Refugees Keep Out!

Jun 29th, 2009 | By | Category: Uncategorized

Israel’s new point man on refugee issues spouts some pretty shocking opinions in an interview with Haaretz.

darfur-genocide-sign

Handwritten poster hanging in a Darfuri refugee shelter in Tel Aviv (photo by Daniel Cherrin).

For about a year and a half now, I have been volunteering with the African refugee community in Tel Aviv. I’ve heard some of their stories, formed several friendships and met some incredibly inspiring and resilient people along the way.

Although in many ways the community is much better off now than it was a year or so ago, African refugees continue to face adversity and prejudice in Israel. While gradually emerging from their own personal traumas, and their collective culture shock, the refugees have met with a strange sort of hospitality on behalf of the Israeli government.

For several weeks, rumors have been circulating that the government is gearing up for a large-scale operation to arrest and expel “illegal” foreigners, including foreign workers, refugees and asylum seekers. Recently, a bill was overwhelmingly approved by the Knesset which would criminalize the refugees (Hebrew link to the text of the bill) and those who assist them.

Last week, Haaretz’s Nurit Wurgaft published an extensive interview with Yaakov Ganot, head of the Population Administration in the Interior Ministry, who agreed to shed some light on the subject (read it in English here and in Hebrew here).

Ganot, the architect of the government’s “Hadera-Gedera” policy (which prohibits refugees and asylum seekers from living and working in the center of the country) is in charge of a newly-formed government body, the Population, Immigration and Border Authority. Among other things, the authority will take over the issue of refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, and is set to begin operating July 1st.

I have to admit that I was so shocked after reading this article for the first time that I had to read it again. It wasn’t any easier to digest on the second reading.

The good news for people who care about human rights is that Ganot has no intention of forcibly deporting the 20,000 or so African refugees currently living in Israel. The bad news is that he is not inclined to do them any favors either, and apparently views them as lawbreakers by default: “The kind of thing you find nowadays in Tel Aviv, where illegal workers and infiltrators can just go about freely, this has to stop.”

In a display of circular logic that only an authentic Israeli bureaucrat could produce, Ganot explains that the refugees’ poverty is bad for Israel’s image: “They send the money home, live in horribly crowded conditions, and also give Israel a bad name, because they live in such poor conditions. A hundred people in a moldy shelter, 20 people in one apartment.” If Ganot’s new authority has any concrete plans to improve their living conditions or reduce the crowding in their apartments, he doesn’t mention them.

Ganot admits that the refugees are exploited by employers because they are illegal. The reason they are “illegal” is that they are not officially recognized by the government as refugees. Still, Ganot doesn’t understand what the big deal is: “We don’t send them back, so why do they need that official recognition right now?”

“They’re not going to be lovers of Israel because they’re hunted,”he adds. This is one of the myths put forward by the government – that these are mostly Arabic-speaking Muslims from enemy nations, and they are no great friends of ours. Many will also hint, as Ganot does, that there are security issues at stake.

From my personal experience, the opposite is usually true. While most do speak Arabic, and a great many are Muslims, the refugee community is probably among the more patriotic groups in the country. While I can’t speak for all, the refugees that I know are eternally grateful to Israel and to the Jewish people. They study Hebrew, hang the Israeli flag and some even wish to enlist in the army.

To write off the entire community as “not lovers of Israel” is not only an affront to the refugees, it is also short-sighted. Imagine what will happen when these young Darfuri and South Sudanese men return to their country speaking Hebrew and grateful to Israel for the asylum that they were granted here. What better allies could Israel ask for in a hostile state like Sudan? That officials like Ganot cannot grasp this testifies to an unfortunate lack of imagination.

In an apparent contradiction, Ganot admits that the refugees are just “scraping by,” but then goes on to criticize them for making “pretty good money,” which he says they send out of the country to their relatives: “When a Sudanese arrives here and goes to work cleaning houses, he makes pretty good money. He doesn’t pay income tax, or health tax. They live 20 people to a room. That’s [an income of] two thousand dollars.”

