60,000 African migrants sought refuge in Israel. Many found hostility, resentment and a one-way ticket to prison. They are Israel's new unwanted.
Before coming to Israel, Rhuba never smoked cigarettes. Now, she smokes like a truck driver.
Her cheeks cave as she huffs the butts down in long, powerful draws, sending nimbus clouds of tobacco floating into the damp air of a south Tel Aviv bar.
Rhuba is 19, petite in bright blue jeans. She stares out from a matching blue hoodie drawn tight to her head, nearly obscuring the crimson pool of blood that fills her right eye. The left side of Rhuba's face isn't so concealed. A dark, amaranthine welt starts in an angry ball on her temple and sprawls out like skinny fingers across her cheekbones.
Her former employer, the owner of a Tel Aviv restaurant, hit her repeatedly when she asked to be paid for two weeks of work.
“There is no freedom here,” she says.
Rhuba is from Eritrea, a small, impoverished East African nation led by a man the American ambassador called an “unhinged dictator,” who was described as “cruel and defiant” in classified cables made public by Wikileaks.
In 2006, 1,348 Eritreans who fled their government crossed the border from Egypt’s Sinai into Israel. By 2011, that number had grown to 17,175, with nearly a thousand crossing the Sinai to Israel every month, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Israeli government. Today, there are roughly 35,895 Eritreans living in Israel, as well as 15,210 Sudanese. Since 2006, some 60,000 African refugees from these countries and others have come to Israel in this way.
Rhuba arrived in Israel as many migrants do, after having fled Eritrea because of its despotic leadership, universal conscription and endemic poverty. The journey is a perilous gamble. Eritrean migrants travel hundreds of miles over land, some on foot. The threat of kidnap and torture at the hands of Bedouins who control the Sinai -- which most refugees cross to get to Israel from Africa -- is ever present.
According to the U.N., many do not survive the journey. Those who do are not always looking to reside permanently in the Jewish state, according to Israeli NGOs and the refugees themselves. But upon arrival in Israel, instead of refuge, many face antagonism, bitterness and a government policy that makes life closer to prison than the promised land.
They are rarely granted work permits. They have little access to health care, and few can afford decent housing. There are few schools for their children. And now, due to an immigration law effective on June 3, 2012, every migrant who crosses the border is imprisoned for a minimum of three years. Some may be held indefinitely.
Many of the migrants say they mistrust the police, while the lack of work visas forces residents such as Rhuba into unfortunate arrangements with landlords who gouge, and employers who sometimes take advantage.
“We are free,” one Eritrean in Tel Aviv told me, “but only to breathe.”
Those who arrived here before last summer believe that it is only a matter of time before they, too, are imprisoned under the new law. For a time, the government offered those who voluntarily turn themselves into immigration authorities 1,000 Euros and a plane ticket out of Israel.
Those who don't want to leave, are worried.
“We don't know what will happen tomorrow for us,” says Zebib Sultan, 30. “We are at risk. We are suspended like oil on the water.”
At a protest rally last May, Miri Regev, a member of Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, said that the immigrants were “a cancer” on Israeli society. Another parliament member called them “a plague.” Protesters waved signs reading “Tel Aviv—a Refugee camp,” while yelling “Blacks out!”
The protesters targeted immigrant-owned cars and businesses. A month earlier, someone threw Molotov cocktails at apartment buildings where African immigrants live, including one that housed a daycare. According to newspaper reports, police suspected that the attack was carried out by locals who wanted to make the new arrivals feel unwelcome.
A similar attack took place in Jerusalem earlier this year.
The presence of the migrants has forced difficult questions onto Israeli society.
“Obviously, people here have to be treated humanely,” says Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “When you walk in the streets of Israel, at least 90 percent of the people are refugees, or children of refugees or grandchildren of refugees. We have more refugees than probably any other country in the world ... but we consider (the newly arrived Africans) illegal job migrants and not refugees.
“The sad thing is, there are criminal elements involved in the Sinai, and human trafficking and terrible things happening there. But we are a first-world country in walking distance from some of the worst failed states in the world.”
The Bedouin kidnappers who grabbed Winnie Beyene in the Sudan and brought her to the Sinai desert told her that they would harvest her three young childrens’ organs if she didn't come up with $30,000. She knew she'd have to call her family back home in Eritrea and beg, she recalls.
