BORN and raised in Israel, David Blum is proud of his country’s history as a refuge for persecuted Jews. Why then, he asks, is the government stepping up efforts to deport African refugees?
He says the policy is a betrayal of Israel’s traditions—and bad business given that the Africans are the backbone of the restaurant and hotel industry.
“It’s an embarrassment,” says Blum, human resources chief at Isrotel Ltd., which runs 17 luxury hotels across Israel. “For people who live with the traumas of the Holocaust, how can we have such short memories?”
More than 45,000 African asylum seekers—what critics refer to as “mistanenim,” Hebrew for infiltrators—reside in Israel, up from 3,000 in 2006, government statistics show. Many in the country say the migrants, mostly Muslims and Christians, threaten security and the country’s Jewish identity.
In March, the government instituted a programme that speeds deportations and imprisons many who refuse to leave.
“The State of Israel will not be the solution to the ills of Africa,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said in a radio interview last year. Most of the Africans seeking asylum in Israel “are not refugees, but labour migrants.” In early June, Shaked said new legislation will discourage Africans from coming to Israel.
About half of the 7,000 maids and dishwashers at the country’s hotels are African migrants, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, according to the Israel Hotel Association. That growing reliance on foreign labour illustrates the country’s transformation from a society of immigrants, many of whom tilled the fields and paved the roads, to a wealthier—but less equal—nation.
“Behind every fancy dish, every clean hotel room, there is an Eritrean or a Sudanese,” says Daniel Assaf, a cook at Claro, a restaurant in a former Tel Aviv distillery that serves Mediterranean dishes. “Who exactly does the government think will fill those jobs? Israelis don’t want them.”
While Assaf, an Israeli Jew, seared the calamari and steamed the kale at Claro, Johnny Teame, an Eritrean, cut and seasoned the meat in the back. Five years ago, Teame took a treacherous eight-day trip from Sudan in a cramped Toyota, with little water or food.
The traffickers dropped them near the Israel-Egypt border and gave them shovels to dig a hole under the fence. The refugees trudged through the arid Negev until they arrived at a road, where they were spotted by Israeli soldiers.
Teame spent three weeks in detention before he got a visa as an asylum seeker—and a bus ticket to Tel Aviv. He made his way to a park near the bus station where migrants gather, and he soon found work with help from people he met there.
“My life in Israel is all I have,” he says. With any return home out of the question for fear of imprisonment or worse, he added, “I may never see my family again.”
While most of Israel’s 6.3 million Jews are descendants of refugees who fled persecution, the country has shown little appetite for accommodating non-Jewish asylum-seekers. Over the past six decades, Israel has approved just 200 asylum claims for refugee status, which allows indefinite stays, according to the non-profit Hotline for Refugees and Migrants. Thousands of other applicants have been either deported or put in limbo, required to renew their visas every few months and in constant danger of deportation.
Israeli authorities are stepping up the pressure on migrants. In 2013, Israel finished a 245-kilometer (152 miles) fence along the porous Egypt border. Fewer than 70 people have made it across the border since, versus more than 10,000 in 2012, government statistics show.
And the government recently began sending letters to some migrants giving them 30 days to choose between “voluntarily” leaving for a third African country—with a $3,500 grant from Israel—or indefinite detention in a facility near the Egyptian border.
Add it all up, and Musa Keeso says he needs to be more vigilant. Before leaving the tiny apartment he shares with two friends, Keeso checks to see that he has his visa and receipts for his mobile phone and bicycle.
He says police carry out random sweeps of Africans and that a friend once was accused of theft because he couldn’t show a receipt for his phone. Israeli police say they aren’t targeting Africans, but that they routinely carry out identity checks and sometimes ask for receipts.
“There’s too much pressure on us,” Keeso, 29, says while sipping assir—a Sudanese smoothie of avocado, mango, banana and ice cream—at a cafe near the Tel Aviv bus station.
Keeso says he misses his parents and siblings in Sudan, but isn’t considering a return. He says he was tortured in a Khartoum displacement camp before he left, and that if he were to return he would face prison for visiting an enemy state.
While he’s happy to be earning about $1,000 a month stocking merchandise at a department store, “it’s crazy to think we would come here for the money,” Keeso says. “The situation in my country isn’t getting better and I never know what will happen to me.”