Anti-democratic legislation criminalizing asylum seekers provokes strikes and mass protests

"We have fled political persecution, forced military conscription, dictatorship, civil war and genocide. Yet instead of treating us as political asylum seekers and refugees, the government has come to treat us as criminals."

On 5 January 2014, tens of thousands of asylum seekers launched an historic strike against the racist policies of the Ministry of Interior and the Israeli government. More than 20,000 African refugees protested in Tel Aviv (which makes up 40% of the asylum seekers community), chanting, "We need freedom, no more prison!" and "We are refugees, not infiltrators!" On the same day, 150 Sudanese asylum seekers jailed in the Saharonim prison, began an open-ended hunger strike. In the following week, as the strike continued, there were demonstrations and assemblies, every day, with thousands of participants in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, as well as in the southern border-city Eilat.

In addition to the huge mobilization of refugees from diverse backgrounds, this unprecedented protest movement has managed to expose the distress and the demands of the African refugees; it has raised many questions and shattered prejudices. The movement has also gained the support of new layers of the Israeli public that identified with the refugees’ justified demands against the racist and pro-capitalist Israeli government.

During the strike’s third day, the decision was made to continue the strike in defiance of Netanyahu’s announcement that he would not capitulate to the mass protest. On the seventh day, the strike was suspended due to the facts that the media had become preoccupied with Ariel Sharon’s death and the organizers’ growing concern for the strike’s impact on the economic situation of working families. The suspension of the strike did not stop the fight; there are still demonstrations, assemblies and an internal discussion amongst the refugees’ community about preparing for the "next round".

One of the main triggers for the strike was the anti-democratic legislation which criminalizes the vast majority of the asylum seekers. Last month, the Israeli Knesset [national parliament] approved an amendment to the Prevention of Infiltration Bill that allows imprisonment of asylum-seekers for up to one year without a trial and an indefinite detention in ‘Holot’, a so-called “open detention facility”, situated in the middle of the desert. At the same time, Immigration Authority and Border Control officers have begun to arbitrarily arrest and detain hundreds of asylum seekers in Southern Tel Aviv and throughout Israel. Despite promises by the Ministry of Interior that families would not be separated, dozens of married men and fathers of children have been “summoned” to Holot, while their wives and children were not be allowed to join them. In addition, Immigration authorities have severely reduced the number of offices where asylum seekers can renew their visas and have shortened opening hours, causing even more applicants to be turned away.

Cheap labour

The immigration authorities routinely reject or ignore asylum applications. According to a report by the Ministry of Interior, during 2009-2012 only 22 people (out of 14,000 applicants) were recognized as refugees. None of these approved applications were Sudanese or Eritreans, who constitute 90% of the African asylum seekers community in Israel. The government’s official policy is to give the asylum seekers a "temporary collective protection" (as defined in the UN’s refugees’ convention, CRSR), which provides them temporary-staying visas. In practice, the government is cynically whipping-up racist incitement against the same groups as "infiltrators". In addition, Netanyahu’s government have invested almost 1.5 billion shekels in building a new 240 km militarized border-barrier to prevent asylum seekers from crossing the Israel-Egypt border. Although, officially, the vast majority of asylum seekers are not allowed to work, employment agencies hire them as cheap labour, as long as they have a valid staying permit. The current policy of the last few weeks has been to deny the renewal of visas for men, which makes them more vulnerable to arrests, poverty, and loss of jobs.

The new policy sparked a heroic demonstration of imprisoned asylum seekers. On 15 December, hundreds of detainees walked from Holot prison to Beer Sheva, and from there to Jerusalem, in protest against the government’s decision to prevent their release. They held a demonstration in front of the Knesset, which was violently suppressed by the Israeli police. However, the protest had inspired many asylum seekers, and demonstrations were organized against the brutal policies. The demonstrations ended in mass arrests and it led the coordinating committee of the African refugee community to declare the above-mentioned mass action a "general strike".

Social crisis in southern Tel Aviv

Approximately half of asylum seekers live in southern Tel Aviv, a relatively small area which has been neglected and impoverished for many decades. The area of the central bus station in south Tel Aviv is associated with crime, drugs, homelessness and prostitution. Nevertheless, the Israeli authorities have consciously directed asylum-seekers, who were caught after crossing the Egyptian border, to go settle in southern Tel-Aviv. Since South Tel Aviv was not suitable to absorb 50,000 refugees in terms of housing, infrastructure and schools, the rapid demographic changes in the area provoked hostility from some of the local residents towards the asylum seekers.

