To the cheers of dozens in the audience, two people rose to the stage. Their clothes were colorful and their eyes shining. They began a sequence of songs that ended with a symbolic expression of doubt in the Passover song “Vehi Sheamda.” The performers weren’t Jews, but they do see Israel as their home, or at least want it to be. And they are under threat.
Tonton and Lyly Kalupa, asylum seekers from the Democratic Republic of Congo, were singing their destiny. The performance took place last Thursday at a school in Tel Aviv as part of the events marking World Refugee Day on Monday.
The Kalupas, professional singers whose repertoire mostly consists of Congolese music, added two songs – ones they composed and that convey their message as people who have been trying for years to have a quiet life and legal status in Israel. “I don’t know what it means to be a refugee,” says Tonton. “I do know what it is to be an asylum seeker.”
Tonton and Lyly, like 30,000 others from all around the world, are awaiting a decision from the government on their applications for asylum. Many of them have been waiting for years. In addition, there are thousands of others who haven’t even applied, including 14,000 Ukrainians who have fled to Israel since Russia’s invasion, making them the newest addition to the list of foreign nationals seeking legal status.
Evgenia Minenko, 32, who is originally from Irpin and is now living in Ashdod, arrived in Israel on February 20. She boarded her plane to Israel a day after her birthday. Four days later, the war began, and a few days after that, her parents decided to leave for Germany, where her sister lives. Since then, the building where they lived has been shelled, entire apartments destroyed; not a single window is left.
Minenko says she also lost one of her friends to Russian bombs. “I have nowhere to go back to,” she says. In the meantime, she is staying in the living room of an aunt in Ashdod, sleeping on a sofa. The suitcases she arrived with are next to her. She has no place to go, but remaining where she is now isn’t easy, either. Minenko, like 3,000 other Ukrainians residing in Israel legally since the outbreak of the war on tourist visas, aren’t entitled to the same assistance as those who came after the war began, like advanced medical care or welfare.
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Tzav Hashaa (“Call to Action”), an organization that helps Ukrainian refugees in Israel, also distinguishes between those who arrived before and after the war broke out. When Minenko asked for coupons worth 700 shekels ($202), she was turned down. She didn’t meet the criteria.
During her first three months in Israel, she wasn’t even allowed to make money. Last month, however, she began to get some benefits. Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked announced a policy of “non-enforcement” toward Ukrainians technically in Israel on tourist visas, more a matter of looking the other way than a formal change of rules. When Minenko went to renew her visa with the Population and Immigration Authority, she discovered that it contained the proviso, “Not authorized to work – legal proceedings will be taken against illegal employment.”
Relying on the policy of non-enforcement, she began looking for work. Minenko said she wanted a job available at a clothing warehouse, but after they saw her visa, the offer was withdrawn. “In Ukraine, I worked as a financial analyst, my salary was good, I had savings, but they’re almost used up,” she says. “If the situation doesn’t change in the next few months, I’ll be forced to go to Europe.”
She won’t be the first. From the start of the war, of the more than 21,000 refugees not covered by the Law of Return that have entered Israel, only 14,500 were still in the country by the beginning of June. The rest, it is believed, left for Europe (where they get legal status and benefits) or have returned home despite everything. Those who remain in Israel are not deemed refugees, and the government has not encouraged them to seek refugee status.
Initially, they were deemed tourists, based on the visa they were given. But because the government argued in front of the High Court of Justice that the Ukrainians were not really tourists (in order to show that Israel wasn’t violating a treaty with Ukraine), they were given a new status with the impressive-sounding but effectively meaningless label of “war escapees.”
“Instead of an orderly and compassionate policy, they opted for vague declarations like ‘non-enforcement’ while leaving them with a visa that doesn’t let them work,” says Zoya Levitin Pushnikov of HIAS Israel, the local branch of the HIAS refugee aid organization. “They were left with unclear and discriminatory policies that are cruel and illogical. In effect, the government leaves Israeli hosts entirely responsible for these war refugees.”
