Between prison and deportation

Sudanese asylum-seeker to Israel's president: “Why not let us stay and contribute to Israeli society?”

Mutasim Ali at TEDxBGU

Netanyahu’s reelection this year, for his fourth term (third consecutive), leaves little hope for non-Jewish minorities in Israel. The newly-formed government is the most right-wing, conservative and outspokenly racist that Israel has seen in years. The new Minster of culture, Miri Regev (Likud), called Sudanese asylum seekers “a cancer in Israeli society” in 2012, and the new Minister of Justice, Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home), seeks to limit the Supreme Court’s ability to throw out laws, especially when these laws protect the rights of minorities.

If I can think of a population other than Palestinians that is suffering greatly from the current political atmosphere in Israel, it is African asylum seekers.

In 2013, Israel’s Supreme Court of Justice struck down an amendment to Israel’s infamous anti-infiltration bill, which allowed the State to hold African asylum seekers in custody, without trial, for up to three years. In its decision the Court stated that individuals who filed their asylum claims should not wait for the interior ministry’s decision behind bars. he day that decision came out was filled with excitement from human rights activists, NGOs and the asylum population. It felt as if Israel might finally have to address the growing need to establish a refugee regime in the country. We were too early, or maybe naïve, to celebrate.

Instead of implementing the Court’s recommendations, the Knesset rapidly moved to forward a legislative amendment known as the Prevention of Infiltration Law, which transferred asylum seekers to ‘open detention centers’. The government managed to “work around the Court’s ruling” (the words of Netanyahu himself) and instead opened a “residence center” for asylum seekers, a prison in all but name.

The new “open prison,” Holot, is located in the Negev desert, just a few minutes from the old detention center the Court ordered the State to release asylum seekers from. And while Israel did not send asylum seekers back to Sudan and Eritrea, it deported them to other third countries in Africa, such as Rwanda and Uganda, against their will. While Rwandan president Paul Kagame confirmed that Rwanda was in the last phases of formulating an agreement with Israel “totaling millions of dollars,” in which his country would take individuals deported from Israel, senior officials in Uganda denied the existence of such an agreement. There are, however, testimonies of individuals who were deported to both countries. Today, asylum seekers are given two options: leave to a third country, or stay in detention, indefinitely. Behind all of Israel’s convoluted legal rules towards the asylum population lies a clear and unwelcoming message: leave or we will make your lives miserable.

Last month I visited Mutasim Ali, a prominent African activist and asylum seeker from Darfur, Sudan, and currently in detention at Holot. Since his arrival to the country in 2009, Mutasim has become something of the “star”, or leader, of the asylum seekers’ community. Mutasim worked for the African Refugee Development Center office in Tel Aviv as the center’s director, aiding the asylum community, before he was detained. I wanted to know what he thought was the best strategy for asylum seekers to promote their rights, how they framed their struggle and what he thought were the appropriate solutions to their problems.

There are currently about 1,900 people in detention, and approximately 45,000 asylum seekers in Israel, the vast majority of which are from Sudan and Eritrea. Mutasim explained that the government imprisons only the so-called “old-comers” (Sudanese that entered Israel before 2011, and Eritreans prior to 2009). According to Mutasim this is because Israel seeks to uproot the individuals who are most established in society. People like Mutasim, who speak fluent Hebrew, are well integrated in society and have Israeli friends, are the real threat to the government’s incitement. After all, how can the government’s manipulation against the African population sustain itself when there are people like Mutasim walking around?

According to Mutasim, the biggest problem asylum seekers face in Israel is the lack of a stable asylum mechanism, one that is separate from politics. Mutasim believes that the condition of asylum seekers in the country should not be determined by politicians elected recently, that Israel should establish a stable mechanism to register and fairly assess their claims.

The struggle of asylum seekers is politicized. The term “refugee” or “asylum seeker” is closely linked with being “left wing,” and in the current political atmosphere, this leaves little hope for a better and stable policy towards them. According to Mutasim, Israel should cultivate an asylum mechanism that is separate and protected from shifting political agendas.

After a few minutes of conversation, I noticed Mutasim was very anxious, constantly checking his phone. He later told me that he was waiting to hear about his asylum application, whether it had been approved or not. Mutasim’s case reached the Be’er Sheva District Court, both due to his dedicated lawyer but also because he is the leader of the community and his case was highly publicized. He was anxious that his case would become too politicized and that the Interior Minister would “make an example” out of his individual case and send a message to others.

