t submit the needed documents, their visa will not be renewed and they will be sent out of Israel.”
Dekel doesn’t believe that any of the refugees will be granted asylum. He’s also convinced that they themselves know this and are just trying to buy time in order to go on working in Israel and earn some money.
You don’t believe that they’re here because it’s too dangerous for them in the countries they came from?
Dekel: “It’s dangerous in a lot of places. Harlem, for one. It’s very dangerous in certain regions of Ukraine. There are many people who oppose the regime in their own country and are in danger. So Eritrea and Sudan are only a couple of the places that are dangerous. That doesn’t mean that all the people from those countries can receive refugee status.”
So you think they should accept Israel’s offer: Take $3,500 and go to Rwanda or Uganda?
“I’m certain that anyone who gets off a plane in Africa with a few thousand dollars in his pocket will be cut to ribbons. But that’s up to them. They know they won’t be able to remain here permanently. If someone tells me that he’s accepted the offer of voluntary deportation, I tell him: Yes, but take the money and send it to your family and friends; don’t go with the money on you.”
Why do they need you?
“Theoretically, I try to obtain status for them, but there’s no chance of getting refugee status. They try anyway, in order to keep working and make a living; the salaries in Israel are very good. Sometimes I tell the court in my client’s name that the line at the entrance is intolerable. If it’s someone whose visa has expired, you can ask for a temporary injunction while the court continues deliberating, so that if they’re caught they won’t be expelled.”
How much do you charge?
“It depends on the country and on the situation, on the amount of work needed. Between a few hundred and a few thousand shekels.”
Battling red tape
By 8 o’clock the rain had gone but the cold lingered. Anwar, from Sudan, who stood in line all night, without a coat, realized that he wouldn’t be admitted today. Nor did he receive an invitation for Sunday. He burst into tears and looked for help from one of the volunteers. He had nowhere to spend the night in Tel Aviv.
Yonit Naftali Kav El, organizer of a relatively new volunteer project called ironically by some “Tor [Line] Watch” – an evocation of Machsom Watch (Checkpoint Watch) in the West Bank – arrived. She called a friend, the proprietor of a hostel, who agreed to let Anwar spend the night free so that he could rejoin the line the next morning.
Six years ago, a friend told Naftali, 39, about a pregnant refugee he’d encountered along the Egyptian border while doing reserve duty. The woman had been raped and tortured. More recently, Naftali read about the preschools of migrants from Africa in Tel Aviv, dubbed “babysitters” or “children’s storerooms,” and decided to assist by volunteering in the NGO Elifelet: Citizens for Refugee Children. It was then that she grasped that one of the most urgent needs is to help the migrants cope with the bureaucracy.
“No special expertise is needed, only good will,” Naftali says. “I decided to spread the idea in WhatsApp groups. Within two weeks there were a hundred volunteers, and now I can’t handle the load of people who want to help.”
As with other volunteers, Naftali notes, in her case, too, a family history including traumas from the Holocaust plays a part in the urge to help the refugees.
“My mother, who was born in Transylvania, had two brothers who perished in Auschwitz. In my grandparents’ apartment building in Nahariya, most of the tenants were Holocaust survivors, and they talked about Auschwitz all the time, as though it happened yesterday. My grandmother was in a death march. At a certain point she just couldn’t go on, and she lay down in the snow. Nuns who passed by saved her. I don’t want to keep making the analogy of, ‘We are refugees and they are refugees,’ but I feel that it’s unavoidable,” she says.
Naftali first came to the Salameh Street site three months ago. Seeing the long, all-night lines, the violence that sometimes flares up between different groups of migrants and the despair of those who didn’t manage to get in the door, she decided this was a place she could help.
In addition to tea and cookies, the volunteers occasionally hand out coats to those who need them, and try to assist communication between those in line and the guards. They also document the asylum seekers who showed up but didn’t get in, so that they will be able to prove that they tried.
The day before, Naftali relates, she got a call from one of the refugees standing in the line. “He was screaming, ‘Aren’t I a human being? I don’t understand why they’re doing this to me!’ He’d been standing in line since midnight, well dressed, because in his perception that’s how one comes to a government office. At 7 A.M., the guards started to admit people. He handed them his old visa. He wasn’t allowed in. Until then, people with an expired visa had been allowed in, under an explicit order.
“We called lawyers. They looked into the matter and were told officially that there is nothing to prevent the entry of anyone who presents an identifying document, even if it is not a valid visa. But his spirit was already broken."