Beyene fled Eritrea in late 2011 after her husband was imprisoned for what she describes through a translator as “political crimes.” She was frightened that she might also be jailed.
She has a long face and bright smile, her head covered in a gray, floral-print scarf. Beyene lives in the basement of Tel Aviv halfway house for migrant women with children, run by an Israeli NGO.
After fleeing Eritrea, Beyene set out for Sudan where the UNHCR maintains a series of camps for thousands of Eritreans along the border. The camps are a hub for human traffickers and smugglers. They also provide easy targets for violent, unscrupulous men. Kidnapping and rape in the camps is a daily occurrence.
Beyene says she was kidnapped at a refugee camp near Kassala, Sudan, by a clan of Bedouins called Rashaida, who according to human rights groups and the UN, are notorious for snatching migrants fleeing Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Victims describe being dragged into the desert, often in chains and tortured for ransom from their families back home.
Sister Azezet is a Catholic nun who has spent years helping these migrants, both in Israel and the Sinai. Azezet has conducted interviews with more than 1,300 African migrants in Israel over the last two years, and says that some three-quarters of them have been tortured before arriving in the country. The more recent arrivals "are all kidnapped and brought here against their will," she said.
She recounts the stories she’s heard: smugglers showing dismembered body parts as threats. Torture with electric cattle prods. Rape. Starvation. Plastic bags melted onto flesh.
Reports by human rights groups, the UN and the migrants themselves recount victims with mobile phones pressed to their faces while being tortured, so that their families can hear them scream and pay ransoms more quickly.
“This guy, you can see that he was starved — you can see his ribs,” says Sigal Rozen, scrolling through pictures of a young Eritrean torture victim on her computer at her office in south Tel Aviv, near the city’s Eritrean neighborhood. Rozen has worked for 15 years as an advocate for immigrants in Israel. She now runs the Hotline for Migrant Workers, perhaps the best known of such advocacy groups here.
The pictures roll by, a montage of dark skin marred by deep scars. She points to the skin on his ankles, cracked and rubbed raw. “Here you had the shackles,” she says. His back is a mess of dark spots and welts. “Here,” she points, “they threw (flaming) plastic bags on his back.”
The pictures were taken shortly after the young man was released from a holding facility in the Negev Desert called Saharonim that the government uses to house new arrivals. Rozen has narrow shoulders and long, straight hair. Like many Israeli immigrant-rights advocates, she is persistent and determined, but weary from fighting the same battle for a long time.
The man in the picture, says Rozen, was in the Sinai for weeks, chained to 20 others, 18 of whom died. Still, the Bedouins “left them [chained] together with the rotting bodies, forcing them to call their relatives to ask for ransom. This is one of the torture methods, to tie the live people to the dead ones until the dead ones start to rot.”
But even for those Eritreans and Sudanese who aren't kidnapped, the journey from Sudan to Israel is brutal. After crossing Sudan, partly on foot, they must brave the Egyptian border, where guards have a “shoot on sight” policy.
Further trauma awaits migrants once they reach the Sinai.
“The first day I was in Sinai, they chained our legs, ” says Zebib Sultan of the Bedoins who trafficked her through. “Immediately.”
Later that night, the rapes began. They took the women outside, and three Bedouins raped them, one by one.
“One woman refused,” Sultan remembers. “She was crying and shouting and they beat her ... she was bleeding.”
The words tumble out of Sultan as she recounts the memory, stone-faced. In the week or so she spent making the passage across the Sinai, her group of migrants were given one small portion of partially cooked rice each day and very little water.
In the Sinai, migrants risk being traded to other groups of Bedouins. According to the U.N., different Bedouin groups sometimes fight over the refugees, who are then killed in the crossfire. Sister Azezet says that migrants are often stuffed into oil tankers, where they bake in the desert heat, eyes tearing from the acrid fumes within. They can be held in the Sinai for months.
Zomzo Bushura, 27, who lives in the same house as Beyene, says that she was kidnapped in Sudan after fleeing Eritrea last year with her two small children.
“It was not my plan to come to Israel,” she says through a translator.
