Fugee Fridays is a volunteer humanitarian initiative, founded in 2008 in response to the acute distress of the growing community of African asylum seekers living in Tel Aviv. Our purpose is to help address this community’s immediate needs while nurturing their independence, raising awareness of their plight, fostering positive cultural exchange between Israelis and Africans living in Israel and empowering both the refugee community and our volunteers. We organize a number of projects for the benefit of the African community, including food collection from the Carmel Market, language classes, children’s activities and a growing list of community development projects. Everything we do is guided by our belief in simple, elegant problem-solving which connects urgent needs with available and sustainable solutions. We hope that, by setting a personal example, we can inspire others to create similar social action projects that benefit their communities.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

We Are All Refugees

This protest, held outside the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, was one of several protests held throughout the country recently in response to the lack of an adequate government response to the influx of African asylum seekers into Israel.

African refugees first began arriving in Israel in significant numbers after riot police attacked a Sudanese refugee encampment in Cairo in late 2005, leaving dozens dead and hundreds without a place to sleep (link). For many, this event made it perfectly clear that African refugees were not welcome in Egypt. Many started to attempt to flee further north, to Israel.

In the eyes of the government these newcomers pose a delicate problem. Israel does not want to appear too hospitable to the millions of refugees living in Egypt and Sudan. As a result, the government has declared African refugees “enemy infiltrators,” and has attempted to keep them out of the country.

One expression of this is the “Hot Return” policy, under which asylum seekers who manage to enter Israel are immediately returned to Egyptian authorities by the IDF. In one instance in August 2007, 91 asylum seekers were caught and sent back to Egypt. The Egyptian government has more than once declared its intention to deport these people back to their countries of origin – which for most would mean either imprisonment or death.

Those that manage to enter Israel despite this are faced with detention and neglect by authorities. One policy response by the government has been to encourage refugees to find work and housing outside of central Israel. Nonetheless, the grimy slums around Tel Aviv's bus terminal, already an international enclave populated by tens of thousands of foreign laborers, have become a refugee transit camp. African refugees come here in search of jobs, housing and existing refugee communities.

The exact number of African refugees currently living in Israel is unknown. Estimates range as high as 12,000, and the numbers are steadily rising. To acquire official refugee status, individuals must submit an application for political asylum to the United Nations Commission for Refugees in Tel Aviv.

Israel was one of the first countries to sign the international UN Refugee convention of 1951. Article 33 of the Convention states:

“No Contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a political social group or political opinion.”

The Israeli government must undertake to fulfill its responsibilities to these asylum seeks, instead of closing its eyes to their plight.

click here to view this article on Haaretz.com

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