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Kumera Genet Headshot

A Policy of Dignity: Honoring the Rights of Israel's African Refugees

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Can we call it xenophobia yet? Many Israelis feel that the growing number of African migrants is a threat to Israeli sovereignty at worst or at least a drain on public resources. The rising anti-African sentiment has exploded recently with refugee shelters being fire-bombed and riots in which Africans, including Ethiopian Jews mistaken for migrants, were attacked by angry mobs. Businesses which catered to the African population in southern Tel Aviv were also damaged in the riot.

So who are these African migrants? Prime Minister Netenyahu seems fond of using the term "infiltrator" when referring to the new arrivals. It is disheartening to hear of a recent poll from May 2012 in which 52 percent of Israelis agreed that Africans who entered Israel illegally are a "cancer in the body" of the country. These migrants have fled civil war in Darfur, ongoing conflict between North and South Sudan, ethnic violence and murderous militias in Congo and Ivory Coast, and in Eritrea, one of the world's most militarized and oppressive dictatorships.

A refugee is a much more accurate description of these men and women. The Israeli government has been incredibly hesitant to label them as such. Since the establishment of the Refugee Status Determination Unit in July 2009, over 1,400 refugee claims were submitted and none of the applicants met the definition of a refugee. Why?

The answer is that refugees are protected under international law, and "infiltrators" are not. Israel is a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees that ensures access to courts, housing, and employment for refugees. Instead of extending these services or properly determining their status, the Israeli government detains refugees in holding facilities upon reaching Israel where they can be held indefinitely. Upon release from detention, asylum seekers are released with no additional support or basic rights in order to build a decent life.

The ruling Likud party is transparently systematic about its lack of adherence to international law in regards to receiving and supporting refugees. It is abundantly clear to Africans that they are not welcome in Israel and that if they can't be deported, they will be indirectly forced out of the country. This coercion has taken the form of blaming rising crime rates on Africans, and politicians organizing the xenophobic protests that led to the aforementioned riots.

I question how informed the majority of Jewish Americans are about the treatment of African refugees in Israel. I cynically wonder if South Tel Aviv is included in the itinerary for the increasingly popular Birthright Israel tours. Israel's current plan to secure the southern border with Egypt is to build a fence through the Sinai Desert to deter migrants from entering. I assume that this sounds eerily familiar to my Jewish American compatriots, and that more Jewish organizations that spoke out against Arizona SB 1070 will have the courage and empathy do the same against the Israeli government.

This is not to say that all Israelis have strong anti-immigrant feelings. There are many Israelis who should be commended for speaking out, advocating for and at times risking their own personal safety on behalf of the refugees. Organizations like the African Refugee Development Center are run in cooperation between Israelis and the African communities that they support. The Jewish Religious Action and Advocacy Center recently spoke up to advocate for the better treatment of African migrants in Israel and has called for the Israeli government to honor its commitment to protecting refugees. With that said, there is simply is not enough support domestically or internationally in order to influence change in current Israeli policy.

The African Diaspora in the United States has so far been quiet about the issue of migrant rights, not only in Israel, but also in the Greater Middle East and Europe. As a group we are diverse, multinational, and multi-ethnic, but we must take advantage of our growing numbers in the U.S. and translate this into political organization and power. We should look at the struggles of our Jewish-American, Arab-American, and Latino compatriots as inspiration to organize politically and bring the treatment of Africans to the political agenda of this country. World Refugee Day, June 20, has passed with no action and little recognition from the State Department or the president of the United States for the plight of the thousands of Africans in Israel. Who will put pressure on them to speak if not us Africans?Furthermore, we need to engage the Jewish American community to create dialogue based on support for human rights and eliminating xenophobia in Israel and other societies.

So are the approximately 60,000 recent African migrants to Israel a threat to Israel's social fabric as Netanyahu has stated? I would not presume to define Israeli identity, but in terms of numbers, African migrants constitute well under 1 percent of Israel's population. I see similarities between this fearful xenophobia in Israel and the rhetoric of nationalist anti-immigration factions in Europe and the United States. At the core of this sentiment seems to be a worry about the social decline of predominantly white societies through the integration of Africans, Muslims or Latinos.

As someone who is part of this integration in the United States, I can't speak to what others have lost by our presence, but I can say with conviction that the United States is a stronger nation for accepting refugees and granting them the opportunity to build productive lives and families. Since the 1980s, my current home of Washington, D.C., has been a destination point for different waves of refugees and those seeking political asylum, most notably Salvadoran, Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Sierra Leonean and Eritrean immigrants. These communities have been successfully integrated into the economic, educational, professional and "social fabric" of the area. A generation removed from the first arrivals fleeing civil war in the 1970s and '80s, we have started businesses and now work in all levels of one of the country's largest and most diverse job markets. Hopefully Israel's capital of Tel Aviv can take note.

Please sign this petition to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton from the Cameroon American Council to show your support for African migrants in Israel.

Around the Web

Crackdown on African Immigrants Tugs at Israel's Soul - NYTimes.com

Israel Cracks Down on African Migrants - Photographs - NYTimes.com

Israel begins deporting migrants back to African countries - CNN.com

Israelis attack African migrants during protest against refugees ...