But a group of Rashayda had other ideas. They brought her to the Sinai and tortured her, stripping her and the other women in her group, beating them with sticks on the soles of their feet and palms of their hands. She spent five months with the Rashayda in the Sinai, at most just a few days drive from the Israeli border.
“They were always trying to rape you ... I'm lucky that I was with my children. They had a little sympathy for me because of the baby.”
The other three women?
“They raped them,” the translator explains eventually in a low voice. “They raped them.”
Like Winnie Beyene, Bushura's immediate family in Eritrea and extended family abroad came up with the $30,000 the traffickers demanded. Both women’s children were unharmed.
This is not an unheard of sum -- $33,660 was the average amount paid by the hundreds of refugees Sister Azezet interviewed. The Bedouins often get exactly what they demand, Azezet said.They're counting on the terrified families in Eritrea to empty their bank accounts. More importantly, they know that the Eritrean diaspora -- which stretches to western capitals like London, Paris and Washington -- has money. Since Eritrea gained independence in 1991, more than 30 percent of the country's GDP has come from remittances, according to the U.S. Library of Congress.
When a migrant's family gets that horrifying call from the Sinai, an international network of aunts, uncles, cousins and friends begins buzzing, desperately wiring whatever money they have in the hopes of saving their loved one.
The entire purpose of the ordeal, Bushura says, “is to get the money. When they got the money, they released me.”
Like most migrants, after her ransom was paid, one of the Rashayda brought Bushura to a spot near the Israeli border, careful to avoid the Egyptians who shoot on sight.
“You do your best,” he told her. “...Good luck.”
The Tel Aviv Central Bus Station hulks over the skyline of the neighborhood surrounding Levinsky Park in South Tel Aviv like a filthy Sphinx. Its high outer walls are black and tan from decades of diesel exhaust. A pair of massive ducts loom from its roof like whirring periscopes.
Before last June brought indefinite holding periods, most African migrants were collected by Israeli border guards, detained for a short while at Saharonim, then placed on buses to Tel Aviv. The bus station, located amidst a gritty warren of low-slung houses near a highway overpass, is the first thing most African immigrants saw when they came to Tel Aviv.
Purely by accident of geography, it has become the center of life for the migrant community.
This neighborhood is like no other in Israel. Hip-hop and African rhythms blend, pouring into Nave Sha’anan Street from the African-run clothing stalls and barber shops. Boys play soccer on the mall, and adults craving home cooking and cold Asmara Lager pack restaurants. At night, the streets are bright from the reflected glow of signs in Tigrigna and Amharic, the languages of Eritrea and Ethiopia.
It is not a clean place. Dead rats lay among garbage piles, and public trash cans overflow. Between buildings, long, covered hallways snake into darkness, their entrances guarded by men who beckon with a wink or head nod. Smoke and music filter out from within.
Mulugeta Tumuzghi fled Eritrea after turning down an offer from the government's secret police force to act as a spy-in-place while working as a manager of a fancy hotel in Asmara. He was thrown in jail, but managed to escape in a harrowing jailbreak with a group of other prisoners.
When he arrived at the bus station, he knew no one in Israel.
“But we Eritreans have a good culture of helping each other,” he says. Fellow refugees gave Tumuzghi food and told him where to sleep. They said, “Come to this shelter, come sleep here, eat this food, drink this tea.”
Some migrants who don't make friends quickly end up living in Levinsky Park, a square block of brown grass and concrete sandwiched between two busy boulevards. They relieve themselves on what's left of the grass. Tents were eventually erected to house the 100 or so men who’d taken up more or less permanent residence in the park.
Those who can afford a place to live end up crammed into small, expensive apartments they share with a half dozen or more people in south Tel Aviv. Tumuzghi slept in a shelter for three months before finding temporary work in restaurants. After a few years, he was able to find work as a videographer, filming the occasional wedding.
“You've been to a restaurant in Tel Aviv,” says Sarah Robinson, an American who works with refugees at Amnesty International in Israel. “You might notice that there's usually two or three Eritrean guys in the back.”
Many African migrants who work in Tel Aviv's restaurants, staff hotels, clean streets and work on construction crews are in Israel legally, but the visas they've been given are typically not work visas.
It's printed in plain Hebrew, right on the visa, says Robinson, “This is not a work permit.”