Mutasim told his asylum story many times. He shared it at universities and political forums, as well as in community centers in South Tel Aviv while working with the the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC). Yet according to him, the success of such individual narratives is limited and temporary in Israel. “I can’t even count the times I told the story of how I became an asylum seeker, sometimes in large and prestigious forums. It doesn’t help and it’s degrading.” Mutasim held several meetings with the residents of South Tel Aviv, yet whenever he felt there was a break-through and that a dialogue had begun, some politician would come along and incite the population against Africans. He therefore no longer believes in the power of his personal asylum narrative in influencing public opinion, at least not without ending the ambiguous and unclear policies towards the asylum population.

Mutasim also attributes the tensions in South Tel Aviv to the lack of a clear policy towards asylum seekers: “I can understand the desperation of the residents of South Tel Aviv. I feel uncomfortable with the situation, they also have the right to a better life, but government negligence created a structural problem. We were abandoned by the government and placed in a neighborhood that already suffered from discrimination even before our arrival.”

“Israelis are scared of us. They go to South Tel Aviv and judge us without knowing who we are. They see criminals. It is not solely about being different; it is a certain difference that they are afraid of. If we were Norwegian or Swedish, I’m sure we would have been treated better.” According to Mutasim the reason asylum seekers are being mistreated in Israel is not only because they are not Jewish, it is racism against Africans. “Even African diplomats who visited Israel were attacked in South Tel Aviv, they see all of us, all of the black people, as enemies.”

“There are 90,000 non-Jewish immigrants in the country, why do they target us? There are Asian work migrants in Israel and nobody talks about them. It is not solely a Jewish/ non- Jewish issue – it is because we are African, we are simply not wanted.”

Mutasim is however grateful for all the help he received from Israeli activists, NGO’s and friends.

“You take a person who lived in Tel Aviv and put him here in detention, of course it is better than Darfur, but all we can do here is sleep and eat. What is the purpose of imprisoning us? They spend so much money in putting us away, but we could have contributed in so many ways to Israeli society.”

In a letter Mutasim recently addressed to the President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, in the name of all the refugees in Israel, Mutaism wrote: “We do not have to be regarded as a ‘problem.’ We can be an asset. We can work and contribute to Israeli society. If only you would give us the chance to do so, if only you would grant us asylum.”

When asked about his strategy to promote the rights of asylum seekers, Mutasim said that it is a question Israelis should ask themselves. “We the asylum seekers do not have much left to do. The next protest should come from the Israeli public. It is not only about the African population. You [Israelis] should ask yourself what kind of society you want to live in.”

While implementation gaps exist in almost all countries party to the Refugee Convention, in Israel, there was never actually an attempt to establish a functioning asylum regime.  Instead, the state seeks to deport individuals to third countries and detain the ones who are well established in society.

What is most astonishing about the situation of asylum seekers in Israel is that today the country’s borders are essentially sealed to refugees. Since the Israeli government erected a surveillance fence along the Egyptian border as “a strategic decision to secure Israel’s Jewish and democratic character”, the fence has reduced the number of African asylum seekers entering the country to the point where Israeli officials expect the influx to eventually stop entirely. Israel’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority (PIBA) stated in a 2014 report that since the beginning of 2014 only 19 ‘infiltrators’ entered the country through the Egyptian border.

The fact that Israel is no longer physically open to refugees differentiates it from other countries receiving large influxes of people. It gives Israel a unique opportunity to check individual asylum claims without risking the so-called “pull factor” host countries are often afraid of. Yet Israel continues to perceive the presence of African refugees as a crisis that threatens its ethnic identity.

The question of asylum seekers in Israel, as Mutasim said, does not only concern the asylum population. At the heart of the issue is Israel’s exclusionary mentality. But how long can we sustain this logic in a globalized world?  How many walls and fences can we build? And most importantly, what would this turn us, Israelis, into? Israel could have been a million times richer, more interesting and diverse if we would only open ourselves up.

Mutasim was released from detention two days after our conversation, after a long legal battle. His asylum case, however, has yet to be decided upon, even though he filled his claim two and a half years ago.

The situation continues to deteriorate for asylum seekers, on July 19th the Be’er Sheva District Court rejected rights groups’ appeal for interim order to prevent the deportation of asylum seekers to Rwanda and Uganda and instead backed deporting them and arresting those who refuse to leave. This is Israel’s latest policy towards asylum seekers: a choice between prison and deportation, and we are all losing, Israelis and asylum seekers alike.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.