Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In pictures: Tel Aviv's African migrants

In pictures: Tel Aviv's African migrants - In Pictures - Al Jazeera English

Fresh uncertainties face thousands seeking a better life, as Israel launches a crackdown with a view to deport them.

The Israeli government has in recent weeks started rounding up hundreds of migrants for eventual deportation. A first batch of 127 people from South Sudan (out of some 1,500) were flown home last Sunday after they had agreed to return for a free plane ticket and 1,000 euros ($1,250).

But in a hectic political climate, the Binyamin Netanyahu-led coalition government is tasked with processing some 10,000 other Africans from countries that would accept deportees under legal agreements, like Ivory Coast, Ghana and Nigeria. Some migrants from these countries have already been arrested in the current sweep.

Yet the biggest challenge by far is dealing with the estimated 50,000 "infiltrators" from Eritrea (around 40,000) and Sudan (mostly from Darfur) - who cannot under international law be sent home due to the risk of persecution. Those from Sudan could face the long arm of the law for fleeing a war-torn region for Israel, an enemy state.

And the Eritreans, though their government has relations with Israel, would reportedly face jail time for having evaded military service - despite the fact that most of them are economic migrants. Some contend that they deserve political asylum for having escaped a repressive regime in Asmara.

The Israeli government is about halfway through construction of a long fence along the Egyptian border in Sinai to prevent the migrants from entering at the tail end of the Bedouin smuggling routes. With several thousand streaming in each month, the government has even suggested the possibility of another fence along the Jordanian border to keep out those who cross the Gulf of Aqaba.

The current plan is to host tens of thousands of migrants in tent cities at several detention facilities, mostly in the desert near Eilat, where many migrants enter the country and where many currently reside. The bulk of African migrants live around South Tel Aviv, in poor areas of the coastal city near the central bus station - neighbourhoods like Hatikva, Shapira and Yad Eliyahu.

Migrants typically are registered with three-month permits which do not legally allow them to work, even though most are involved through a tacit loophole in low-skilled labour - construction, food sector and domestic work.

Political opposition to the migrants has been most vocal from the Israeli right, from figures such as Eli Yishai, Danny Danon and Miri Regev, who notoriously labelled the Africans a "cancer". The threat has been framed in terms of a perceived increase in criminal acts such as rape, public health concerns and the demographic risk posed by foreigners who are not of Jewish background.

The migrants are mostly impoverished and have put a significant strain on resources in certain urban areas of Israel. But many have opened up thriving small businesses that cater largely to members of their communities - internet cafes, ethnic eateries and hair salons.

While the diverse black African immigrant population is lumped together by political rhetoric, the predominantly Christian and Tigriniya-speaking Eritreans do not always get along with the Arabic-speaking and Muslim Sudanese from Darfur. But Israel is geopolitically aligned with Darfur, since there is common cause against Khartoum.

Generally, while Israel is not interested in providing for this population in the long term, especially given rising racial tensions, there are vocal migrant advocacy groups such as Hotline for Migrant Workers and African Refugee Development Center.

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