So the migrants work under the table. This allows employers to take advantage of the migrants, underpaying them or violating handshake agreements. The work is hard, manual labor and the pay isn't much.
The migrants’ families have paid so much ransom, selling houses, animals and even their gold, says Sister Azezet. “They want to repay, but here, they can't even work.”
On the other side of town, in Tel Aviv's Jaffa neighborhood, an African migrant is doing something that most rarely get to do, seeing a doctor.
His groin is in so much pain that he can't urinate. Because he's not a part of the health or welfare system that is the birthright of all Israelis, he says he won't be able to get an appointment at a hospital for three weeks.
For that reason, he's come to a free clinic in Jaffa run by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I), where general practitioners, pediatricians and psychiatrists donate their time a few days a week.
Beads of sweat the size of marbles pour down the man’s face as he sits in the air-conditioned examination room. The doctor tells an assistant that the migrant had been stabbed in the groin with a metal spike while in Sinai. Fluid had built up in the man's scrotum.
If it weren't for this small clinic, he'd have almost nowhere to go. There are only a few other clinics that serve migrants in Tel Aviv.
During open hours, the PHR-I waiting room, with only a couple examination rooms, overflows with dozens of migrants sitting in plastic lawn chairs, enduring a reliably long wait.
Shahar Shoham runs the migrant program for PHR-I, and the practice is overwhelmed with patients. Last year, she says the clinic saw about 8,000 patients for everything from the flu to torture wounds.
“There are also an increasing number of gunshot victims coming to our clinic that are victims of the shoot-to-kill policy of the Egyptian forces on the border,” Shoham says.
In the clinic's pharmacy, she points out a large shelf stacked with cough syrup, paracetamol, syringes, and medicine for everything from ear-aches to infections.
“This is nothing,” says an exasperated Shoham. “Imagine that this [shelf] is supposed to serve 60,000 asylum seekers.”
The drugs and equipment are all donated, Shoham says, so it’s not uncommon torun out of something in the middle of a course of treatment.
“This is bad medicine,” he says.
South Tel Aviv is a blue—bordering on black-collar area. Before the African migrants got here, it was the exclusive province of Orthodox Jews with large families and small incomes. It’s a stronghold of the Ultra-Orthodox Shas political party.
Recent arrivals from Russia and Eastern Europe also live there, sprinkled with artists and hipsters who have been priced out of north and central Tel Aviv in the last few years. Altogether, the area feels a bit like Williamsburg, Brooklyn, just before it got hip.
On a recent Saturday, a group of Rabbis and community leaders meet to discuss the recent arrivals from Africa. They were a part of last year's protests and say they are frightened and upset by the sudden appearance of so many young African men in their neighborhood.
“All of a sudden you're walking inside your country and it looks like a different country with a different culture,” says Rabbi Rami Yonauv in Hebrew, through a translator. Yonauv is the head of a large synagogue in Kilyat Shalom and has lived there for 30 years.
“There are robberies because the infiltrators don't have any employment,” he adds.
Crime is the number one concern among the conservative Israelis who live shoulder to shoulder with the African migrants. Police say that there has been an uptick in crimes in the south Tel Aviv neighborhoods around the bus station and Levinsky Park.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld says that there has been a “more than 50 percent” increase in crime in the neighborhood around Levinsky Park. “It’s mostly petty crime, thefts, local burglaries and involvement in pickpocketing,” he says. “We’re not talking about foreigners involved in major crimes such as sexual crimes, rape or homicides.”
Rosenfeld points out that across the rest of the country, immigrants are no more likely to be involved in crime than an Israeli citizen.
That does little to assuage the fears of south Tel Aviv’s Orthodox community.
“Never before have we seen this fear that you have today,” says Rabbi Aharon Borohov, who lives and teaches in the neighborhood. “I can see the fear in the eyes of the residents … People are afraid to send their kids, or go themselves, to my evening classes. Less people are coming.”
There have been two high profile rapes of Israeli women by African men in the last two years. The most recent was in late December. According to multiple newspaper reports, an 83-year-old woman was dragged into an enclosed courtyard near her south Tel Aviv apartment, raped and beaten for three hours. She was found hours later, a bloody mess, by her nephew. The attack happened just steps from the bus station, in what one newspaper described as “a warren of drug addicts and prostitutes.”
