African asylum seekers make up less than half a percent of the population in Israel, a small number compared even to the total of foreign workers in Israel (30,000 asylum seekers vs. 80,000+ foreign workers). Despite the small size of the community, asylum seekers have been the target of domestic policies that frame them as "infiltrators" or "labor migrants" and increasingly aim to coerce them into leaving Israel.
As issues of migration take center-stage in the world right now, the need for a fair and efficient asylum process is more important than ever. To understand their claims for asylum, we must ask: Why did they leave their homes? And why can't they return?
In October 2018, around 35,000 asylum seekers from Africa lived in Israel. Of those, more than 70% fled from Eritrea and nearly 20% came from Sudan (Source).
Eritrea has one of the harshest dictatorships in the world today, and it is now one of the largest refugee-producing countries. Many have fled Eritrea due to its indefinite forced conscription; since 1995, every Eritrean citizen (excluding some women) over the age of 18 is required to complete their last year of high school in military training at Sawa. This military service can be extended indeterminately, and the International Labor Organization has labeled it forced labor since it also extends beyond basic military tasks and includes compulsory labor in infrastructure and agriculture (source). When citizens refuse to serve or are caught attempting to leave the country, they are detained, imprisoned and tortured without trial in prisons with appalling conditions. Once they leave the country, they are considered an enemy of the state and may be imprisoned or tortured upon their return. There was once as many as 60,000 Eritreans in Israel and only 13 Eritreans have been recognized as refugees.
Nearly 20% of asylum seekers in Israel come from Sudan, with a large number escaping the genocide in Darfur. The conflict in Darfur is ongoing and Sudan has been in the midst of a political crisis since Omar al-Bashir’s overthrow in April. The military and pro-democracy movement are in a power struggle and this has led to instability, mass protests and killings. Activists are arbitrarily detained and tortured.
Israel remains an enemy state of Sudan, complicating a potential return of asylum seekers to Sudan. The current power struggle can be traced back to December 2018, when President Bashir’s government imposed emergency austerity measures. This exacerbated inequality and proved to be the tipping point; demonstrators were fed up with Bashir’s war crimes, sponsored attacks on ethnic groups and lack of economic priorities. While Bashir was ousted on April 11, Sudan is not united and the Military has usurped power and has been brutally violent towards protestors.
Sudan is now governed by a network of organizations that are not united: paramilitary organizations, various Islamist militias, Sudanese trade unions etc. The current state of Sudan is uncertain and international response has been to back the protesters against the Junta. To date, only one Sudanese man has been acknowledged by Israel to be a refugee.
The Words We Use
An "infiltrator" is a threat. A labor migrant came to a new country for work. And a refugee fled their native country due to a well-founded fear of persecution, torture or situations akin to slavery. Though thousands of African asylum seekers have filed for refugee status in Israel, very few (less than 0.5%) have received it. Israel's current policies treat asylum seekers as threats and aim to coerce them into leaving Israel. However, this strategy continues to put asylum seekers at risk without a true guarantee of legal protection or safety. For many asylum seekers, returning home is not yet a safe option.