Netanyahu on African migrant protests: It won't help
Thousands of illegal African migrants protest in Tel Aviv over past two days, asking to be recognized as asylum seekers • Illegal migrants strike from work, hoping to prove their importance to the Israeli economy • U.N. backs migrants' stance.
Yehuda Shlezinger, Shlomo Cesana, Ronit Zilberstein, Gideon Allon, Eli Leon and Yori Yalon
The protest at Rabin Square on Sunday
Photo credit: Roni Shutzer
The protest in Eilat on Sunday
Photo credit: Yod Photography
Thousands of illegal African migrants protested in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square on Sunday, asking to be recognized as asylum seekers and demonstrating against the Holot open detention facility, where the state has ordered that they remain.
The protest, a smaller version of which was held in the southern city of Eilat, was part of a strike announced by the migrants workers, who walked out of their service industry jobs. Despite employment restrictions, many migrants work illegally throughout the country.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the issue in Sunday's cabinet meeting, saying, "At the end of 2013, we saw a complete stop to the phenomenon of infiltration into Israel -- illegal economic migration, and at the same time, sixfold the number of illegal migrants have left Israel -- more than 2,600 migrants have left. I would like to emphasize that these are not refugees, but people who are breaking the law and are being dealt with to the fullest extent of the law." On his Facebook page, he added on Sunday night that: "Neither protests nor strikes will help. We completely stopped the infiltration into Israel and now we are determined to send away the illegal migrant workers who entered Israel."
Meanwhile, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees backed the migrants' stance and called on Israel to grant protection to the African migrants and not to define all of them as illegal economic migrants. The UNHCR's announcement also expressed reservations about the Holot facility, saying that it does not meet the terms of the 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Israel is a signatory.
"A struggle for humanity"
On Sunday morning, men, women and children from Eritrea and Sudan gathered at Levinsky Park in south Tel Aviv, and from there, they marched to Rabin Square in the city's center. By their sides were aid organization representatives. The protestors carried signs bearing slogans including, "We are refugees," "We asked for asylum -- we got prison," and "We are not enemies."
"They treat us this way because we are black," said John from Eritrea. "Israel is a racist country that does not know how to accept people of a different color." Gina, who came with her young daughter, said, "We ran away from war, and we are asking to live here as people."
MK Michal Rozin (Meretz) took part in the protest and said that the tens of thousands of people who gathered in the square "protested not only to have their asylum pleas reviewed, and not only against the indefinite imprisonment without trial. This is truly a struggle about the character and the face of Israel, it can go either way. To save south Tel Aviv and all of our humanity we must wake up today, put an end to the manhunt in the streets and give real and ethical solutions to [their] distress."
In the right-wing camp, MK Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) accused the aid organizations of "rebelling with the infiltrators, so they will demand rights and eventually Israeli citizenship." According to her, "European countries give these organizations millions of shekels in order to turn Israel into a state of all its citizens and to relocate the wave of African migration from Europe to Israel, allowing them to hit two birds with one stone."
Israeli Immigration Policy Center spokesman Yonatan Yakobovich said: "The strike unequivocally exposes the sham, which claims that the illegal migrants are not working for their livelihoods, and that only work permits would solve the troubles of south Tel Aviv residents. The equation is very simple: Without employment options, the majority of illegal migrants will return to their home countries, and the proof of that is the return of 300 migrants to Eritrea and Sudan in the last month alone."
The migrants who took part in the protest said they will continue striking and will not arrive at their workplaces in the coming days to prove how important they are to the Israeli economy. They continued demonstrations on Monday in front of the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, as well as other foreign embassies in the city.