Strangers in the Land – Hotline for Migrant Workers

Somehow, when I came to Israel, going to prison was just not on the agenda. Yet here I am, and strangely over the last few months it has become a familiar place. Fortunately I am only here as a visitor. But had I been born in a different place, I might have found myself here as a detainee.

I am volunteering for an organisation called Hotline for Migrant Workers , a New Israel Fund grantee.  As the name suggests, Hotline deals with all foreigners who find themselves in Israel – both migrant workers and asylum seekers. It has taken some time for me to understand the enormous scope of their work. My job is to visit  those who are held in a “detention centre” in the Givon Prison complex near Ramla, just south of Tel Aviv.  There are about 400 people held here at any one time. Some of them came into Israel legally with work permits that are now for some reason no longer legal. Many are Philipinos who came as care-givers. Others arrived in Israel illegally, like those who crossed the Egyptian border and are seeking asylum as refugees.

In order to enter we pass a long line of visitors who are waiting to see their families and friends.  We wait outside in the sun, at the discretion of the guard who is watching us on a screen. When he deigns to let us in, we hand him our passports and phones and wait for him to find our names on a list. While we wait for him to peruse the file, we are accosted by bangs and echoes and loud noises which have now become synonymous with prison. This wait could be anything from five minutes to an hour – the randomness of it indicative of how the detainees are handled.

When we are permitted to enter, usually with a dismissive nod, we walk down a corridor and wait for the loud click that releases the heavy door. We have learned that it is easier for two of us to push it together, as it is so heavy. It clangs loudly behind us. It is a temperate day, but somehow it feels cooler in Givon, always causing a shiver.

Today we are going to the men’s block. We walk down an alley surrounded by sparkling white prefab buildings and buzz on another bell next to the door marked “2”. The guards here are unfailingly friendly and somewhat bemused by our visits. It is spotlessly clean. We walk past the open cells to the courtyard which is covered over with barbed wire. Men are sitting around listlessly on benches wearing prison-issue slippers – the same type one would be given in a smart spa.  A few are playing a game of table tennis, some are playing cards. I have a strange feeling that this is like a summer camp – there is a sense of idleness and time. Lots of time.

We are given a small room to conduct interviews. Fortunately there is an air-conditioner as there is an overpowering stench of sweat. We have to stand on a little table to reach the plug. Before we are even seated at the desk, some men start forming into a line outside to talk to us.

One of the most memorable interviews is with a man called Muki from Guinea Conakry who speaks both English and French. He is softly-spoken and polite and tells us his story.  Sadly, this is not the first time that we have heard stories such as his. He tells us of the horrors he has faced back in Guinea, the tribal violence, the slaughter of family members and the fear of return.  He travelled over land, through Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan and eventually Egypt to reach the safety of Israel. Once he had finally crossed the border he was taken into custody and questioned by the Ministry of the Interior. He is a typical seeker of asylum. Now he has been in jail for one year and seven months.

As singularly horrifying as his story is, it is not a singular experience. The number of African refugees in Israel is estimated to be 35 000!  In 2010 alone, 11 763 people were smuggled in to Israel through the Egyptian border. Most of these are fleeing violence and persecution in Eritrea and Sudan.  Because Eritreans and Sudanese are fleeing from a threat that has been acknowledged as high risk by the UN, and because most Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers throughout the world have been granted Refugee status,  Israel has created a peculiar status for these people.

Understandably Israel does not want to grant so many people “refugee” status. Once deemed a refugee, that person is entitled to certain rights including social support, medical treatment, the right to work and, in some countries  after a certain length of time, citizenship rights. Israel has many reasons not to want to afford these rights to so many people. It is enormously expensive, Israel has its own unemployment problems, it wants to deter further influx of refugees, and of course, it wants to protect the “Jewish demographic” issue.

So, as a solution, it has awarded something called “group protection” to all Eritrean and Sudanese who enter Israel through Egypt.  While this “protection” shields them from deportation, they are not entitled to officially “seek asylum” which means they can never receive refugee status. This means that they will never have access to medical treatment or social services and are not legally entitled to work.  They are kept in a state of limbo. This is in stark contravention of the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, 1951, which Israel ratified in 1954.

Knowing the enormous hardship that these people face, I once asked an Eritrean woman “Why would you come here? You must have know what you were facing. You must have know the hardship of crossing the desert?” She looked at me slightly uncomprehending. “You can’t understand,” she said “what life was like there – everyone in the military, disappearances, death, poverty, no work.” This woman has left behind her now four year old son, was smuggled through the Sinai for a month, is living in dire poverty in central Tel Aviv, and still she would not go back.

Children of asylum seekers or those protected under this “Group Protection” who were born in Israel are also not entitled to stay in Israel or to any form of Israeli citizenship. Even children born of care-givers who have visas to work in Israel for a period of 5 years do not get any rights or status. In fact, migrant workers who start a family in Israel automatically lose their legal status! There are currently about 500 such children who are facing deportation.

Muki, the prisoner in Givon,  is in a slightly different position as he is not from Eritrea or Sudan and therefore has not been granted automatic “Group Protection”. Therefore he is entitled to file a request for asylum and begin the Refugee Status Determination procedures.  However if he is denied then he will be deported back to Guinea Conakry where he has been persecuted. He has been interviewed three times by the Ministry of Interior, and like so many others has neither been approved nor rejected. So he too sits in limbo and pending his status determination he has to wait in jail. The incarceration of people caught in the application process is also in contravention of the UN Convention. He tells us tearfully that he has never been in a jail before, that he is not a criminal, that he has suffered so much and that all he wants now is a place of refuge until it is safe for him to go home.

The government has recently announced its intention to build a holding camp near the Egyptian border where individuals who have “infiltrated” the Egyptian border will be held until such time as they can be deported, even if they wish to apply for asylum. Terrifying rumours about the expected incarceration of over 8000 asylum seekers in a facility encircled with barbed wire and guard towers circulate through Givon.

I have spoken to Muki now a number of times.  Time after time I have to report to him that the members of Hotline have contacted the Ministry of the Interior and time after time they are told to wait.

Each time, I report back to the Hotline office who then try to contact the office at the Ministry of the Interior. Each time the response is the same. Wait a bit longer. It is frustrating for me, but it is killing Muki. Each time he looks more and more worn. And what’s more is that each time he gets to see a judge in prison, which happens about once a month, he is given a notice in Hebrew.  There is no translator available. We appear to be his only link to the outside world – and a pretty tenuous one at that.

I am mindful more than ever of Hotline’s strapline borrowed from Exodus 22:20:  “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Somehow Israel’s treatment of strangers has not been tackled with the humanity one would hope for from a country built on the backs of refugees. I look beyond Muki, out the window and see that the line of men waiting to speak to us has grown longer. I tell Muki that I will speak again to the Hotline office and will report back to him any news from the Refugee Status Determination Office next time I visit. He smiles ruefully and tells me that I’ll know where to find him. He’ll be waiting, along with the other detainees. Time is the one thing that is not in short supply.

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IF HOTLINE WERE TO WIN $1000, it would use it to enhance the lives of unaccompanied minors who have made their way across Egypt and are currently seeking asylum in Israel.

One Response to “Strangers in the Land – Hotline for Migrant Workers”
  1. Stephen and Naomi Jaff says:

    We are completely blown away by this blog – how difficult to vote when each of the organisations deserve our vote! Please let us know how we can donate a further $1000 so that at least another deserving cause will get the prize too. Maybe other people will match our donation too?
    Well done for all the good work that is being done. Stephen and Naomi Jaff

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