A few days later, police arrested a suspect, who they identified only as a young Eritrean man.
The Hotline’s Rozen says that there have been nine Eritrean murderers in the last two years and all of them were domestic violence related. In two of the cases, the men were “working like crazy to raise $30,000 (to pay the Bedouins) and when their wives got to Israel, they were pregnant with the rapist's baby.”
“This puts a lot of stress on people,” she says.
No matter the nuances, many Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Israelis in neighborhoods like Shapira and Kilyat Shalom are terrified of migrants, whom they refer to as infiltrators. They're also furious at their government, which they see as having dropped a massive problem on their front yard, with no plan or remedy in sight.
“The government must take responsibility for the infiltrators so they are not in the neighborhoods they are in now,” says Aharon Bohorov, a Rabbi who lives in Kilyat Shalom. He suggested moving all of the migrants to the facility in the Negev.
Netanyahu’s spokesman Regev adds that it is people like the Orthodox of south Tel Aviv who are most impacted by the African migrants.
“What we have found with this immigration is that it doesn’t hurt your upper-middle class and affluent,” he says. “It hurts the blue collar and below because it takes down wages, takes down conditions. For all of these reasons, you just can’t have it.”
The Orthodox residents of south Tel Aviv are not entirely unsympathetic to the plight of the African migrants or the trouble in their home countries that brought them here. But like Israeli government officials, they also don't believe that all of the migrants are legitimate refugees.
“Refugees are people who are old, poor, people with children,” says Rabbi Yonauv. “The people in Syria, for example, who are escaping the war. But the only people who come [to Israel] are all young. They all come to work.”
Shlomo Maslawi, an Orthodox community leader who says he has helped formulate the neighborhood’s response to the migrants’ arrival, finds the idea of people being kidnapped and brought to the Israeli border laughable.
“The Bedouins kidnapped 60,000 people? Are they bored? Why don't they kidnap me? Why don't they kidnap you? This is nonsense.”
As for the violent protests last spring, Rabbi Yonauv is unapologetic.
“I don't think it was violence, it was more of self defense. We're trying to defend ourselves. Because our government doesn’t do its job, the people that live in this country need to defend themselves.”
On the streets around Levinsky Park, people are tense.
“I get non-stop calls,” says Amnesty’s Robinson. “My cousin's missing, my sister's missing...”
Hidden in a booth in the back of a smoky Ethiopian restaurant on Nave Sha'anan, Mulugeta Tumuzghi leans in close after looking over his shoulder and echoes this.
“A lot of Eritreans disappear from here,” he says. “Always you see pictures posted on walls that say, ‘Please, if anybody sees this person, call me.’”
Tumuzghi, fearful of what he views as an all-powerful Eritrean government with omniscient reach, believes that the dictator's spies are the cause of the disappearances.
“People just go missing,” he says.
The real cause is likely much more prosaic.
“We look for them in the prison now,” says Robinson. Even children.
“Children are not mentioned in the (anti-infiltration) law,” says the Hotline's Rozen. “But it means that children who enter together with their parents are going to stay ... with their mothers in prison. Fathers are being taken to a different section."
Exceptions have been made, but activists like Rozen and Robinson say they are few, and that any migrant involved in criminal activity can be detained under the law. This also extends to the African migrants who entered the country before last summer.
Rozen tells the story of a woman who was raped and went to the police, only to decide that she did not want to press charges. The rapist was detained. But she was as well.
Regev does not deny that this happens. “They’re here illegally, so they’d be naturally concerned about coming into contact with the law, no matter what they’ve done or not done.”
This of course leaves the sizable portion of Israel's migrant community that has not been put in prison on edge and in limbo.
“The situation we are living here is not a life,” Sultan says.
According to the U.N., 84.5 percent of Eritreans and 74.4 percent of Sudanese who ask for asylum in other nations have their requests granted. In Israel, only 157 asylum seekers of any kind have been recognized as refugees in the entire history of the nation, according to the Hotline, which got that number from data provided by Israel’s Ministry of Interior. Some Africans have been living in Israel for decades and not had their asylum requests addressed.