Move to Bnei Brak
The surprise announcement that the Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers would henceforth have to go to Bnei Brak flummoxed Naftali. The major concern now among the aid organizations is that those who apply in Bnei Brak and who for a variety of reasons lack a valid visa, will be more vulnerable to arrest, incarceration in Saharonim Prison in the Negev desert, and afterward more likely to be deported. The word is that in the Salameh unit there was tacit agreement that asylum requests could be submitted without the applicants hazarding arrest.
Naftali: “It was a sort of territory that allowed them to submit asylum requests even if they had not renewed their visa, or even lacked a visa altogether. You could be devoid of status and still submit a request. The concern now is that the reason for the shift to Bnei Brak is so that they can be handed deportation papers..."
Another possible reason for the move to Bnei Brak, where the office is not in a residential section, is to hide the disturbing sight of the long lines from the public. “The manpower in the Bnei Brak [office] is no greater,” she notes, “so it’s not as though they are making efforts to accept more applications. They won’t be able to deal with 400 people a day there, either. And there are people who have already been waiting five years for a decision on their asylum request, so it’s clear that no efforts are being made to deal with that. The Bnei Brak bureau is simply less visible, and the line will create less of a public nuisance. The wait there will be in a large tent in the compound’s yard, not on the street.”
The mood among the asylum seekers has been grim since news of the impending deportation drive began to circulate, Naftali says. “It’s a feeling of very great despair. It comes on top of the deposit law [a fund established by Israel into which employers must deposit 20 percent of asylum seekers’ wages, for them to receive when they leave the country], which caused a huge drop in their salaries, so they’re even short of food. The parents have to work far more hours, so the children are alone or outside the house for much longer.”
Many asylum seekers have been in Israel six, seven, even 10 years. Why didn’t they submit asylum requests earlier?
“Many times they are deterred by their contacts with the authorities. Someone told me that he went to the bureau in Bnei Brak to renew his visa. He was made to wait in a room for hours, and they tried to force him to sign a document agreeing to leave Israel voluntarily. He refused, so in the end he left without the visa. There’s no policy, there’s no real law and there’s no order.”
‘One big toilet’
By the very fact that it is not trying to expel the Eritrean and Sudanese nationals back to their own countries, Israel – a signatory to the international Refugee Convention of 1951 – effectively recognizes, indirectly, that their lives can be endangered back in their homelands. But whereas in most other countries, Eritrean and Sudanese individuals are granted refugee status for precisely that reason, Israel refuses to take this step officially and comprehensively.
In September 2017, as part of a petition to the High Court of Justice, the Hotline for Migrants presented documentation of asylum seekers who had tried many times to gain admittance to the Salameh Street offices, but in vain. This week, a date was set to hear the petition, in which the court is being asked to instruct the Interior Ministry to improve the procedures for submitting asylum requests, not least by permitting applications via fax and the internet.
In the wake of the Interior Ministry’s declaration that expulsion orders to a third country would be issued to the Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, the petitioners also requested the court to issue an interim injunction to exclude from deportation refugees who tried to submit a request for asylum in the Salameh Street branch but were unsuccessful because of the unit’s inaccessibility. The court rejected the request.
According to Shira Ami, who draws up the list of volunteers for the Salameh Street line, the worst day of the week is Sunday. “Many people arrive naively in the early evening [the day before] in order to be one of the first in line. There are no washrooms in the area, so this whole corner smells like one big toilet. I have no idea how the women cope with the situation. They’re squashed like sardines. At 2 or 3 A.M., other people show up, mostly not Africans, and start trying to cut into the line violently.”
Even after several months as a volunteer, Ami hasn’t yet discerned a pattern for why certain people get in and others are denied entry. Still less does she see any regularity in the quota of applicants the bureau handles on a given day.
“At some point,” she notes, “the custom developed of allowing in parents with children without their having to wait on the line outside. But the result was that the single men, who at the moment are the prime candidates for expulsion and are therefore in the greatest danger, were unable to submit their applications."
‘Like a monkey’
Many asylum seekers are actually acquainted with the Bnei Brak facility, as it’s there they must report every second month to renew their Israeli visa. Last week, those waiting for their visa renewal in Bnei Brak received letters about the program to leave Israel voluntarily and receive a $3,500 grant. The letters were distributed to women and married people, even though the government has stated that at this stage the plan of expulsion to a third country involves only single men.
S., a single mother who asked not to have her name published, related that when she arrived to renew her visa, the clerk whipped out the letter and suggested that she sign on the spot to leave voluntarily. She refused; her visa was renewed for two months.
