TEL AVIV — Helen Barhat, a young woman from Eritrea, pointed to two bricks on the floor that she has saved since they were hurled into her small grocery shop by a mob that ransacked the premises last month after a raucous demonstration against African migrants.
Crouching with her hands over her head, she showed how she had cowered in a back room as the rioters swept shelves clean, smashed bottles and emptied her cash register during a rampage against African-run stores in the neighborhood.
“People tell us, ‘Go back to Eritrea, this is our country,’ ” Barhat said. Joined by friends who were sitting in the shop, she added, “If there was no one here with me now, I would close.”
On the streets of the Hatikva quarter, one of the low-income neighborhoods in south Tel Aviv where an influx of illegal African migrants has stirred unrest among residents, tension is simmering under a facade of normalcy.
A roundup of migrants from South Sudan and the deportation of more than 100 this month has left other newcomers nervous about what lies ahead and residents clamoring for more action. A poster put up last week summoned people to a demonstration outside the home of Tel Aviv’s mayor against “the concentration of the foreigners in our neighborhoods.”
“The situation is very bad,” said Merhane Melake, an Eritrean who has been in Israel for five years, as he walked home. “We don’t know what comes next and what solution they will find for us.”
About 60,000 Africans have illegally entered Israel since 2005, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan. Two recent sexual assault cases in which migrants were charged and a chorus of heated rhetoric from rightist politicians have fueled a violent backlash against the newcomers. Apartments housing migrants have been firebombed and torched, and some Africans have been assaulted on the streets.
Complaints by residents in depressed Tel Aviv neighborhoods of rising crime and a sense of insecurity brought by the migrants have prompted a government crackdown. About 400 illegal migrants, most from South Sudan, have been rounded up in this month’s sweep, and preparations are underway to hold thousands more Africans in a vast tent camp in southern Israel. The moves to deport people from South Sudan went ahead after a Jerusalem court accepted the government’s argument that conditions in that country were safe enough for their return.
The migrants — some seeking refuge from war and oppressive governments, others looking for work and a better life — have trekked through Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where many were held hostage and abused by Bedouin smugglers seeking ransom from their families. Crossing the porous desert border with Israel, the migrants have been briefly detained before being bused to Tel Aviv, where some sleep in parks and most live in cramped rented rooms in poorer sections of the city.
Left in limbo
While Israel has committed not to deport people from Eritrea and Sudan, because of the risks they could face if they return, it has not granted them work permits or social and health benefits, leaving them in limbo. But employers have not been fined by the authorities for hiring illegal migrants, enabling many to find occasional work doing menial jobs.
Because the majority of migrants have group protection from deportation, their cases are not reviewed by the Israeli authorities to determine whether they can receive refugee status. And among those who can apply, hardly any are recognized as refugees. According to Sabine Haddad, spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry’s Population, Immigration and Border Authority, out of 7,000 applications for refugee status in the past three years, 16 have been granted.
Tensions over the presence of the migrants have been stoked by rightist politicians. In a speech at last month’s Hatikva neighborhood protest, Miri Regev, a parliament member from the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, called the Africans “a cancer in our body.”
Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who has promised to clear out all the migrants, told the Maariv newspaper in a recent interview that they were creating “a state within a state” and that “most of the people coming here are Muslims who think that this country doesn’t belong to us, to the white man.”
Netanyahu, who asserts that the newcomers are economic migrants looking for jobs, has outlined a multi-pronged effort to deter and deport them, including a fence going up along the border with Egypt, stiff fines for employers of illegal migrants and removal of those Africans who can be sent back to their home countries in line with international conventions. Under an amended law, infiltrators can be detained without charges for up to three years.