The Refugee Freedom Marchers Still Wait

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African migrants walk on a road after leaving the Holot detention facility, Dec 15, 2013Credit: Reuters

I wrote most of this column on my return from the Freedom March, a quiet protest march in Jerusalem by Israelis and African asylum seekers that was held about a year ago. I tried to describe one of my most difficult and moving days as a political activist. With beer in hand, female friends at my side and free to sit around in a pub, I attempted to give a voice to people who were loaded onto buses and sent to a detention camp in the middle of the Israeli desert.

In Ken Loach’s film “The Wind that Shakes the Barley,” there is an unforgettable scene in which members of the Irish Republican Army are arrested by the British and taken to a detention camp. Tony, the leader of the group, is separated from his colleagues and taken to a room where he is tied to a chair and interrogated under torture. His screams reverberate in the adjoining room where he colleagues are, including his brother Damien, who finds it hard to cope with.

The colleagues begin to sign an Irish freedom song in support, singing louder so that it can be heard by Tony in the next room. In the movie soundtrack, the singing is interspersed with the sounds of Tony’s screams, seeking to drown them out. The IRA members sing as the camera pans between their cell and the scenes of torture next door. The horror and the beauty present humanity in all its ugliness as well as all its beauty. It’s a scene depicted everything that we are fighting against as well as everything we are fighting for. In the march in Jerusalem, I too saw both ends of the spectrum.

The cries of “we want freedom” and “no more jail” were heard loud and clear on that morning in Jerusalem. About 200 refugees stood and demonstrated opposite the Prime Minister’s Office. My eyes filled with tears as I looked on with admiration at those survivors of torture and genocide who were still imbued with hope. It is that hope that had motivated them to rebel and refuse to return to their detention camps and instead to make their way, most of them on foot, to Jerusalem. They stood at the Jerusalem demonstration for hours, repeating these two slogans. From the Prime Minister’s Office, they walked on that cold Jerusalem day to the Knesset, many of them in sandals.

We stood and waited with them. We all knew the story would not end well. They knew that when they fled their “open” detention facility, they would then be sent to a closed prison, but for them, it was one and the same. We knew that too when we came to show our support for them. But for a few moments, there was a spark of hope there. They were sincere and genuine and their goal was just. They were humanity in its best moments, and it was hard to believe that the world would be blind to their cause. There was an almost successful attempt to arrange passes to the Knesset for the group and to seek an emergency session on their plight. It briefly looked as if right would win out.

But at 3 P.M. the scene turned. The police forces began to organize. The refugees tried to retreat, but their path was blocked. They continued to shout “we want freedom” and “no more jail,” but their calls became desperate when the police surrounded them. They sat on the ground and joined hands, and we joined them. The police lunged at us in groups of four. Each group grabbed one person, pushing and shoving, wresting them from the hands of others who sought to hold onto them.

The white protesters were thrown to the side of the road. The blacks were dragged onto buses. The cries did not stop. “We want freedom.” “no more jail,” beseeching, pleading, despairing. The police were deaf to the cries, continuing to load refugees pleading for mercy, hope and freedom onto the buses.

Nearly a year has passed since. We have gotten an instructive lesson in political activism from the refugees. Millions of shekels have been spent on detention facilities instead of investing in assistance to the asylum seekers and support for the south Tel Aviv neighborhoods where many other refugees live. The High Court of Justice has struck down the so-called Infiltrators Law twice on the grounds that it is unconstitutional to detain people cannot for an indeterminate period when their only “crime” is seeking asylum in Israel. The government rushed to amend the law, passing it just before the Holot detention facility was due to be shut down and just prior to the dissolution of the Knesset in advance of elections in March.

Last week amended provisions were passed into law that permit asylum seekers to be jailed for no fault of their own, even if now it is limited to a year and eight months. The law makes it difficult for them to hold down jobs and absconds with 20 percent of their pay (which they get back if they leave the country, and it’s not exactly clear how limiting their employment will assist residents of poor neighborhoods where refugees have found a home).

It continues to deal with the refugees through detention, economic deprivation and neglect, as scapegoats. And still, shortly before last week’s vote on the bill, asylum seekers stood outside the Knesset building, launched balloons, marked a year since their Freedom March and dug in their heels in hope.

The writer is a political and social activist and a Master’s degree student in gender studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

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