In some ways, these refugees are lucky. Since the outbreak of the war, Israel has refused entry to some 4,000 Ukrainians, the great majority of them when they fill out an online form, even before they have had a chance to board a plane. About 350 of them have succeeded in reaching Israel anyway, where they have been held either at Ben-Gurion International Airport or the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv to await deportation.
When she arrived, Minenko thought she might have a future in Israel, even if only a temporary one, and began learning Hebrew. She’s still studying six hours a day, she says, but she’s not sure it will ever help her find work. “They told me at the embassy that the State of Israel is doing everything it can to get Ukrainians to leave,” she says. “It seems they were right.”
Ali (not his real name), 28, is originally from Sudan, and lives in Tel Aviv. “I could wander around Levinsky Park all day – to spiral, smoke, go crazy,” he says ,“or they could give me real status and I can start a real life here for myself.” Ali was 16 when he arrived in Israel after a grueling trek by way of the Sinai Desert. “We were running away all the time,” he recalls. “There was no food or water.”
He left his parents and the rest of his family back in Sudan. Upon arrival in Israel, he discovered that the government didn’t consider him a refugee, regardless of why he had left his homeland or what he endured to reach Israel. He was held in Ketziot Prison for six months. After he was released, he completed part of Israel’s matriculation exams and studied to be an electrician. In 2014, he submitted an application with the Interior Ministry for asylum. Eight years of waiting have passed.
The first sign of life from the government appeared last November, when he was finally invited (as are many other Sudanese nationals) for an asylum interview. Months later, the news arrived: Following a High Court ruling, Ali and 2,400 other asylum seekers became eligible for a temporary residence permit until the government made a final decision on their asylum requests.
“The status we got wasn’t refugee status, it’s temporary,” he explained. “Tomorrow, they could take it away from me and say that’s it, your time’s up. Recognized refugees know they are free. We’re not.” Ali is right. His temporary residency status is valid for six months, meaning he will need to renew it next month. If Shaked decides for reasons of her own to remove the protections this group enjoys, they will have nothing.
Not only is the solution temporary, it is limited. According to government data, there are 8,700 Sudanese nationals in the country, of whom 5,000 lack any legal status. The rest, around 3,700, are temporary residents, some having been granted the status recently and some who were granted it over the years for humanitarian reasons.
But don't confuse them with those who have refugee status, says Sigal Rosen, public policy coordinator for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. “While refugee status confers the right to a family and there is a procedure for removing it, humanitarian status holders depend on the whims of the officials. Even when your visa is renewed on time, holders are left with a sense of uncertainty and lack of stability. ‘Will they renew my status next time, too?’”
That uncertainty increased as interviews for asylum seekers from Sudan were renewed last September. Since then, close to 900 have been interviewed. The interviews were suspended in the spring of 2019 after the revolution in Sudan. However, in the interviews conducted since September, asylum seekers say they heard words of praise about Israel’s relations with the new government of Sudan. Recently, the Interior Ministry told the appeals court that it was working on new guidelines for examining Sudanese asylum applications.
None of this inspires confidence in asylum seekers. “The Israeli public isn’t to blame, it’s the government’s fault,” says Ali. “I have a lot of Israeli friends, and I don’t feel any discrimination from my Israeli neighbors. I blame the authorities, the people who have the power, the government. The status that I now have is better than what we have before, that’s clear, but it’s temporary. Tomorrow, they can take it from me. Then, where will I go?”
When Tonton Kalupa sings of peace in Africa, he also sings about his homeland, the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country recently underwent a change of rule, perhaps the first step on the way to a better future. Meanwhile, however, he is afraid to return and is seeking asylum in Israel. He has been waiting nearly seven years for his application to be considered.
“To be an asylum seeker is to be on standby all the time – it’s not a life,” he says. “Every morning I thank God for another day, but I don’t know what that day will bring. I don’t know what it means to be a refugee, I do know what it is to be waiting.” Recently, Kalupa learned that a decision had been taken – not about his application but in regard to a change in the group protections Congolese refugees had enjoyed. It was over.
