Thousands march for refugee rights in Israel

Protesters in Tel Aviv demand Israel recognize asylum seeker status and end suspension of habeas corpus

Tens of thousands of migrants to Israel protest in Tel Aviv on Sunday, calling for status as refugees or asylum status.
Uriel Sinai/Getty

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.

"There are thousands of people assembling in central Tel Aviv, and they are mostly Africans who are requesting to stay in the country," Rosenfeld said.

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

"We have fled persecution, dictatorships, civil wars and genocides," Dawud, an Eritrean asylum-seeker at the protest, told Agence France-Presse. "The Israeli government must study our requests for asylum and treat us like human beings," Dawud added, declining to give his full name.

He said that demonstrators intended to head for the United Nations refugee agency's (UNHCR) Tel Aviv office and foreign embassies in the coastal city.

"Instead of considering us refugees, Israel treats us like criminals," Dawud said.

Many African immigrants in Israel live in poor areas of Tel Aviv and say they want asylum and safe haven. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he views the presence of many of the Africans as a threat to Israel's Jewish social fabric and his government.

Of the African migrants currently living in Israel, around 38 thousand come from Eritrea and 15 thousand 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."

"This law is needed in order to deter potential infiltrators. The present reality is a human ticking time bomb," Regev, who also heads the Knesset's Interior Committee, told parliament last year. 

The new law amends earlier legislation that allowed for immigrants to be detained without trial for up to three years, but which was overturned by the Israel's high court in September.

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.”

Al Jazeera and wire services

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