One of the reasons the asylum seekers are apprehensive about going to the Bnei Brak facility is that they are often subjected to humiliating treatment by the clerks there.
Emmanuel Yamani, from Eritrea, who has been in Israel for 10 years and is the father of an Israeli daughter, visited the Bnei Brak site last Thursday. He presented the clerk with an affidavit regarding his child, which he had been told to bring in his last visit to the Interior Ministry. He also asked about the fate of his request for asylum in Israel, which he submitted three years ago. The clerk renewed Yamani’s visa and told him he didn’t need the affidavit.
“One way or the other, you and the others will soon be put on planes; you’ll sit under a tree, open your mouth and the bananas will fall on you,” the clerk said to Yamani, who was outraged. “I asked him if he thinks I’m a monkey,” he recalls. To which the clerk replied, “What, you don’t see yourself that you look like a monkey?”
Guards were called, and the clerk instructed them to throw out an incensed Yamani. Outside, the official responsible for running the bureau, who hadn’t been present during the conversation, took back Yamani’s new visa and returned his old one, which expired on January 18. Yamani refused to accept it, and the official ordered him to leave.
Yamani called attorney Ronit Mizrachi Sarig, who hurried to the Bnei Brak facility. The guard and the responsible official denied that Yamani had ever been there. Sarig went inside with the official and came back out with the announcement that Yamani could have a new visa, but would have to pay an extra 256 shekels ($75) for it. Yamani refused to pay and left.
Sarig, who represents asylum seekers pro bono, says when she arrived at the bureau, she found Yamani sitting on the ground, crying. “I went in there,” she relates, “and absolutely begged the person in charge, but he wouldn’t give me the visa.” From her experience, she says, the situation at the Interior Ministry is always fraught. “It’s a place where the clerks think that everyone is a liar, that all the asylum seekers are infiltrators, and that the burden is on us to prove otherwise. Sometimes they speak abrasively to the lawyers, too.”
Yamani, who’s 40 and was born in the village of Diksa, in Eritrea, speaks fluent Hebrew. When he was an infant, the family fled the country to Port Sudan. His family were among the few Christians in a Muslim neighborhood, and were attacked because of their religion. Nevertheless, they did not return to Eritrea when it became independent, in 1991, as his father opposed the party that seized power– which continues to rule the country in a dictatorship. Yamani, though, developed patriotic sentiments and dreamed of returning to his native land and joining the army.
“In the end,” he says, “I escaped from my parents and crossed the border into Eritrea.”
Yamani will never forget the day he enlisted, February 28, 1997. “That was the day on which I made myself a slave of the government,” he says. “After basic training I was sent to a tank unit stationed on Eritrea’s western border. Only then did I start to understand that strange things were happening. The members of the course before ours were supposed to be discharged, but they weren’t.”
In 1998, war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopia. His officers said no one could be discharged, even though military service was supposed to last only 18 months. Yamani began to notice the officers’ increasingly poor treatment of their subordinates.
“We had very little furlough. If you were late returning from one, you were tied to a post in the sun. If you didn’t have the right connections, you weren’t given leave even if your mother died.” In addition, he recalls, “We would forcibly recruit school children, without asking how old they were. They were made to kneel down and a Kalachnikov was placed next to them. If they were the height of the Kalachnikov, they were mobilized. We abducted them from school, without informing their parents. At night we entered villages, went from house to house and forcibly mobilized every unmarried man or woman.”
When Yamani refused to take part in these actions, he was imprisoned without a trial, in an underground cell. He was released after five months and sent back to his base. Subsequently he was imprisoned twice more, once for eight months for daring to ask why the soldiers received such a paltry salary and only 10 days of furlough a year, and afterward for two years, when he refused to build houses for his commanders without pay.
During the final incarceration, “They beat me and wanted to know who told me to ask all those questions. They tied me to a pillar with my arms raised and my feet in the air, until blood started to drip from my toenails. They left me there for 45 minutes, maybe an hour. Every few days a body was taken out of the prison. We were 22 to 23 people in one cell.” Soldiers who tried to escape were executed and their bodies displayed to their comrades as a warning. They were accused of being collaborators of Ethiopia.
Yamani weighed just 36 kilos when he was released from prison. Back on the base again, he decided not to ask any more questions, and “to go on being a slave.” In 2006, he decided to escape.
In October of that year he and a friend crossed the border to Kassala, Sudan. From there, smugglers helped them cross the border into Egypt. After a few months in Cairo, they decided to continue to Israel, again with smugglers. On the first night of 2008, they crossed that border, too.