It wasn’t just a rumor. It was an official announcement issued by the Population and Immigration Authority. Last week, Shaked even boasted on her Instagram account that the policy change was one of the government’s accomplishments. Congolese nationals who hadn’t submitted asylum requests had 30 days to leave the country.
As it turns out, Shaked had spoken too quickly, before she had gotten a legally mandated opinion from the Foreign Ministry. But it’s not at all certain that the opinion will change anything. Only last month, a Foreign Ministry official told the Knesset there was no longer any reason to keep the protections. Even the UN position that the situation in the African country has not yet stabilized may not change things. In addition, a U.S. State Department report released last month said the situation in the DRC had deteriorated, especially for political activists.
The story of the Congolese asylum seekers is an interesting example of the government’s attitude. Their numbers in Israel aren’t large, about 400, and they have been here for a long time, most of them more than a decade. Still, of the 332 applications for asylum that have been submitted, 225 are still being processed. Only 42 have been accepted, and just three have received the coveted status of refugee.
Kapula is a relatively new member of that group. He arrived in Israel in 2016 after fleeing his homeland. He feared that the regime would harass him or his family because of his political views. He has trouble censoring his opinions in front of his father (a local priest) and at his place of work – a radio station that he was forced to leave. “That’s what attracted the attention of the government authorities about what we were doing. They didn’t like it,” he recounts. “I started getting strange messages about my wife and eldest daughter. I reported it to the police, but the police do nothing to protect people and help as it’s supposed to.” He realized he had no choice but to leave the country.
But in the meantime, he has no other place he can live safely, whatever the Interior Ministry may say. Six Israeli human rights organizations are battling with Shaked over her decision. A suit brought by attorney Michal Schwartz of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrant and Meirav Ben Zeev of HIAS resulted in an interim court order ensuring their status until a final decision is made. The decision will take some time. The first hearing in Jerusalem District Court will only take place in September.
“My situation here is okay, but that’s not really true,” says Kalupa. “I have no health insurance, I have fewer rights than a foreign worker. I can’t leave Israel, I can’t work at any job. I feel like I’m in a prison. How can that be okay?” The Kalupas have four daughters, two of them under than three, living with them in Israel.
On the surface, it appears they have backing from Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. His ministry is recommending that Congolese asylum seekers be expelled gradually: first adults without family, and later considering the prospect of expelling minors and family members. But even this policy hinges on whether Lapid remains in office. It’s not very reassuring to Kalupa.
“How are we bothering anyone? I get up every morning at 5:00, go to work and come home. It’s not complicated, no problems. I’m just asking to be able to live and to get what everyone else living here gets,” he says. “I just want a chance to go to the politicians and those who make the decision and tell them my story and my history. What thoughts I have about my future here and what plans I have for my family. After they’ve heard me, they can do what they want. But first, they should listen.”
A spokesperson for Shaked said that since the status of the Sudanese nationals has not been officially decided they were given temporary visas for six months, during which time a final decsision might be made.
“In regard to the Ukrainians lawfully holding tourist visas, it was decided as a matter of law and as a humane gesture to extend their visas and that the rules would not be enforced against those employed for a predetermined period and therefore they can work." the spokesperson said. However, he added since over a million Ukrainians have returned to their country in rcent weeks, it was decided not to broaden the right of the refugees stilll in Israel.
In regard to Congolese citizens the spokesman said that the decision in their cases is left to Shaked's discretion, and that she, based on a professional review prepared by the Population Authority, decided to not adopt a general policy but work on a case-by-case basis. The review suggests that many Western coountries have been deporting Congolese immigrants in recent years. In September 2020 the review was forwarded to the Foriegn Ministery who, after consulting with the National Securiety Coouncil, detrmind that the situation is the DRC did not pose enough of a threat to justify a genral policy when it comes to Congolese refugees.