“I did not choose to be a refugee.” – Eritrean artist Michael Adonai

By Elsa Mandefro Asfaw, Service Learning Volunteer from the University of Colorado Boulder

A few months ago, the plight of African refugees living in Israel became front-page news as thousands of refugees staged a series of protests in public squares, foreign embassies, and government offices. The protests began at the end of December 2013 with more than 20,000 refugees demanding Israel abide by international law. The refugees demanded – and continue to demand – three things through their protests: 1) that Israel examine their asylum claims, 2) Israeli officials stop arresting and detaining members of the asylum seeking community 3) that refugees will be treated in accordance with the international human rights laws.

The majority of the estimated 55,000 asylum seekers in Israel are from Eritrea and Sudan. Eritrea is known as the ‘North Korea of Africa’; its government is extremely repressive and an average of ninety percent of Eritrean asylum claims have been accepted in the West and elsewhere. Most of the Sudanese came trying to escape the genocide in Darfur, Nuba Mountain and Blue Nile State. The vast majority of these refugees came through the Sinai desert, one of the world’s hotbeds for illegal human trafficking is taking place. Many of the refugees have been tortured; some women have been raped and impregnated by the illegal traffickers.

One might assume Israel would take a moral responsibility to protect refugees. According to the UN 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Israel, as a signatory state, has an obligation to give refugees an individual claim assessment. Yet Israel instead flaunts this obligation by refusing to do more than give refugees three-month temporary group protection. As a result, asylum seekers have been issued different temporary visas that do not permit them to work legally. This was not the case until 2009 when the Ministry of Interior decided to no longer permit asylum seekers a working visa and in 2010 the following phrase was added on the visas: “This temporary permit does not constitute a work permit.” Kav LaOved stated that: “this phrase deters potential employers of refugees and asylum seekers since it implies that it is forbidden to employ them.”

The asylum seekers have been and still are seen as “infiltrators” by Israel’s government, which has created a xenophobic culture towards the asylum seekers. Language is a powerful tool, and Israel uses it to convey negative messages toward the refugees. Instead of seeing asylum seekers as people with human dignity, Israel sees and treats them as criminals. The reality that the visas are printed to confirm that it is not a working permit legitimizes employers to not hire them legally. Asmerom Hailu, an Eritrean refugee who has been in Israel for three years shared, “When my visa expired, my employer didn’t pay me for what I worked for and once I renewed my visa they told me that they have already replaced me with someone else.

Refugees go through experiences that no human being should go through. Before the creation of Israel, the Jewish people moved from one place to another to escape constant religious persecution as stateless people. Israel is a very small country, but that does not prevent the state from treating refugees humanely and permitting them to work until it figures out the best solution for both the state and the refugees. Israel has a responsibility to uphold their commitment to the 1951 UN Convention, and with the help of NGOSs like Kav LaOved who serve as a bridge between the government and society, they can come to solutions that are both equitable and realistic.