Mya Guarnieri Last Modified: 13 Apr 2011 14:59
James Anei was a 16-year-old boy when he witnessed a massacre carried out by militias loyal to the government in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. Terrified, he fled his village in South Sudan.
“You see someone dying in front of you and you know this guy and you know his parents and so you run … because you fear that you will be killed too,” Anei said.
African refugees, and the misconceptions that come with them, have become a major issue in the Israeli town of Eilat, inspiring the “red flag” campaign against the newcomers [Mya Guarnieri]
“I find myself in another place,” he added, explaining that he was so frightened that he did not know he had been running until he stopped.
Once he realised he had escaped, Anei headed north. That year, 1999, he arrived in Khartoum. There, he managed to scrape together a living and go to school. Anei remembers crying sometimes when he saw his classmates with their mothers and fathers – not knowing whether his own parents had survived the massacre.
Eventually, Anei went on to Egypt. But, because he did not feel safe there, he crossed into Israel in 2007.
With a smile, Anei recalls the difference between Egypt and Israel he felt the moment he entered the country. “We received water and blankets,” he said. “They made us feel at home.”
But Anei was one of the earliest African migrants to arrive in Israel, and things have changed dramatically since then.
The shift is most obvious, perhaps, in Eilat, the small city in the south where Anei and several thousand African asylum seekers live. Here, refugees find their children barred from municipal schools. And in a move that has alarmed both human rights organisations and the local branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the municipality has hung red flags throughout the city as part of a municipal campaign against African migrants – initiated by employees of the state of Israel and financed with public funds.
The flags are part of a campaign called “protect our homes”, hung by residents under the auspicies of local solidarity against the migrants.
Job and rape issues
I visited Eilat in the wake of several media reports that the 1,500 red flags had been taken down. I found that they were not removed but reduced; some were replaced by Israeli and municipal flags.
And the sentiments that gave rise to the campaign are still running high.
Shimon Hajiani, the 19-year-old son of Jewish immigrants who came to Israel from Morocco and France, remarks that the state needs to “throw” African refugees out.
“They make problems,” he says.
When asked what those problems are, Hajiani answers: “Rape and robbery. Also they work in the hotels instead of Israelis.”
Eilat’s economy is dependent on tourism. While many African asylum seekers are employed in local hotels, the commonly held idea that they have “stolen” jobs is untrue. These are jobs that Israelis do not want – which is one reason why government initiatives encouraging Israelis to move to Eilat and work in this sector have failed.
Other interviewees repeated Hajiani’s claim that African refugees are robbing Israelis and raping Jewish woman. But according to statistics compiled by the Knesset, asylum seekers have a lower crime rate than Israelis. And in fact, as the community of asylum seekers grows, their crime rate goes down.
I conducted dozens of interviews with Israelis who live in Eilat, and not a single one had their facts straight; each and every Israeli I spoke with is a victim of misinformation.
Ester Ederi, a 72-year old immigrant from Morocco, told me it would be fine if Israel took in 100,000 asylum seekers and then closed its doors.
In reality, Israel is home to only 30,000 asylum seekers.
A 29-year-old man, who preferred to remain anonymous, told me that asylum seekers should be sent back to Africa because “the Filipinos” took his mother’s job as a caregiver. He does not know that a tremendous majority of Filipinos arrive legally, holding visas issued by Israel.
He added that if the Africans were here “within a legal framework,” he would have no problem with them.
“But there is a legal framework. There’s an application that would give African migrants refugee status,” I replied. “The government just ignores these applications.”
He was visibly uncomfortable. “Really?” he asked.
“Yes. Did you know that?”
Like other interviewees, he calls them “infiltrators”. This is a word he has picked up from the Israeli government and media, not knowing that when Israel speaks to the UN about the issue, it admits that 90 per cent of these “infiltrators” are, indeed, refugees.
Every interviewee parrots the government lines, including those of Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, who calls “the flood” of African migrants a “threat” to the state. Some repeat the words of Eli Yishai, the interior minister, who claims that foreigners bring diseases into the country.
Refugee status in question
Anei is now a man of 28. We sat on a half-broken picnic table outside a small classroom where Sudanese children study English with a European volunteer. In a few minutes, the class Anei teaches – also on a volunteer basis – would begin.
The municipality’s treatment of the children, most of whom are barred from local schools, is a rare soft spot among some Eilat residents.
Itzik Moshe, the owner of a falafel stand and the son of Moroccan immigrants, remarked that Israel needs to respect the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
“We signed this international agreement and we have to honour it,” Moshe said, adding that if the government does not want to be responsible for the asylum seekers, it should tighten up the porous southern border.
Some Jewish critics of Israel’s treatment of African asylum say that their history as refugees – Biblical and historical, ancient and modern – means that the Jewish people have a special responsibility to help those who face discrimination and genocide.
But many Eilatis do not want to help others. And some, like Simon Ben David – who is organizing a small grassroots organization called “The War against the Infiltrators from Africa” – simply deny that these African asylum seekers are indeed refugees.
Ben David added: “I believe, as I see in the newspaper, that some of them are from al Qaeda and they’re from Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” referring to several unsubstantiated reports that have appeared in the Israeli press.
Asked if he considers the city’s campaign against Africans to be racist, Ben David simply answered, “Jews cannot be racist.”
Open hostility a way of life
While African refugees and their children have been targeted in isolated incidents of violence throughout the country, Eilat remains relatively quiet.
But as I stood on a sidewalk interviewing Deng Wol, a 37-year-old refugee from South Sudan, a Jewish Israeli pushes past us. He hit Wol’s leg with a bag of groceries so hard that my recorder caught the slapping sound.
Wol looked shocked. He called after the man. “Aiii!” he said, grabbing his calf.
The man turns around. He didn’t apologize. Rather, he said that there wasn’t space on the sidewalk for all of us. Wol accepted the explanation, even though it’s not true. “Okay, fine,” he said, waving at the man.
Wol gave a nervous laugh and turned to me. “This is not my country,” he said, shrugging.
Many Israelis consider Eilat – a faraway town at the southernmost tip of the country – an isolated issue. But it seems that the xenophobic sentiments which have taken root there, with the encouragement of both the local and national governments, are spreading.
I have seen several red flags hanging from balconies in south Tel Aviv, an area home to low-income Jewish Israelis, African refugees, and migrant workers. Jewish Israelis here have held protests against the presence of foreigners.
The most recent march came in early April, just weeks before the Jewish holiday that celebrates the ancient Hebrew exodus from slavery and persecution in Egypt. Protesters, who screamed at Africans that they should “Go home,” held signs that read: “Return [deport] the 200,000 infiltrators and illegals now.”
Mya Guarnieri is a Tel Aviv-based journalist and writer.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.