Israeli soldiers they encountered provided them with blankets and water. “The soldiers treated us the nicest of anyone during my 10 years here... After five days they took us to the Central Bus Station in Be’er Sheva, and told us to take a bus to Tel Aviv. I went to Levinsky Park. After that I started to move around.”
He now works in a vegetable store in central Tel Aviv, but his dream is to be an actor. He had an Israeli partner, with whom he had a daughter, now 2 years old.
Since last week’s incident in Bnei Brak, Yamani has been unable to eat or work. His sense of pride prevents him from paying the fine and collecting his visa, but at the same time, like all the refugees, he is very fearful of being deported to Rwanda.
“It’s a death sentence,” he says, adding that he thinks he’s being harassed because he dared to “mix” with a white woman and have a child with her.
“On one hand, the child can protect me; on the other hand she can’t. It’s in their hands. They can abuse me to their hearts’ content.”
'The disinformation kills me'
The move from Salameh Street to the Immigration Authority branch in Bnei Brak is intended to ease the load at the former, says Yossi Edelstein, head of the authority’s Enforcement and Foreign Affairs Administration. “Our facility in Bnei Brak has greater capacity and an orderly place for waiting, where you get a number in the line. We made supreme efforts to open the site. The in-depth refugee status determination interviews will continue to be held at Salameh.”
Why can’t applications for asylum be made via the internet or by fax?
Edelstein: “We have to understand who the person is, to see that he’s here. You can submit via the internet even from abroad. We must have first-hand contact in order to identify the person, to take his details, to ask questions.”
The asylum seekers are apprehensive that the move to Bnei Brak means that it will be possible to arrest those who don’t have a valid visa, whereas in the Salameh Street unit they felt safe. Is that concern justified?
“Sometimes the fears are far-reaching. I could have arrested them at Salameh, too, if I’d wanted. Our aim is not to arrest them. Those who want to extend their visa come to Bnei Brak. It’s true that the unit for voluntary departure [from Israel] is also located in the Bnei Brak facility. The disinformation kills me sometimes. All we really want to do is to improve the service and make it more accessible.”
Can Bnei Brak accommodate more people?
“Between January 1 and the 24th, 1,200 asylum requests had been submitted. You understand that these are off-the-wall numbers? Sometimes you want to give service, but you can’t. But we’ve made an effort now. We really are doing something, contrary to all the rumors about us, that we’re trying to avoid receiving asylum requests.”
According to the new procedure, only those who submitted a request by January 1 are immune from deportation while waiting for a decision to be made about them. What’s the point of allowing those from Eritrea and Sudan to submit requests if it won’t prevent their expulsion in any case?
“We didn’t say that we wouldn’t consider the request; we said that the fact that he submits after January 1 means that reserve the right to ask him to leave. Maybe we’ll pass on his request to a third country. I can’t prevent anyone from submitting [a request].”
Why is it that only 10 Eritreans and one Sudanese person have been granted official refugee status, of the thousands of requests that were examined?
“The State of Israel, after examining the matter, reached the conclusion that defecting from an army is not grounds for receiving political asylum. The fact that you are a private and fled does not constitute grounds for receiving refugeeship. If we encountered a senior officer who defected, and he was considered to have done something against the regime or is shaming the state, maybe he’d be a different category. But a simple soldier who defected, that’s not grounds.
“Anyone who has a story that goes beyond merely defecting from the army will get an in-depth examination and is scrutinized differently. It’s the same for an Eritrean who proves that he is a regime opponent, an opposition activist, a member of a group that’s against the regime and persecuted at the individual level. Anyone who proved he was persecuted at the individual level, received [refugee status].”
Which is only 11 people.
Do you estimate that there are many more like that?
“We stated explicitly that all the requests we have on the table will be examined, and we will not tell anyone to leave before his request is examined. Everyone who submitted by January 1, we will examine individually.”
Why did you make this procedure known only retroactively – after January 1, 2018? Why didn’t you give people time to submit their requests?
“Why do I have to make the procedure public ahead of time? We allowed people to apply all the time. These people have been here eight, seven, 10 years. The last ones entered in 2012. They had five years to submit the requests. Whoever wanted to submit his request did so. The fact that now they are all rushing because they think it will change the rules of the game – it doesn’t work like that. Whoever thought he was persecuted, submitted the request. He didn’t wait for the last minute, for me to tell him that as of tomorrow we’re not receiving anymore.”