Thousands March for Refugee Rights in Israel

Al Jazeera, January 5, 2014

Tens of thousands of African asylum seekers and their supporters continued a three-day protest Monday on the streets of Tel Aviv demanding that the Israeli government recognize their refugee status and end the policy of detention without trial.

“More than 30,000 demonstrators marched peacefully,” police spokeswoman Lubra Samri said when the protest began on Sunday, which would make the action the largest such rally by migrants in Israel’s history.

The protest comes after a December mass walk-out from a detention facility by hundreds of asylum seekers who are detained there during the night and barred from seeking work during the day. Those caught breaking the strict rules risk arrest and confinement in a closed prison.

Human rights groups say more than 300 people have been arrested since a new law, passed by Israel’s parliament three weeks ago, allows authorities to detain migrants without valid visas indefinitely.

Mickey Rosenfeld, a police spokesperson, told Al Jazeera that most of the demonstrators at Sunday’s rally were asylum seekers from Africa who wanted to stay in the country.

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Asylum seekers chanting “we are all refugees” and “yes to freedom, no to prison,” were joined by Israeli rights activists during the march.

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Of the African migrants currently living in Israel, around 38,000 come from Eritrea and 15,000 come from Sudan. In all, some 60,000 migrants have crossed into Israel across a once-porous border with Egypt since 2006, Israeli authorities say.

Last year, a $377 million Israeli border fence was installed to stem the flow of immigrants. The drop off has been dramatic. In 2012, more than 10,000 migrants crossed, but that number fell to just 36 successful crossers in 2013.

Meanwhile, those who have already crossed can, under Israeli law, be sent to what the government describes as an open prison in Israel’s southern desert. Under the legislation passed on December 10, authorities can detain illegal immigrants entering the country for up to a year without trial.

Members of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party have praised the new law. Interior Minister Gideon Saar said it would “allow us to keep illegals away from our cities.” Miri Regev, another Likud Knesset member, said Israel should “send them all back to their countries.”

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The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and other groups have already filed a petition against the new law.

In a 2012 report, ACRI decried laws aimed at immigrants.

“The prevalent attitude toward African asylum seekers in Israel in 2012 was one of racism and xenophobia. Over the course of the year, Israeli citizens burned, beat, cursed, and looted on a scale and in a manner never seen before,” ACRI said in its report (PDF).

“Molotov cocktails were thrown at the homes of asylum seekers and at a kindergarten in the Shapira neighborhood of Tel Aviv…Three Eritrean asylum seekers were stabbed in the Shapira neighborhood, and a demonstration against so-called ‘infiltrators’ in the Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv descended into a display of unbridled violence.”

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Protest

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