Activists say that the new arrivals kept in Saharonim don't even have a way to ask. In a report published last year, Rozen wrote that asylum seekers in Saharonim keep reporting that there are no means to ask for asylum. Even when they manage to learn about their right to ask, there is no one to accept the request.
When asked about the asylum requests, Regev says, “I was told that we use the U.N. guidelines.”
Israeli newspaper reports cite former Interior Minister Eli Yishai confirming that very few asylum requests have been examined. He has been quoted as saying that he wanted to make the lives of the African asylum seekers “so miserable that they would want to leave.”
The current Interior, Minister Gideon Sa’ar was named to his post after January’s election. His office and that of his spokesperson did not respond to weeks of calls and emails inquiring about the asylum requests.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that the African migrants are a threat to Israeli national security and “our national identity.” The amendment to the Anti-Infiltration law states plainly: “The expectation is that the detention period will stop the massive infiltration or at least minimize it.”
“We’re willing to have a situation where some of them achieve legal residency in Israel, some of them can go to third countries and some of them can be repatriated, all in accordance with the law,” says Regev, adding “no one will be forced to go back home against their will.”
Advocates for the migrants worry that if sent to third countries, like say, Uganda, the Africans might be deported to their home countries anyway.
Besides expanding the Anti-Infiltration law, another important prong in the Netanyahu government's migrant policy is the construction of a $416 million, 144-mile fence along the southern border. Completed earlier this year, it is designed to stop migrants from approaching military outposts as well as to further protect Israel from an increasingly chaotic, post-Mubarak Egypt.
It has also put the government in the awkward position of having desperate people set up camp right up against the fence, trapped between Egypt and Israel. In September, Israeli media reported on a group of about 20 such starving, ragged migrants, including a 14-year-old boy and a pregnant woman, who were trapped between the two borders. Hard against the new Israeli fence, they were unable to enter the country, but fearful of what would happen if they went to Egypt. They did not have food for at least five days and Israeli soldiers on the scene were ordered only to give them water “in limited measure.”
The unborn child soon died in its mother's womb.
After about a week, the mother, as well as another woman and the 14-year-old were allowed into Israel. The remaining refugees turned themselves into the Egyptians.
Far from an isolated incident, groups of migrants have been turned away repeatedly since the fence was erected. Human Rights Watch, Rozen's Hotline and PHR-I reported that between June and October of last year, at least eight groups of asylum seekers were pushed back to Egypt. According to the NGOs, one group was as large as 70 migrants who had just been released from a torture camp in the Sinai.
But the policy is working.
In January 2012, 2,153 African migrants crossed the border illegally according to the government. By December of that year, the number had dwindled to 35.
Regev says these numbers are proof-positive that the migrants aren’t in fact true asylum seekers. “We ask, ‘is it really true that they are seeking asylum?’ The fact that people have stopped coming when it became clear that they can’t work to send money home, what does that tell you?”
He insists that it would be impossible for Israel, with an estimated population of 7.7 million, to absorb the number of destitute people who would like to seek refuge here. “Some of the stuff out there by different activists about how all the migrants come from authoritarian regimes and you can’t send them back. According to that logic, Israel has to take in the entire population of the entire Middle East. That’s just not feasible, correct? It’s not fair to expect that one small country can be the solution.”
Every Eritrean immigrant interviewed for this story insisted they never intended to settle here permanently.
“As soon as the dictator in my country is gone,” they said, “the very next minute I won't be standing here in Israel.”
Haile Mengisteab, 32, is one of these. On a Friday night, he sits in a busy Eritrean restaurant beneath Tel Aviv’s bus station, smoking a hookah and drinking Asmara. Every few minutes a bus rumbles out of the station above, shaking the entire room.
Mengisteab has been in Israel since 2011 and is the rare Eritrean with a full visa. He can work legally and leave and enter the country as he likes. He will not explain how or why this is so, but he has started the only Eritrean-run organization for Eritrean asylum. Mengisteab was a lawyer in Eritrea, the son of a colonel in the dictator's army. But he was repeatedly jailed for trying to organize a worker's union. So he fled.
He is comfortable here and is seen as something of a leader in his community. Yet all he wants to do is leave.
“I like Israel,” he says, leaning in to be heard over the Eritrean national anthem at full volume on the restaurant's stereo. “But I love my country.”