Many despicable, reactionary politicians have exploited the despair and frustration of the South Tel Aviv residents, with their "divide and rule" agenda. One of the most provocative comments was made by MK Miri Regev (a member of parliament for the right wing Likud party). During a demonstration against asylum seekers organized by the far right in May, 2012, she said: "The infiltrators are a cancer in our society.” This demonstration resulted in violent confrontations that ended up breaking shop windows of Eritrean stores. Regev joins many other right-wing populist politicians that call for the deportation of "infiltrators" back to their home countries – the government itself prefers to avoid doing so, for international-diplomatic calculations, but strives to deport them to other countries. They present the asylum seekers as a demographic threat to the "Jewish state". As Netanyahu stated, in 2012, "If we don’t stop the problem, 60,000 infiltrators are liable to become 600,000, and cause the negation of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."

These remarks are an example of a cynical attempt to cover-up the responsibility of the Israeli government and the municipality of Tel Aviv for the ongoing social crisis in South Tel Aviv. Since these rapid demographic changes, not a single shekel was invested in welfare and education services for all inhabitants, neither long-term residents nor asylum seekers. The housing rent prices increase every year and the cut-down and wrecked public housing offers no alternative. The broken sidewalks, the failing sewer system, the extreme pollution and the rats all remain.

The strike organizers expressed their solidarity with the long-term residents in an open letter they wrote to the Israeli public regarding the strike: "We are very aware of the distress of the residents of south Tel Aviv. We live among them; we see the neglect in the streets, the disproportionate growth in the number of residents in such a small area. We hear their cries and we understand and agree with their desire to not have to be the only ones to absorb asylum seekers into their neighbourhoods. Their rights and dignity as residents of Israel have been hurt as a direct results of the government’s policy of dropping us in South Tel Aviv and abandoning us with no means of survival."

Socialist Struggle Movement (CWI in Israel/Palestine) has campaigned in the south of Tel Aviv for some years. We fully participated in demonstrations and meetings of the asylum seekers community during the strike. We brought up discussions in some workplaces and colleges, particularly where our members are part of representative bodies, such as in Haaretz/TheMarker journalists’ committee and Tel-Aviv’s Hakibbutzim teachers’ college student union. These were the first workers and students bodies to publish letters of support for the asylum-seekers’ strike.

Racist maltreatment

On the fifth day of the strike, Power to The Workers, a trade union federation which represents about 20,000 workers, also declared its support. This provided an important example of how to end the isolation of the movement and the "divide and rule" policy used against workers. In Hakibbutzim College and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Socialist Struggle Movement took part in organizing solidarity activities and discussions on campus. Similar activities were also organized by students and lecturers in both Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion universities.

The racist maltreatment against the refugees continues but so does the struggle against it. More initiatives of workers and students are needed in order to strengthen this mobilization and to break the isolation of the refugees’ protest.

Socialist Struggle Movement calls for:

• A united struggle of workers – Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, immigrants and asylum seekers – against the racist capitalist government of Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennet. An end to the instigation of workers against workers and poor against poor, end to the "divide and rule"!

• A fight against low-wage and extreme exploitation in work places. Equal pay for equal work. Raise the minimum wage to 30 shekels per hour for all workers with no discrimination.

• Massive and immediate governmental and municipal investment to create public jobs, appropriate public housing, and infrastructure development in order to provide housing and livelihood solutions to long-term residents and asylum seekers alike.

• Stop criminalizing the refugees! Cancel the "amendment" of the Prevention of Infiltration Law. Release all asylum seekers arrested and imprisoned innocent of any crime; dismantle the imprisonment and detention facilities for refugees, and stop the police harassment, arrests, and procedures of deportation from the country.

• Full collective recognition of all asylum seekers – supply work permits for all. Full equal rights for all asylum seekers and immigrant workers in Israel.

• Mobilising in solidarty with the asylum seekers of all workers’ organizations (particularly the Histadrut), students’ unions, and other social movements to support the asylum-seekers’ struggle and achieve solutions for asylum seekers and long-term residents alike. Intervention for the protection of asylum seeking workers from the threat of getting sacked.

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