And, of course, Ganot cannot resist delving into meaningless and irrelevant demographic calculations: “We’ve reached a situation in which 1,680 people arrived in one month alone, when our entire aliya [Jewish immigration to Israel] is 14,000 people per year.”

He also can’t help but indulge in ignorant and racist stereotypes: “There are people who defecate in the waiting rooms, who attack and bite.”

In Ganot’s world, this is a new kind of phenomenon, which he calls “refugee foreign workers” – here by choice, not for lack of choice: “In our examinations, I would say that 99.9 percent of them are here for work. They’re not asylum seekers, they are not at any risk.”

On the South Sudanese: “Nothing is happening in southern Sudan. They didn’t come to us from Sudan. They come from Egypt, where they heard there’s a chance to make money in Israel.”

On the Eritreans: “The Eritrean ambassador met with me and he said, ‘Tell me, sir: If you had army deserters, what would you do with them?’ I said, ‘I’d put them in jail.’ He said, ‘They’re deserters. It’s not right that instead of returning them to Eritrea, you keep them here.'”

He neglects to mention that, unlike Israel, Eritrea is a cruel dictatorship that forcibly conscripts its young men in order to fight frequent and superfluous wars. The US views it as a “rogue state.” Ganot, apparently, has found a common language with its officials, who last year called on Israel to repatriate Eritrean “army deserters” to their homeland. Eritreans in Israel, for their part, are convinced that returning to their homeland would mean certain death at the hands of the regime.

And, as if his comments were not sufficiently insulting, Ganot even mocks the suffering of the refugees: “They’re upset about one thing only: That they can’t be in Tel Aviv, make a lot of money to send home, sit here and cry.”

The fact that the Israeli government has chosen to appoint someone who openly makes statements like these to a position where he is responsible for the fates of some 20,000 African refugees is revealing. As opposed to the (mostly volunteer) organizations that approach the refugee community from a position of compassion, respect and human solidarity, the government is determined to deal with the refugees as an unwanted nuisance – banishing them to the margins of society and issuing self-fulfilling declarations describing them as hostile infiltrators and enemies of Israel.

One can’t help but wonder if the politicians and government bureaucrats have already forgotten that they too, along with the entire Jewish people,  were once a nation of refugees, and that in their own interminable period in exile there were also those that chose to accomodate them, and those that chose to persecute them.

Postscript: In her July 1st op-ed in Haaretz, Avirama Golan offers an interesting explanation of the phenomenon described above. In her view, the Interior Ministry’s decision to target non-Jewish foreigners is the result of socio-economic and class politics, couched in the discourse of Jewish ethnic and religious identity:

“The Filipinas who bathe our elderly, the Chinese who build our luxury towers and the Thais who cultivate our fruits and vegetables for export often displace Israel’s Arab citizens. These citizens have no lobby, and no one cares about them or their lack of employment. In contrast, the Africans, South Americans, Ukrainians and all the rest, who clean houses and do other household scut work, displace a different group – the Jewish lower class.”

This class of people is effectively Shas’ electorate. Shas holds the Interior Ministry and dictates policy to officials like Yaakov Ganot that are charged with executing it. Shas, eager to serve as a lobby for its voters, thus chooses to expell foreigners working in one sector of the economy, while “importing” more and more foreign workers for another economic sector – all the while presenting these policies in the language of “Hebrew labor,” while ignoring questions of humanism and universal values.

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  1. […] new Population, Immigration and Border Authority, headed by Yaakov Ganot, burst into south Tel Aviv this week, accompanied by a fleet of buses and the Border Police. Their […]

  2. if one considers that israel has a new law that is phasing out the chinese construction workers– aiming to have zero foreign workers in the construction sector by 2012– then golan’s argument is a little bit off. interesting, but off.

    seems more likely to me that the israeli government just has demographic hysteria… as always.

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