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It’s Time for Real Solutions to South Tel Aviv’s Problems

Asylum-seekers began arriving in Israel in large numbers in 2006. Since then, the policies implemented by the government have failed one after the other. Following a years-long policy of abandoning asylum-seekers to their fate in southern Tel Aviv, in 2012 the government switched a draconian policy of prolonged incarceration of asylum-seekers without trial. The government justified this draconian policy, which has been axed twice by the High Court already, by the need to deal with the negative consequences of the presence of so many “infiltrators” in south Tel Aviv. The policy of prolonged detention, however, hasn’t solved the real hardships affecting residents of south Tel Aviv and other neighborhoods that absorbed large numbers of refugees.

In December 2005, Egyptian security forces opened fire on a peaceful sit-in of Sudanese refugees in front of the offices of the UNHCR in Cairo. 56 refugees were killed and dozens were injured in what came to be known as the “Mustafa Mahmoud Massacre“. The massacre of peaceful protesters and detention of others following it increased the sense of insecurity and persecution among refugees in Egypt. This led asylum-seekers to begin crossing Sinai to escape Egypt to Israel. For over a year, Israel jailed the asylum-seekers hoping it can deport them, but when it came to realize that their deportation would violate Israeli law, it was forced to release them.

In 2007, when the number of arriving refugees surpassed the number of beds in prison, the State began releasing asylum-seekers from detention within weeks of their arrival in Israel. Upon release, asylum-seekers received a one-way bus ticket to the central bus station in south Tel Aviv where nothing awaited them. While other countries establish reception centers for asylum-seekers that are spread out throughout the country, and provide housing and financial assistance to asylum-seekers, Israel released the asylum-seekers without any support. The visa granted to them did not even allow them to work, but because the government doesn’t provide the asylum-seekers with any assistance, it agreed to not fine the employers who illegally hire asylum-seekers. After arriving in south Tel Aviv, the asylum-seekers would usually sleep on the streets until they managed to find a job and could afford to rent an apartment.

Asylum-seekers rented apartments in the impoverished neighborhoods of southern Tel Aviv, areas in which migrant workers from Africa, South America and the Philippines resided before and where landlords were used to foreign renters who don’t have bank accounts, checks or guarantors. These neighborhoods, HaTikva, Shapira and especially Neve Shaanan, have been neglected by authorities for decades and became hubs of crime, prostitution, drug-selling and drug consumption.

Many asylum-seekers struggled to find steady employment that pays the minimum wage or over due to the official prohibition on employing them. The State does not inform employers that they will not face fines for employing asylum seekers, and as a result, many employers are unwilling to hire asylum-seekers. Asylum-seekers, who are all desperate for work to sustain themselves, agree to earn less that minimum wage or do occasional daily manual labor. As a result, asylum-seekers are forced to live in small overcrowded apartment to split the rent among a large number of people. The overcrowding takes its toll on the already-malfunctioning sewage and garbage collection systems of south Tel Aviv that are incapable of handling the usage of so many people. In addition, although Police statistics show that asylum-seekers commit less crimes on average compared to the general population in Israel, the presence of so many people in south Tel Aviv naturally drives the total crime rate up in that area.

The policy of depriving asylum-seekers of rights and making their lives difficult was intended to decrease the “pull factor” of Israel. Government officials claimed that granting access to social and health services and the right to work would make Israel more enticing to future “infiltrators”, the term used by the government to refer to asylum-seekers from Africa. This policy did not lead to a decrease in the number of asylum-seekers entering Israel and until the fence along the Israeli-Egyptian border was completed, asylum-seekers kept crossing it in large numbers.

Following the failure of the neglect policy, the government turned to another route: erecting a fence along the border and a draconian detention policy. Amendment No. 3 to the Anti-Infiltration Law, which came into effect in June 2012, mandated the automatic three-year-detention without trial of asylum-seekers who cross the border. Women, children and survivors of torture were jailed under this law in Saharonim prison, next to the border with Egypt. About 2,000 asylum-seekers from Sudan and Eritrea were jailed under this law, most of whom arrived in the summer of 2012 before the construction of the border fence was completed. The hardship of residents of south Tel Aviv and other neighborhoods that absorbed large number of refugees were not solved by this law. Government neglect, overcrowding and crime continued to characterize south Tel Aviv.

In September 2013, the High Court voided the 3rd Amendment to the Anti-Infiltration law ruling that there are less draconian alternatives that would mitigate the negative affects of the presence of asylum-seekers in Israel than prolonged deprivation of liberty. The ruling gave the State 90 days to release all the detainees. Instead, the government used the three months to pass the 4th Amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law. This law created the Holot detention facility, to which detainees from Saharonim were transferred and asylum-seekers from Israel were summoned. The detention in Holot was indefinite. The facility cost almost $85 million to construct and the annual cost of operating it is $26 million.

On September 22, 2014, the High Court voided for the second time the detention policy of asylum-seeker, ruling the 4th Amendment to be disproportional and unconstitutional. During the ten months the law was in effect, south Tel Aviv continued to suffer from neglect, overcrowding and a high crime rate. The detention of 3,000 people and the governments’ “success” in forcing 8,000 people out of Israel who “chose” to return to their homelands when faced with indefinite detention, did not solve the problems affecting south Tel Aviv. Now, the government is promoting the 5th amendment to the Anti-Infiltration Law. According to media reports, the length of detention under this law will be between one to two years in Holot. This means that asylum-seekers residing in Israel will be torn from their lives, friends and places of employment, and sent to detention in the desert for one to two years, after which they will return to reside in places where they can afford to rent an apartment and find work – again, south Tel Aviv.

Instead of the failed solutions of the Israeli government, the Hotline and fellow human rights organizations propose an alternative that would deal with the problems affecting south Tel Aviv and at the same time, respect the rights of asylum-seekers:

Rehabilitate South Tel Aviv: Invest efforts in creating a safe environment for all the residents in the area. Fix faulty infrastructure, address safety hazards such as illegal electrical wiring, water and gas connections, improve waste disposal and street lighting and expand green areas and public spaces.
Legalize the employment of asylum seekers: This will increase state revenue and satisfy employers in the hospitality, catering, cleaning, agriculture and construction industries who are continuously in need of more working hands.
Provide incentives to move out of South Tel Aviv: Encourage employers in periphery towns to replace “imported” foreign workers with asylum-seekers by cancelling the levy that business owners pay for employing asylum seekers.
Support municipalities to absorb asylum seekers: Provide asylum seekers with access to health and welfare services throughout the country to decrease dependence on the small community of NGOs in South Tel Aviv.